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                                                     The Constant Gardener

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A visit to the home of famed naturalist Carl Linneaus

By Emily Hiestand


An expanded version of an essay

first published in The Atlantic

(available at The Atlantic online)














































































































































"I traveled last spring with my herring-loving husband, Peter, to Uppsala, an ancient city located about an hour northwest of Stockholm on the gulf of Ekoln, one of the vast, inland-reaching bays of Sweden’s great 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.

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

We set out for Uppsala the following April, landing at Sweden’s Arlanda airport, where seamless intermodal transportation links allow a traveler to glide from air to rail and never be tempted by an auto rental. The train we boarded was an ordinary Swedish train—elegant, on time, and fitted out with reading lamps and luminous blond woods. The views out the window were good too: a silvery Nordic landscape of dark green firs, flashes of white birch, outcroppings of rocks blooming with yellow lichen, then the pale gold fields of the Upplandia plain dotted with traditional deep red manor houses and barns. 

Settled so early it is mentioned in Norse mythology, Upplandia was long the seat of the pagan Svea kings, whose deities were Thor, Freyr, and Odin, and whose serene burial mounds still rise in Gamla (Old) Uppsala. The city today stretches out along the flatlands by the Fyris River, then ripples up a high glacial ridge, culminating in a massive sixteenth-century castle whose great bulk is considerably leavened by being painted entirely pink, the color of a poached salmon—a bit of legerdemain by pigment that would have pleased Italo Calvino, who advocated removing all unnecessary weight from the world.

Uppsala moves at a slower pace than Stockholm and is perfectly scaled for walking.  Peter and I could easily stroll from the train station to our hotel, and then across the river into the cobbled old quarter which houses the University, the oldest in Scandinavia. Many of Uppsala’s stone and stucco buildings are painted in a palette of subtle clay reds and Tuscan yellows, and in the oblique warm light of late afternoon, the city glows as if illuminated from within. There is not much Swedes can do about the long, dark winters of their latitude, but they are masters at coaxing light with color and candles, with crystal chandeliers, mirrors and white rooms.  In the evenings, nearly every window in the land holds a candle, a sight that can make you positively glad for darkness.

Not far from Uppsala Castle and close by the riverbank are the historic garden and house of Carl Linnaeus. His fame has dimmed over the centuries, and if you recall the name but can’t precisely place his era or doings, you have much company.  Although I knew Linnaeus was a legendary taxonomist, I could not locate the man in geography or time. His name sounded vaguely Latin; was he ancient? 

Even scientists and horticulturists now rarely recall the full Linnaean résumé: eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, physician, traveler and travel writer, early ecologist, lover of order, and giver of names. Drawing on towering botanical predecessors, and arguably finer scientists, including the great John Ray of England and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort of France, Linnaeus established the classification system that still lies at the heart of modern biology, as well as the enduring practice of identifying all living things with a two-word Latin name.  Homo sapiens, for example. (The prodigious namer also gave himself several names: born Carl Linnaeus, he coined the Latinate version, Carolus Linnaeus, for his publications, and upon being ennobled, took the name by which he is known in Sweden, Karl von Linné.)

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 plants. The son of a rural vicar, Linnaeus had gained entrance to Uppsala University to study with Olof Rudbeck the Younger, a legendary professor of medicine. All botanical knowledge then existed under the aegis of medicine, as part of pharmacology and healing knowledge.  It was only after Linnaeus and because of his work that botany came to be considered a field unto itself. By 1741, twelve years after his anonymous arrival in Uppsala, Carl Linnaeus was renowned throughout Europe, engaged in the heady task of classifying and naming all living things.  His endeavor was thrilling in an era when voyagers were first reporting on faraway lands and revealing to dazzled Europeans a previously unimagined plenitude of species.

Beyond taxonomy, Linnaeus also had ideas about health and economics. He was a charismatic teacher, leading great bands of students—as many as two hundred—on field trips he called the Herbationes, day long events accompanied by musicians, picnics, and conversation with the master.  His much inspired students set forth into the wide world on collecting adventures, sending seeds and specimens streaming back (from Asia, Africa, the East Indies, the South Pacific, and the Americas) for Linnaeus to examine, name and enter into his ever-expanding book of nature. For several decades during the golden age of natural history, Linnaeus’s sunny house and garden in Uppsala were the equivalent of a modern research institute, a nave for scientific exchange. 

In the morning, after a smorgasbord breakfast for which our hotel is famous (herring for believers like Peter, native blueberries for me), we set forth in nippy spring air toward the Linnaean grounds. Passing through tall, dark green entrance gates off Svartbäck Street (Svartbäckgatan), we were also entering an eighteenth-century idea of order. As we crossed the foregarden under the shade of six voluptuous Linden trees, modernity vanished. Before us stretched a two-acre walled garden laid out in the geometric style of a Baroque pleasance—with cone-shaped topiary, spicy boxwood hedges, dozens of rectangular beds laid out in tidy rows, and a shimmering lily pond in the distance.  It was as if we had tumbled into the interior of a panoramic sugar egg.

A soft-spoken horticulturist in teal jeans and work gloves, Lena Hansson, showed us around and into the garden’s butter-yellow, neo-classical Orangery. Once Linnaeus’s greenhouse, the Orangery now holds a cheerful exhibit on botanical history, where we boned up on binomial nomenclature, learning how Linnaeus streamlined the long, unwieldy phrases once commonly used to identify plants and animals, and bestowed instead a simple name—genus followed by species descriptor—on some 12,000 plants and animals. 

As an example of his work: the plant formerly described as the Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatis pubescen tibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti became simply Plantago media, the plant we know, in English, as the hoary plantain.  Linnaeus named many plants and animals for their telling physical characteristics (the enormous red deer Cervus elaphus), others for figures in mythology, (the beautiful blue-green Papilio ulysses) and yet others for his mentors and foes: the scraggly, unpleasant weed Siegesbeckia orientalis immortalizes one of his fiercest critics.

For all its charm, the Linnaeus garden was, and is, a teaching garden and place for research and it remains so today, as a living museum of some 1,400 historic plants—none more remarkable than the Siberian corydalis, a yellow wildflower that arrived in Uppsala in 1765 as a gift from the Finnish naturalist Erik Laxman, and has survived continuously in this cool ground for three centuries. The hardy Siberian corydalis continued to grow even through the many decades when the Linnaeus garden was abandoned, when it looked like nothing more than a potato patch, as one nineteenth-century pilgrim remarked in dismay. Many other plants in this garden were germinated from the hundreds of seeds sent to Linnaeus by his admirer the Empress Catherine II of Russia.

Restored early in the 20th century by a group of Swedish patriots, the garden has since been tended by a succession of great horticulturists. Lena Hansson is the first woman to be in charge of the garden. Like most Swedes, she is modest, and only later do I learn her title: Master of the Herbal Garden, a title that dates back 300 years.  As we walk through the perennial beds, Hansson remarks that “It gets harder and harder to keep the species of the Linné’s garden true.” Supreme horticultural care is now needed to prevent, as much as is possible, the various historic species from cross-fertilizing—a great irony, really, given that for much of his life Linnaeus operated under the medieval theory that saw Nature as unchanging, as an immutable, divine order. 

Still, he felt the theoretical fault line beginning to tremble.  Seeing the actual, changeful behavior of plants in his garden, Linnaeus began to suspect—one hundred years before Darwin—that new species were somehow continuing to emerge. Pondering how to reconcile the evidence of his own eyes with orthodox theory, the devout Linnaeus arrived at a subtle solution, proposing that the new species had always existed—as potential in the fixed plan of Creation! 

On a cusp between the medieval and modern, Linnaeus was capable of foresighted ecological thinking, and also of creating such categories as Homo anthropomorpha, in which he placed beings like the Satyr and the Phoenix. He could record inherited stereotypes that elevated Europeans above all other peoples, an act that contributed significantly to the unscientific concept of race, and could also deeply admire—as no other European traveler before him had—the indigenous Sámi peoples of Lapland.

The Linnaeus garden in Uppsala is neither vast nor grand, a mere speck compared to the gardens of Versailles.  How moving it is to feel the discrepancy between Linnaeus’s ongoing influence on our world and the modest plot of ground he tended.  And the epic advances that occurred here continue to suggest large and interesting questions, including, What do we really mean by order? Anyone who has ever tried to organize an ordinary clothes closet has surely glimpsed the cavernous abyss that lurks in taxonomy. Massive uncertainties arise in the enterprise of classification because, as Stephen Jay Gould once memorably put it, classifying is not a “glorified form of filing,” but always a proposal about the nature of reality itself.

The handsome yellow house where Linnaeus lived and tackled these questions is tucked into the southwestern corner of the garden, its rooms chock-full of aura, that sense of intimacy and meaning that comes only in physicality and presence.  Standing for some minutes in the worn hollow in the floor where Linnaeus stood to lecture, I felt the kind of pleasant, eerie transport that I did upon seeing Faulkner’s handwritten pencil notes looping along the walls of his study in Mississippi. Every room of the Linnaeus house contains gems: an amber-toned globe (Boston one of the rare dots on the wild American continent); a silver bowl for wild strawberries; a shaman’s magic drum from Lapland; some tools, so simple they could be carried in a pocket—a pen knife, a magnifier, a cuff microscope.  There is a glass dome for covering tender seedlings; and the desk where Linnaeus wrote Species Plantarum, the publication that proved to be the starting point for modern botany. 

Standing by the windows in Linnaeus’s study, we can look out as he did onto the activity in the garden. More often, by day and night, Linnaeus was actually out in his garden: “Daily, indeed hourly,” he wrote in his faithful journal, “I make fresh discoveries in the garden; never do I enter it, but I learn something new.”  Working here, Linnaeus began to think in proto-ecological terms, and cultivated groups of related plants in ecological habitats—one riverine, one marshy, and one an acidic woodland floor, where he grew his favorite plant, the tiny white twinflower, the Linnea borealis. In this garden, he taught a generation of botanists using his “Sexual System,” a simple method of classifying plants according to the number and positions of their stamens and pistils. For many years, the Linnaean system provided a useful key to plant identification, as well as some racy language about the “nuptial lives” of plants. The system eventually faded away, of course, as evolutionary biologists revealed that the meaningful principle for classification is genetic ancestry. Now, as Hansson tells us, another revolution in classification may be underway, as some taxonomists are proposing a controversial but powerful phylogenetic nomenclature called the PhyloCode, a system based on cladistic taxonomy, which would abandon the old Linnaean taxa. 

Not far from the modest Linnaeus garden and house museum are several other splendid museums, among them: the Gustavianum, which houses scientific exhibits and spectacular artifacts, including an early Celsius thermometer made by Anders Celsius himself; also the Carolina Library, which contains a book in which the polymath Olof Rudbeck the Elder argues, apparently seriously, that Sweden was the origin of Everything (a kind of Nordic Atlantis); and the new Peace Museum (or Fredsmuseum), which is located in the depths of the stocky pink Castle. Over the course of an afternoon in these captivating museums, we also learned that Sweden—now renowned for diplomacy and humane social policies, now such a paragon that it seems almost out of reach as a model for my own fierce country—was itself once enmeshed in military conflict.

Not only does Sweden have roots in the ship-born warrior culture of the Vikings, but more but recently, during the 17th century, Sweden virtually ruled the Baltic—occupying an expanding empire with a brand of ruthless militarism its neighbors have still not entirely forgotten. By Linnaeus’s era, the Swedish empire was beginning to collapse—for the usual reasons, including overreach and resistance from occupied peoples—and the times were demanding new economic ideas.


The early 18th century academics and scientists were eager to supply them. Linnaeus, for one, had the idea to substitute native Swedish resources for imports (which would reduce the need for conquests and colonization), and he made a mighty effort to “teach” a range of tropical plants to grow in Sweden. In her exploration of this doomed, if endearing plan, the historian of science Lisbet Koerner writes that Linnaeus hoped that Swedes would turn more and more to their own native land, that they would learn to “ride elks,” (instead of horses, I assume), to “write with swan feathers, and read by the light of seal-fat lamps.” Linnaeus would eventually be mocked for this inward-turning scheme, which could not prevail just as the world was learning to trade across ever greater distances.  But it is fair to say that,  although tea and melons spectacularly failed to grow at 60ºN, Linnaeus did in fact succeed in helping cultivate two very powerful homegrown resources—namely Swedish science and the abiding Swedish love of nature.

By a different route than Linnaeus imagined, Sweden has arrived at the kind of healthy culture and economy he hoped for.  Respect for nature is deep in the Swedish soul; the economy is fueled by natural resources, and by the ongoing innovation that a superbly well-educated people can produce.  The country has been at peace since 1805. The contemporary Swedish aesthetic routinely refers to nature, seeking to emulate nature’s creativity and practicality, producing a design tradition that involves distillation, intelligence, and often something playful. 

From the portrait that emerges in Uppsala, it’s easy to glean that Linnaeus had an especially strong dose of what E.O. Wilson today calls biophilia—love for the life of Earth. He was also something of a showman, a self-promoter, good at cultivating patrons, fond of wearing his Lapland costume to parties. It’s easy to imagine him today serving either as the host of a popular TV science show (he could ride in on an elk), or as an EU minister working to stem global warming.  He was wrong about many things, and his science, like all science was a stepping stone, but what remains perennially attractive about Linnaeus is his bone-deep curiosity about the world at large.  Today, in a time of mass extinctions and a warming planet, it is poignant to read how much he counted on the natural world as a source of continuity. He hitched his desire for immortality to what he believed would be the enduring life on Earth. Here he is, writing a bucking-up letter to one of his students, then on an arduous journey, far from home:

 “[T]he plants nevertheless remain and renew their flowers, and with gratitude enduring through the years they shall always exhale the sweet memory of your name…For riches vanish…the most prolific families die out sooner or later: the mightiest states and the most flourishing kingdoms may be overthrown: but the whole of nature must be obliterated before the genera of plants disappear and he

be forgotten who held the torch aloft in botany.”



Emerging, in late afternoon, from the eighteenth century, Peter and I felt intuitively that it would be reckless to re-enter modern times too abruptly. So we stopped off first in a 19th century tea at Ofvandahls, the city’s beloved old konditori—a café-cum-shrine to philosophy, conviviality, and butterfat, where faded blue wallpaper, worn velvet couches, and clouded gilt mirrors create a rumpled, instantly inviting atmosphere. Here generations of students, professors and citizens have met to gossip, romance, and philosophize, fueled by layer sandwiches, tea, kaffé, and a glistening assortment of baked goods, including the Studenska (a pistachio-iced, chocolate tartlet), and the Vienna, the finest pastry I have ever eaten. I once chanced to mention Ofvandahl’s to a cosmopolitan executive of a Swedish technology company, and the name had the effect on him of a Proustian cookie, transporting Ulf (the name means wolf) back to his youthful university days and long afternoons of idealistic talk.

Like much of Sweden, Uppsala is currently in the midst of a very Linnaean-sounding culinary trend that champions the native terroir, local foods such as cloudberries, chanterelle mushrooms, tangy Västerbotten cheese, and turbot with truffleblanchette.  On our last night in town we dined at our favorite Uppsala restaurant, the Kung Krål, which serves a fresh take on Nordic cuisine in a beautiful, understated room of dark woods and pale green walls, with casement windows overlooking Gamla Torg, the city’s oldest square. The friendly waiter, Janne, an Uppsala native, describes his vision for the Linnéjubileet: “Well, obviously,” he says, “there should be flowers everywhere, on every street, every bridge, the whole city should be covered in flowers.” Consulting the menu, we noticed something that we had never before eaten. With Janne’s encouragement, we overcame our hesitation, and ordered Rangifer tarandus, an indigenous food of the land, named, of course, by Linnaeus, who dined on it himself in Lapland.  I took my first bite respectfully, recalling the many hours of childhood that I spent listening for this creature to land on the roof of our house. But I am bound to report that the reindeer steak of Sweden is delicious, and I am daring to hope that Santa will continue to visit our house anyway.


© 2007 Emily Hiestand

from The Atlantic Magazine

March 2007 / All rights reserved



Travel Advisory

Ancient, sophisticated and casual, Uppsala is rich in museums and restaurants, and home to the renowned Linnaeus Garden and House. Located about 45 minutes northwest of Stockholm, the city easily reached by train from Stockholm Central Station or from Arlanda airport.


Classic Nordic style, a sauna, and focus on green practices make the Scandic Upplandia an excellent hotel choice. Breakfast chef Kerstin Dahlstrom creates a legendary buffet of native berries, smoked turkey, caviar, fine cheeses, all manner of herring, breads and jams, and ingredients for traditional Swedish open-faced sandwiches. Two other worthy Uppsala hotels are Grand Hotell Hörnan, a Beaux Arts hotel by the river, and First Hotel Linné, overlooking the Linnaeus Garden.


Dine at the Kung Kral, which serves contemporary Swedish cuisine, including exquisite lamb with lingonbery sauce; at Hambergs Fisk,  which specializes in fish and shellfish; and Tzatziki, with a terrace overlooking the Fyris River. An entire afternoon of bien-etre can be spent at Ofvandahls, Uppsala’s legendary konditori for sandwiches, pastries, and conversation. 

If you like herring (Clupea Harengus) you will find many opportunities to enjoy it in Uppsala, where the silvery fish is found in unimaginable plenty, pickled, or covered in sauces, including mustard, curry, garlic, tomato, and wine. Even my herring-loving husband agrees, however, that a non-expert should be wary of Surströmming, the fermented herring that comes to market in late summer in a bulging can (the sort of can that our mothers taught us to recognize as the sign of death by botulism.) Apparently Surströmming, is perfectly safe, but, with a powerful aroma, it is the definition of an acquired taste.  It seems to be a food eaten (as ultra-hot chili peppers are often eaten) as a ritual of regional identity and bonding. Swedes admit this readily, and Surströmming is a source of jokes and merriment.


The Linnaeus Garden is Sweden’s oldest botanical garden and a living museum of plant species raised by the legendary taxonomer and “Prince of Botany,” Carolus Linnaeus. The garden and the adjacent Linnaeus House Museum are open June –September.


Uppsala offers many museums within walking distance of one another. For inspiration, visit the Fredsmuseum (Peace Museum) located in the lower level of Uppsala Castle. The Carolinus Rediviva contains exquisite artifacts and rare books, including Atland, in which the polymath Olof Rudbeck the Elder argues, quite seriously, if not convincingly, that Sweden is the origin of Everything. The Gustaviorum houses the exhibits about the history of science and rare artifacts, including the Augsburg Wonder Cabinet (a 17th c. museum in miniature whose 1,000 items include shells, a dried alligator, and a silver sink. Uppsala Cathedral, the largest church in Scandinavia, is the resting place of Carl Linnaeus and Sweden’s great statesman, Dag Hammerskold. 


Several excellent field trip destinations are just outside Uppsala. The historic Botanical Trails of Linnaeus wend through woods and fields adjacent to the city. 3 miles from Uppsala is idyllic Hammarby, a small authentic Swedish country manor house, where Linnaeus summered. A few miles north is majestic Gamla Uppsala, one of Scandinavia's most ancient monument areas. 


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"Anyone who has ever

tried to organize an ordinary clothes closet

has glimpsed the abyss

that lurks in taxonomy..." 

        — Emily Hiestand,

        "The Constant Gardener"

        from The Atlantic, March 2007