Holtasóley, Iceland's national flower, known as Mountain Avens in English, is found growing in all regions of Iceland mainly on heathlands and gravelly mountain slopes. According to an old book on herbs, its name changes to Hárbrúða or Hairy Doll once it has matured and gone to seed. It’s also known as rjúpnalauf or ptarmigan leaf because the northern grouse like to feast on its leathery leaves during the winter months. Apart from being an important food source for ptarmigans, the plant has an interesting history.
An interesting history
Long before it was voted national flower of Iceland (in October 2004) it was used as a herb for its medicinal properties: mainly as an astringent and to reduce inflammation. The leaves were also dried and used as both a substitute for tobacco and tea. Perhaps the most surprising thing I read about the history of Holtasóley – given its status as a national flower – is that it was once known as “Thief’s Root“. This was because it grew in abundance in places where thieves were hung. Maybe, and I’m just taking a wild guess here, it was also named so because thieves might have been caught rummaging for their ill-gotten gains underneath these lovely little mountain blossoms.
According to folklore, Holtasoley has the power to attract money from the earth, but what you have to do to get it is quite frankly sinful, immoral and wicked. To get rich à la Holtasoley, one must first steal money from a poor widow while she’s attending mass and then bury it underneath the so-called Thief’s Root where it was supposed to double the value of the money. Not a particularly romantic story about the national flower of Iceland, but it might just explain why thieves were hung where Holtasoley grows.
Read more about Iceland’s flowers in Hörður Kristinsson’s book Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland.