Published August 25, 2011
Invasive species or non-native plants present a problem all over the world. For instance, the ragweed in Europe can cause serious allergy problems and the zebra mussel in the North America colonises rapidly, clogging water intakes that support drinking water supplies and powers hydroelectric plants. In Iceland, that invasive species is the Alaskan lupine, which was brought into the country in 1885.
Then in 1960, the Icelandic Forestry Service began actively spreading the plant, and by 1986, the Soil Conservation Service was using it for land reclamation and to stop soil erosion. Soil erosion has been a problem in Iceland since the early settlers cut down most of the country’s trees for building homes and firewood. “The forest cover was significantly reduced from 25 percent since settlement to 1.1 percent in recent decades,” according to Björn H. Barkarson and Magnús H. Jóhannsson, who co-authored “Arctic Land Care.”
The Alaskan Lupine seemed the ideal plant to correct the soil erosion. Head of the Environmental Studies Program at Franklin College Switzerland, Dr. Brack Hale, explains that while other plants take nitrogen from the soil, the lupine species actually put nitrogen back into the soil, which makes them well suited for restoring the soil in the barren landscapes, such as those of Iceland. But along with this nitrogen fixing quality, there is the fact that the Alaskan lupine spreads like a wild fire, outcompeting Iceland’s established plants.
Thus, members of the political and scientific community believe the Lupine must be controlled. Among them is Iceland’s Minister for the Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir. She sees the rapid expansion of the lupine being problematic. “The Alaskan lupine can become invasive, expanding beyond the eroded areas, and competing with natural vegetation,” she says.
One of the plants in danger is the bilberry (which people often confuse with the blueberry). “People hate it because it spreads everywhere ruining favourite spots for berry picking,” says Specialist at the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland Magnús H. Jóhansson.
Borgþór Magnússon of the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, who authored “Nobanis – Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet” on the Alaskan Lupine, points out that the spreading of the Alaskan lupine can be difficult to handle. “Early action is necessary if plants are to be eradicated from an area,” Borgþór writes. “It has proven very difficult to manage the species after it has started to spread in an area and formed a seed bank.”
At the same time, there are those who think the Alaskan lupine is a welcome addition to Iceland. In 1988, Ævar Jóhannesson started producing a drink that contains Alaskan lupine, which was used to help patients through their cancer treatments. The drink strengthens the immune system, which chemotherapy weakens. In the early years, Ævar distributed this drink to anyone who asked, absolutely free.
Now, the drink is available commercially. “The drink has proved beneficial for people suffering from asthma, arthritis, as well as other inflammatory symptoms, such as aching joints and even healthy individuals, as an overall immune booster,” Fríða Brá Pálsdóttir says, an employee at Heilsuhúsið in Smáratorg.
Despite its positive traits, the Alaskan lupine’s quickly expanding nature calls for a change in dealing with the soil erosion problem. “There is a constant work to de-velop new and improved methods to tackle this important environmental issue,” Svandís Svavarsdóttir said.
Though grasses and fertilizer are not necessarily nitrogen fixers, they can still be implemented to reclaim land. Magnús H. Johansson, for instance, lists alternatives such as grasses (lyme grass, Kentucky blue grass, red fescue, and Italian ryegrass), legumes (clover, vetch, and sea pea), and fertilizer with no seed.
In the meantime, the Alaskan lupine continues to threaten areas where no soil conservation is needed, outcompeting natural Icelandic vegetation, such as moss and the bilberry. Without the bilberry, the “blueberry” soup, loved by Icelanders and foreigners alike, may cease to exist: a favourite Icelandic cuisine reduced to memory and recipe books.