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  • Sara Moniz

The life above the rocks

People say that walking in Iceland sometimes feels like walking on the moon. As you arrive in the country, you may think you landed on another planet and you will find yourself wondering how anything can survive above this lava rocks, and not talking about the people because that could give us a whole new story. But you would be impressed with the rich eco-system that was born from such extreme conditions.

I will not mention the thousands of plant species that fight for survival in this environment, it is far more complete that the majority thinks, but I would like to talk about one thing that we don’t have in abundance and one thing that we are so rich of, and that is the trees and our amazing moss that can be found throughout the landscapes of the country.

There is an old joke that says that in case you find yourself lost in an Icelandic Forest, just stand up! Well, this saying is duo to the very few trees that Iceland has and the ones that proudly exist are quite small. However, this wasn't always the case, we know from the written sources of the settlers that the country was "forested from mountain to shore".

It is believed that before the arrival of the Vikings, 40% of Iceland had wood, the mass deforestation happened when the early settlers needed materials to build the ships, their homes and to light fires to stay warm. It only took around 300 years for this treeless geography that also resulted in issues with soil fertilization, leaving the island the way we know today.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have trees in Iceland, but it is duo to the effort made in recent years to recultivate them with a great degree of success. Today, we can find over 85 foreign tree species in Iceland, being the most common varieties the ones that originate in Alaska and are grown in Icelandic greenhouses because it is illegal to import live trees into the country. The largest forest is Hallormsstaðaskógur in the East of Iceland.

I couldn’t talk about the flora in the country without mentioning the moss. This famous plant covers lava fields, mountains and hills and there are over 600 species discovered so far. These green blankets represent more than half of all the vegetation in the country and it is believed that this were the first species to colonise the island.

These flowerless plants grow in clumps and are very well suited to the Icelandic climate since they can 'hibernate' during cold weather and then wait for better conditions. Although they are a resilient plant that is able to withstand the weather, they take a long time to grow, only 1 cm per year in the best conditions.

Icelanders have a deep respect for the moss and since a lot of damage can be caused by walking over it, the Icelandic government has made many efforts to educate the visitors to be mindful of where they walk to not cause unintentional damage.

The Moss balls/Marino are an extremely rare phenomena and can only be found in few lakes around the world. In Iceland we can find them in Lake Mývatn in the northern region of the country. These are algae formations caused by the gentle waves that round the plant and result in this spherical organism. It is called 'Kúluskítur' which translates to 'Dirtballs' and unfortunately the colonies have been declining in recent years. Some enthusiastic in Japan treasure them as pets, but in Iceland they are protected species since 2004.

Icelandic moss is called 'fjallagrös' which translates to 'mountain grass'. In older times, the moss was eaten, today it flavours liquors and schnapps and is used for medical purposes, you can consume it in a form of a tea or heated with milk and this hot beverage can treat common colds, dry coughs, fevers, lung disease and so many more. There is also a type of this plant called Reindeer Moss that is native to Iceland and has recently been discovered that it can be useful in the treatment of cancer.

One of the most spectacular moss blankets is located on the southern coast of Iceland, over the Eldraun Lava Field, this fields are the result of the most devastating eruption in recorded history. Today, this lava fields look very peaceful and serene, the thick green moss helped softened the landscape, almost disguising Eldhraun’s violent past that I will talk about in a future post so stay tuned!