When anticipating a visit to northern Iceland, gardens never entered my mind. Instead, there were images of volcanoes, barren hillsides, and geothermal pools, punctuated by flocks of sheep. I had done my research, and knew that the Icelandic people paid 50% of their income in taxes, getting healthcare, education, and a high standard of living in return. (This was before their financial crisis, which has since stabilized.) I knew that Iceland was on its way to becoming a global supplier of liquid hydrogen, and that most of their heating was achieved by taking advantage of its geothermal energy. I even knew that Iceland was the world’s leading consumer of soft drinks. But beautiful gardens in Iceland, 62 miles from the Arctic Circle? Impossible!
I was proven wrong in Akureyri, a small, extremely pleasant town set along the Eyjafjordur Fjord, midway along Iceland’s northern coast. Surrounded by mountains, and with a protected harbor, the conditions are the best in Iceland for growing plants, and thus is home to the Botanical Gardens, the most northerly botanical gardens in the world. The gardens encompass several acres, terraced on a steep hill by a maze of reddish painted railroad ties. From a design standpoint, this is rather distracting, but in an area that is covered in snow from October to April, the need for such strong structure is quite understandable.
Despite the fact that Akureyri averages only 1047 sunshine hours per year, the gardens manage to grow a very respectable number of plants without the aid of a greenhouse, from Delphiniums, to Bleeding Heart, to Rhododendrons. The taller plants grow on a slant because of the wind, but they are healthy and vigorous and in some ways, it is very like home, as the plant palette is quite similar to that of New England.
But the best part was the huge bed of Himalayan Blue Poppies. (Meconopsis betonicifolia.) Looking just like the poppies that we all know except that they are an amazing shade of true blue, they resemble the coloring book of a child who has decided to color using imagination instead of convention. They just don’t look real. I have tried to grow them, with no success. Besides being fairly picky about their environment, (they originally come from the Tibetan mountains), the seed has to be meticulously prepared for germination. Without going into the exact specifics, I’ll just tell you that the seeds need to be kept wet and cold in the dark for a month, then wet and cold in the sun (but not direct sun, mind you, just bright light) for another month, and then, if you are lucky, they germinate. Then, if you can protect them from rain yet keep them wet, keep them out of the sun while giving them light, and protect them from slugs, then maybe another six weeks later you can plant them in the garden… Well, you get the picture. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled to see so many healthy plants, and to be able to be in their exotic presence, which someone else’s slave labor had helped create.
And you can enjoy them, too, if you find yourself just south of the Arctic Circle, with a sense of adventure and the desire to discover something special.