Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Preserve: ‘We want to keep our Icelandic flora’

Lupines may be beautiful, but they’re also an invasive species. RÚV reports that lupine propagation around the Krossanesborgir nature preserve near Akureyri, North Iceland, may well be having a significant—and negative—impact on indigenous plant and animal life.

‘The point of no return’

As Egill Bjarnason explained in his 2018 New York Times article about the ongoing lupine controversy in Iceland, “[t]he blue Nootka lupine are native to North America and a familiar sight in flower gardens there. They have spread wildly in Iceland since their introduction in the late 1970s to halt soil erosion.”

But while the plant does have positive attributes (it’s a free ‘fertilizer factory,’ as Egill explains), and while tourists and even many Icelanders love the plant for its characteristic violet-blue blossoms, it spreads much more easily than originally anticipated and, among other places, has made significant inroads in Iceland’s central highlands, where originally, it was thought it wouldn’t be able to survive.

Locals used to be encouraged to spread the seeds—some villages would even distribute free scoopfuls of seeds at gas stations. But in spring 2018, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland stopped its seed distribution program after 42 years, with director Arni Bragason remarking of the plant and its impact on the local environment, “We’re at the point of no return.”

Timing is everything

Krossanesborgir was designated a nature preserve in 2004 in order to protect its diverse plant and bird life. But with the encroachment of lupine in the area, this this ecosystem is now endangered, says Jón Ingi Cæsarsson, the former chair of the Akureyri organizational committee.

“All of the undergrowth and moor vegetation is going to vanish and instead, we’ll have these tall, beautiful plants. But that’s not something we want—we want to keep our Icelandic flora, especially in these nature preserves,” he said.

Local officials are aware of the lupine situation and the plant is cut back on a regular basis, including in Krossanesborgir, says Rút Jónsdóttir, Akureyri divisional manager.

“We usually begin [cutting back lupines] around June 15-20,” she explained. Working out the right time to start the mowing is difficult, she continued: too early, and birds will still be nesting in the area; too late, and the lupines will already bloomed. (Timing is everything when it comes to lupine eradication, explains Egill. “Killing the plant is a three- to five-year process that involves cutting them back at the peak of the bloom, when the plant is putting its energies into the flowers and the roots are correspondingly weakest. Mowing down the plants has proved more effective than herbicides.”)

‘It will take off if we don’t rein it in’

The lupine has not yet made significant inroads within Krossanesborgir, but Jón Ingi is nevertheless concerned that it may only be a matter of time. Roughly 30 species of birds nest in the area, he explained, making the area particularly important from a preservation standpoint.

“The lupine is here and is lying in wait and will take off if we rein it in. We’ve seen what happened on Hrísey [a small island in Eyjafjörður, north of Akyreyri, known for its bird life]. The number of breeding birds will most definitely decrease [in Krossanesborgir], just like happened there.”

Research Underway to Utilize Controversial Alaskan Lupine

A team of researchers at the University of Iceland is looking into the possibility of using Alaskan lupine for human consumption. The lupine’s presence in Iceland has divided opinion since it first arrived. The plant was originally planted around the middle of the 20th century to revegetate barren areas. The controversial lupine has spread all around the land since the 90s.

Where some see a problem, others see an opportunity. Such is the case with Braga Stefaný Mileris, Axel Sigurðsson, and Björn Viðar Albjörnsson, Ph.D. students in nutrition at the University of Iceland. “I think it’s fair to say that the lupine is the most political plant of the country, but the population splits into two factions when it comes to opinions on it. We’re now researching how we can utilize the plant,” he said in an interview with Vísir. The nutritious qualities of the lupine have not been researched extensively. “It’s an underutilized plant which grows all around Iceland, a setting and a climate where it’s not easy to grow things. So it creates value to find clever ways to utilize it, no matter for what,” said Braga.

They are looking into ways to make a drink out the lupine, both for human consumption as well as looking into using it for animal fodder. “Abroad, such as in Spain, lupine beans are easily reached in supermarkets. They’re stored in water just like other beans, and used in the same way. You can eat them as a stand-alone snack, make hummus or add them to bean dishes,” Braga says. The plant is naturally bitter, so the bitter agents need to be separated from the product. Measurements of the biological agents are currently underway and could open up the door for further research.

“Biological agents have health-improving effects, and there are a lot of biological agents in lupine found in Iceland. So, there are a lot of possibilities to possibly use it for drugs or active food products, which are foodstuffs with health-improving properties,” Braga said.

Dividing opinions

The Alaskan lupine becomes dominant where it manages to set foot. It was originally introduced by the Iceland Forest Service to combat barren landscapes and soil erosion. But plants that were already in place might be replaced in areas which the lupine spreads to. The plant spreads around at a rapid rate as the lifetime of its seeds is quite long. They spread with the wind in large stretches of barren land and are found in large spreads. Grass species that can well handle a lot of shade are often found in abundance along with the lupine. The ground can become more fertile and allow species to increase in numbers, compared to the situation beforehand. Many believe the colorful, purple plant lands an extra touch to the landscape. In parts of the country, measurements have been taken to reduce the spread of the lupine.

Red areas show the spread of lupine in 2016. Photo: Icelandic Institute of Natural History