We have come full circle. Though we haven’t been in Iceland for a whole year, during our time here we’ve been through all four seasons. At the start of March we arrived in snow and next week, the end of November, we will leave in snow again. I have a lot of stories and pictures I’d love to share, to put a beautiful bookend to this icy sojourn, but I am going to be realistic – it’s unlikely I’ll get them written this weekend when packing is yet to begin. So, here is the place I would most like to share now as it forms a review of sorts of the whole year. The botanical gardens in their spring, summer, autumn and winter clothes.
I saw the gardens first stripped of their own colour and lent blue by the sky. They seemed smaller than the name suggested: when I think botanical gardens I think Kew. Acres of glasshouse and border and collection. Reykjavik Botanical Gardens sit within Laugardalur, a park which also includes a swimming pool, the sports stadium and a concert hall. You won’t get exhausted walking from one end to the other. But their size didn’t matter. As I scanned the ground for labels I found many familiar names: Sorbus, Larix, Betula, Hellebore, Hosta, Hebe, Camassia, Crocus, Papaver… the trees were bare and to my rusty plant-identifying mind pretty indistinguishable. Some of the plants and bulbs named showed no trace, just a small white plaque in icy ground. So in winter the ponds sung the most, doubling everything, bringing the sky to my feet.
There is not much to spring in Iceland, not in the city at least. It’s possible that my foreign gaze failed to pick up the subtler signs. I missed the progression of home enormously. The snowdrops giving way to crocuses making space for daffodils by which time pink and white blossom is festooned across cherries and hawthorns. The white flowers that bloom on Magnolia stellata, first of the Magnolias. It is slightly unfair to say I missed all these because to give Reykjavik credit there were snowdrops lining the paths through the park, then there were a few crocuses in decorative array, and daffodils finally. But it all took so goddamned long. Perhaps six weeks longer. And no blossom. When we left London at the beginning of March the snowdrops were fading and crocuses in full swing and even the very first few daffodils in bud. It was like being plunged back in time. Winter reigned here until mid-May. In my impatience to settle in I mourned the flowers I couldn’t wait for. And yet there were some gems in the gardens that I was grateful for. The Camassias in the photo above, which I love and have never seen a pale blue version of. And then this Daphne with the amazing strong scent, reminding me of Daphne the family dog (she smells quite nice but not as good as the plant).
The rhododendron buds that survived the winter – you can see a picture of them as they are now in my last post – hunkering down for the long cold. The slivers of hot pink. Delightful.
In the small glasshouse which houses a cafe in the summer months, a selection of favourites thrive against all the odds. As if by magic you can step in from the snow and smell immediately the Mexican orange blossom of the Choisya below. Plus wisteria and clematis, all flowering all powerfully bringing me home. Proustian plants.
The path is typical of the exuberance shown by all who make their lives here when summer finally comes. Months of dark and cold turn fairly rapidly to light, so much light, people race to the swimming pool to bask every hour they can and crowd the sunniest spots. Buttercups bloom abundantly across fields. The lupins, kept very definitely out of the botanical gardens (here they are an invasive species), turn the roadsides blue. Pots of pansies on windowsills produce more flowers then I’ve ever seen outside of an intensively-farmed bedding nursery. The botanical gardens are glorious and my pictures of this special season don’t do it justice.
Here is the rock garden. Healthy spreads of alpine plants show that conditions here are ideal for them and a far cry from the anaemic rock gardens, mostly rock with spots of plant, of England.That might be a bit unfair but still I’ve never seen so many flowers and so much colour sandwiched in great slabs of stone. It is my favourite part of the garden, a world in miniature with a new discovery behind every rock, varieties and species I’ve never seen before from familiar groups – here this neon geum and campanula are shining stars. Beyond the rock garden is an understated zone where herbaceous perennials are shown off. It’s hard to believe they make it here. Each bed contains a variety of examples from a couple of species. Surprises – irises, thalictrums, delphiniums. It feels like the gardeners are desperately saying, look what we can do here! I don’t see many of these plants outside the confines of this garden. But perhaps it takes an awful lot of nurturing or perhaps Icelanders are not inclined to primp their front gardens or maybe they’re sick of seeing a prize hollyhock shredded by wind. Anyway, this tucked away place reminds me of visiting nurseries in the West of Scotland that produce sub-tropical beauties you don’t expect; it’s the same lush delight to find it here.
We were treated with a longer-than-usual autumn this year, I’m told.
Sorbus (Rowans) were the first trees beyond oaks, birches, chestnuts and beeches that I learned to identify (top tip: most branches end in one single leaf after pairs of opposite leaves along). There are many of them in the park and in autumn they come into their own. Berries yellow to red, leaves going up in flames, in succession because of the great number of varieties here. Rowans go unnoticed in summer but appear everywhere when the berries ripen and signal the beginning of the end.
Autumn is not getting its full dues here because I’m now rushing to get this post posted. We fly to London in four hours time to start a new adventure. One that was not our original plan, but an opportunity that fell into our laps and gives us something we thought might take a few years to find: the chance to settle somewhere with meaningful work on a smallholding, time to work other garden and diy jobs and make things, and space for a few fruit trees of our own. It doesn’t look exactly how we pictured it- we will be working for someone else rather than owning a house or land- but we are hoping it fulfils the spirit of what we were looking for. It is not a dry acre in Portugal but a house in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England and a job at an amazing self-sufficiency, permaculture, nature reserve that we wwoofed at last December. More on that later. Over and out Iceland, you’ve been a pleasure and a pain, a learning experience that I am so fortunate to have had. I’ve had the joy of meeting Joi’s family and seeing the land he grew up in. I’ve missed my own family and friends deeply and look forward to reconnecting. So long for now!