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Monday, July 31, 2006

Erosion v. Eruption: Lupine in Iceland


Is Lupinus nootkatensis a panacea or peril?


image

Nookta Lupines in Iceland

Photo: Jorgen Aabech

Grain by grain, Iceland is blowing away. Soil erosion is a huge problem on this treeless, windy island, and the harsh climate discourages most plants from taking hold.

In 1945, someone (we’ve yet to discover who) had the brilliant blue idea of introducing Lupinus nootkatensis, Nootka lupine. This Alaskan native (most definitely a majestic relative of our Texas bluebonnet) flourished. Lupine plants anchored the soil and enriched it too; the flowers are stunning!

But Iceland may have too much of a good thing. Tina Butler reports that Nootka lupine’s success has meant the demise of many native plants. In some regions, she writes, lupine fields have degenerated after 15-20 years, leaving richer soil behind, but in many other locations, “the comparatively tall lupine creates a canopy over the previously dominant lichens, mosses, and low shrubs, causing these species to decline in the newly formed shade. Ultimately, species diversity among plants declines as the lupine spreads.”

Borgthor Magnusson, of Reykjavik’s Agricultural Research Institute, writes, “Once the lupine has become established, it is very difficult to control its spread. Efforts to do so, for example, in the Skaftafell National Park in southeast Iceland, have proven ineffective. Grazing sheep prevent the spread of the lupine by eating the seedlings, but the overall decline in sheep farming in Iceland has left many large lowland areas free of grazing.”

If only we could go back 1100 years. That’s when Iceland’s trees were all cut down, creating the erosion problem in the first place. If only someone had introduced a different, less aggressive form of lupine...if only Iceland could recruit a few thousand more sheep-herders….

Tina Butler writes, “The cause to reforest Iceland may be a noble one for some, but others believe it is too late to try and restore the country’s original ecosystem, believing it is better to let the sand, sea and wind lay their claim to the land.” Butler’s fine article shows how, as rivers find the sea, ecological questions flow into aesthetics and ethics.

For lots more about the complexities of plant ecology, check out Jennifer Forman Orth’s Invasive Species Weblog.


Posted by Julie on 07/31 at 10:45 AM
EcologyPermalink