Travels March 2007

The Constant Gardener

A visit to the home of the famed Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus
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The Linnaeus Garden and house museum
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Slideshow: "The Swedish Way"

A narrated photo essay by Emily Hiestand.

Last spring I traveled with my husband, Peter, to Uppsala, an ancient city northwest of Stockholm on the gulf of Ekoln, one of the vast, inland-reaching bays of Sweden’s Lake Mälaren. Known for its venerable university, for exuberant bonfires on Walpurgis Eve, and for small-town charm, Uppsala is also the city of Carolus Linnaeus, Sweden’s most famous scientist, whose tercentennial birthday is celebrated this year.

We had discovered Uppsala on an earlier visit to Sweden, one stormy summer afternoon when the Baltic archipelago did not beckon. Traveling inland that day instead, we had only a glimpse of the city, enough to know we should return to explore it and its trove of scientific and botanical gems, including—a real surprise at the cool latitude of 60 degrees N—one of the world’s most significant gardens.

Also see:

Sweden: The Travel Advisory
Where to stay, what to eat, and things to do.

Settled so early it is mentioned in Norse mythology, the Uppsala region is a silvery Nordic landscape of dark-green firs, white birches, and pale-gold fields dotted with manor houses and barns. It was long the seat of the pagan Svea kings, whose deities were Thor, Freyr, and Odin, and whose burial mounds still rise in Gamla (“Old”) Uppsala. The city today stretches out along the flatlands by the Fyris River, then ripples up a glacial ridge, culminating in a massive sixteenth- century castle painted the color of a poached salmon—a bit of legerdemain by pigment that leavens the bulky fortress considerably. Uppsala moves at a slower pace than Stockholm and is perfectly scaled for walking; we easily strolled from the train station to our hotel, and then across the river into the cobbled old quarter. Uppsala’s buildings tend toward a palette of subtle clay reds and Tuscan yellows, and in the oblique late-afternoon sun, the city glows as if illuminated from within. There is not much Swedes can do about their long, dark winters, but they are masters at coaxing light with color and candles, crystal and mirrors. In the evenings, nearly every window holds a candle, a sight that can make you positively glad for darkness.

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The Linnaeus Garden
and former greenhouse

Close by the riverbank are the historic garden and house of Carl Linnaeus. His fame has dimmed over the centuries, and if you recall his name but can’t precisely place him, you have plenty of company. Although I knew he was a legendary taxonomist, I was vague on his coordinates. His name sounded Latin; was he ancient? Even scientists and horticulturists now rarely recall the full Linnaean résumé: eighteenth-century botanist, physician, traveler, early ecologist, lover of order, and giver of names. Drawing on towering predecessors, including John Ray of England and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort of France, Linneaus established the classification system at the heart of modern biology, as well as the practice of identifying all living things with a two-word Latin name—Homo sapiens, for example.

The sections of Uppsala we walked that evening look much as they did in 1728, the year Linnaeus arrived in the city, rustic and penniless but already a passionate student of nature, especially plants. The son of a rural vicar, Linnaeus gained entrance to Uppsala University to study with the eminent medical professor Olof Rudbeck the Younger—all botanical knowledge then being under the aegis of medicine. By 1741, “Linné,” as the Swedes call him, was renowned throughout Europe, his endeavors beyond thrilling in an era when voyagers to faraway lands were revealing a previously unimagined plenitude of species. For several heady decades, his sunny house and garden were the equivalent of a modern research institute; by the end of his life, Linnaeus had given new scientific names to no fewer than 12,000 plants and animals.

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