Of all the things Iceland is famous for, trees are not among them. Most Icelandic trees are shivering, skinny things, with branches close to the trunk, as if trying to cling to the ground through the gale-force winds of winter. But the Icelandic Gardeners Association keeps an eye out year-round for particularly unusual or impressive specimens. In 2015, an unusual 11.98m rowan tree that grows at the historic site of Sandfell Öræfi, on the edge of the Vatnajökull glacier, was acknowledged as Iceland’s best tree.
Sandfell was first settled by Þorgerður, a widow who claimed the land and built a farm for herself and her son. Later, it became the site of a church. But living on the edge of a glacier carries some risks. The settlements at Sandfell were twice devastated by eruptions, and the ensuing glacial floods. Still, people continued to rebuild dwellings and inhabit the area right up until 1947. The tumbledown buildings of the last farm on the site were torn down in 1973.
Planted in 1923, the Sandfell rowan tree stands near the ruins, visible from the southern ring road, forming a sort of natural memorial. It’s an unusual sight—Iceland has few prominent broad-branched deciduous trees of this type and height—and it’s especially curious because it stands near one of the most famously storm-battered parts of Iceland’s coastline. It looks oddly alien in the generally treeless and mossy landscape. Its branches are widespread and silver, looking at first like a low, blurry cloud against the mountainside.
All that remains of the church is an engraved foundation stone, but the tree still flourishes, against the elements and against the odds.