On the corner of a residential street in Hafnarfjörður sits a little shop called Urta Islandica. Inside the clean, white-tiled space stand shelves upon shelves of colourful oils, pungent teas in brown paper packs, and flavoured salts. All of them are made with ingredients drawn from Icelandic nature.
It turns out that Urta Islandica is a family business, based in the ground floor of the family home. “We started six years ago,” says Guðbjörg Lára Sigurðardóttir, who works in the office. “My mom started studying herbs in 2008, then in 2010 she started the store. There were two unpaid employees to begin with. Now we have sixteen employees, not including our pickers. They’re all around the country, picking blueberries, arctic thyme, angelica, mushrooms, and all the other things we use.”
Guðbjörg’s mother is Þóra Þórisdóttir, formerly a visual artist and art historian. After the crash of 2008 she found herself with less work, and decided to get creative. “It was a question of creating value from unused materials,” says Þóra. “I was using the same thinking as in visual arts: that everything is possible, that trying new combinations is good, and to think about colour, appearance, and history.”
Some of Urta Islandica’s products are based on traditional knowledge of the health benefits of Icelandic plants. But part of the appeal is also in the unusual flavour combinations. “It’s traditional to drink herbal tea,” says Þóra, “but we tried a lot of new things. We read a lot about the herbs—to see if they do something good for you, and aren’t harmful in any way. Because herbs can be harmful, like medicine.”
While Þóra doesn’t claim to have medical expertise, she does have a strong interest in how wild plants can be used for health. “We know a lot of things, and that’s a part of it, but we’re not grass doctors,” she explains. “Lots of plants are well known in herbal medicine as anti-inflammatories and so on. But northern herbs are less known. Icelandic herbs have similar properties, but they aren’t in the books. So we like to read what herbs have been used for hundreds of years, and find out what the folk medicine says.”
The business continues to grow, currently employing 40 pickers to collect ingredients for over 200 products, with a new production facility under construction in Keflavík. And as it expands, it takes on new aspects, such as the collection and preservation of traditional knowledge.
“I’ve put together a book of knowledge on what herb combinations people find to work,” says Guðbjörg. “We noticed that most of our pickers were born between 1930-40. They were all old people! So I thought, ‘Where will all that knowledge go, when they are gone?’ So, we’ve been putting it all down, to teach the next generation about the plants, and preserve that knowledge for the future.”
Find out more at urta.is.