Thrift in Iceland

Floral tourism

In Blog, Feature, Inspiration, Perennials by Samantha Karsten

In the same way that art, architecture, food and music are parts of a culture, gardens and native flora contribute to the personality of a place. Wild plants tell a story about local natural history, and cultivated gardens tell a story of local people. For some places, certain plants are deeply ingrained into the identity of a city or country. The spectacle of yearly blooming events draw travelers from around the world: tulips in the Netherlands, cherry blossoms in Japan and Washington D.C., lavender in France, pretty much anything in Hawaii, etc.

Scandinavia has a beautiful floral identity, with many plants that would be familiar to Minnesotans. I recently traveled to Sweden, and got the feeling that Swedes like their plants to work as hard as they do. In Stockholm, there were a variety of hardy roses, violets, rhododendrons, geraniums and hostas. Even in the middle of the city, one doesn’t need to walk far to find a green place with something blooming.

Collage of plants found in Stockholm, Sweden

Certain spaces in Östermalm resemble the prairies in southern Minnesota, left to run wild with red campion, celandine, geum, wild strawberries and loosestrife. Other areas, like the Skansen living history museum, look very much like northern Minnesota, with sedum, sedge and lichen crawling over crevices of exposed, ancient granite. The close proximity to wild spaces expresses an appreciation for natural environments. Their cultivated gardens reflect the Swedes themselves: sun-loving, reliable, sturdy, beautiful, with a subtle sense of humor.

Last year, I went to Iceland, which has been experiencing a surge in eco-tourism for the past several years. Due to massive volcanic activity from the last ice age, much of the landscape is fresh basalt covered in reindeer moss, lichens, thrifts, moss campion, and devoid of trees. Tiny, tough-as-nails alpine flowers grow between rough rocks under 18+ hours of sun. The areas that get more rain along the western coast are covered in fields of Alaskan lupine, which is beautiful but invasive to the area. Tillable soil is relatively rare, and formal gardens tend to feature carefully placed stones with small touches of color from native poppies, forget-me-nots, violets and the occasional buttercup.

Collage of plants found in Iceland

These gardens express what Icelanders have in abundance: resourcefulness, gratitude and appreciation for their country’s unique, natural beauty.


Think about your past travels. What plants were distinct at your destination? Were you inspired to design a space in your garden that would evoke the memory of a faraway place? Is there any place that you would like to visit just to see the flowers? If you’ve got a floral tourism story, we’d love to read it in the comments. Links to albums welcome!