It is a clear mid-September morning on Whistler. The distant mountains seem to hover just beyond the nearest tree, their every detail etched against the dark blue autumn sky. I am leading a group of late summer visitors on a nature walk to Harmony Lake – my first since returning from Iceland where Betty and I spent most of August. The contrast between that starkly beautiful, treeless landscape and the lush sub-alpine forest of our own mountains seems utterly complete; but there are some surprising links.
As we descend the trail to Harmony Lake it is clear that Fall has arrived. The heather has shed its bell-shaped blooms and the leaves of most shrubs have turned to shades of yellow and red. I point out the ground-hugging mat of partridgefoot blossoms, the wispy seed-pods of western anemone (towhead babies) and a few ragged, frost-scarred blossoms of fleabane, arnica, and groundsel. Then, where the trail emerges from the forest, we enter a virtual garden of purple lupine, still in full bloom.
Which brings me back to Iceland. In a country where nothing at all grows on 75 per cent of the land, where pioneer vegetation struggles to survive the ravages of volcanic ash-falls, wind erosion and the prolonged dark of sub-arctic winter, it takes a hardy plant to survive. And lupine is among the hardiest. Using seed from Alaska, lupine have been planted on large tracts of barren land that would otherwise revert to the windswept volcanic desert of central Iceland. Initially fenced as protection from grazing sheep, the fields of lupine prevent erosion and add nitrogen to the volcanic soil allowing other less resilient species such as European Lymegrass to take root and eventually form a stable mat of vegetation.
The Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) which is used for erosion control in Iceland, and the Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus) of our local mountains are closely related species of the Pea family. Once thought to rob the soil of its nutrients the plants were named after "lupus" the wolf. But far from robbing the soil their roots, like other members of the pea family, have nodules containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria that add nutrients.
The ranges of Nootka and Alpine lupine overlap through much of coastal B.C. However, the Nootka lupine is found only as far south as northern Vancouver Island, while Alpine lupine range south to California. Both species flourish in a variety of open habitats but Arctic lupine are most common in sub-alpine meadows while Nootka lupine prefer lower elevations including tidal marshes where their roots, once pit-cooked by native people, are still relished by grizzly bears. And, oh yes – they do very well in the volcanic soil of Iceland where the sheep love them. It’s a small world!
Written by: Jack Souther