Negotiating Contested Landscapes: The Alaska Lupin in Iceland

A windy summer day gives a glimpse into the complex, and at times contested, relations that emerge between people and plants in Iceland’s quickly transforming landscapes.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

‘Lupin!’, the person in the driver‘s seat next to me shouted, the car screeching to a halt. Quicker than I was able to unbuckle my seat belt, Elín jumped out her jeep and made her way over a moss-overgrown lava field, her aim set on a blue-purple dot in the otherwise green-grey landscape. What her keen eyes had noticed was a tall, leguminous plant commonly called Alaska lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) in Iceland. Introduced to the country in the middle of the twentieth century, vast fields of blue-purple blooming lupins have since become a defining feature of many of its summer landscapes. Its fast spread, ability to ‘invade’ ecosystems, and outcompete low-growing, native vegetation has attracted increased concern in recent years, leading to the lupin’s official categorisation as an ‘alien invasive species’ in 2010.

After a few minutes, Elín returned triumphantly, carrying the dug up plant in both of her hands, its impressively long roots dangling by her sides. As we continued, we passed sections of the road lined with lupins, sometimes continuing far off into the distance. ‘Unfortunately, I can’t stop the lupin everywhere’, she had to admit, ‘but I can sure keep it from taking over everything’. The plant she just uprooted was carefully wrapped in a plastic bag in the jeep’s back. Elín was particularly careful not to let a single seed escape. ‘The lupin is very smart’, she noted, explaining that the plant builds up its own, indefinite seed-storage in the soil, making it particularly difficult to control. Luckily, Elín is not the only person eradicating lupins in her free time. Recently, a local nature conservation group had even started to organise volunteering days to keep the lupin from overtaking historic walking paths, nature reserves, and delicate heathlands.

Elín and I were on our way to one such area not far from her coastal hometown. She had been eradicating lupins at this spot for five years, returning often twice a year, ripping out any remaining lupins she can find. It might sound simple enough, but digging up lupins by hand is a time-consuming and labour-intensive task, as I would soon learn. It was a chilly summer morning and the wind whipped around us as we hunched together, crouched close to the ground, equipped only with gardening gloves and small shovels. While spotting older, flowering lupins is easy in the characteristically open Icelandic landscape, many of these younger seedlings were small and easy to confuse with other plants for a novice like me. Elín patiently explained how best to go about it, but kept revisiting areas I had already worked on, usually finding seedlings I had missed.

As we progressed slowly across the heath, Elín elaborated on why she cannot afford to be lenient: ‘I would not mind having lupins grow here and there. But unfortunately, it’s an absolute pest’. Having lived here her whole life, she described how she had watched the plant taking over more and more areas, suggesting the affective sense of discomfort that the lupin’s behaviour can engender. The sheer height and density of lupin-dominated landscapes can be particularly burdensome for local people, in part because it hinders former relations with and practices on the land. Elín pointed out a few low-growing plants to me, including wild thyme and mountain avens, and spoke about the long traditions of using their medicinal value. She also pointed out that berry picking grounds are increasingly under threat by the plant’s vigorous spread, which regularly prompts public demands for its control.

While the lupin’s increasing presence is a source of frustration and sorrow for some, it is a cause of delight and optimism for others. In fact, the lupin was deliberately introduced to Iceland for soil erosion control due to its nitrogen-fixing qualities and ability to establish itself in barren areas. Initially, therefore, the lupin’s spread was actively encouraged by specialists, governmental agencies, and the public alike, seen as part of the project of healing the land and reversing the damage that humans had caused the environment. In this context, the recent emphasis on its control has resulted in a heated debate about the lupin’s (un-)rightful place in the country.

For Ásta, whom I met in a neighbouring town later the same day, the increasing amount of lupin eradication initiatives in Iceland amounted to nothing less than ‘nature terrorism’. ‘The lupin has done so much for this country’, she elaborated, ‘we should forever be thankful for its diligent work’. Being older than Elín, she recounted the terrible sand storms they used to get in the area and warned that people forget too easily how things used to be. As she led me through a lupin field not far from where Elín and I had worked on earlier, she pointed out that the plant’s presence in the area is closely tied to a long history of land degradation. Overgrazing of sheep combined with other environmental and climatic factors, such as volcanic activity, has led to near-complete deforestation, severe soil erosion, and loss of vegetation.

Accordingly, even though low-growing, hardy plants and heath landscapes connect Icelanders to the land, for Ásta, it was difficult to justify wanting to keep the land’s condition in an ‘impoverished’ state. ‘We should rather be planting trees in the rich soil formed by the lupin’, she argued, ‘so we can finally restore the land to what it was like 1100 years ago’. For her and other supporters of the plant, the lupin presents not only a means to recover what had been lost, but a way to secure a sustainable future: to create habitats for other plants and animals, provide higher quality of living for people, halt erosion and reverse desertification, and help mitigate an urgent climate crisis by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. ‘And besides’, she continued, ‘it’s not like deserts, heathlands, and berries are ever going to disappear. Icelanders might just have to follow new paths to find them’.

What interactions should the land facilitate and whose stories should it continue to tell? The lupin asks difficult questions about what, how, and for whom Icelandic landscapes should be restored or conserved.



Photo by Þór Ostenssen


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