Saturday, May 22, 2010

Linnaeus weekend, 22 maj

Jennifer I've mentioned before that I am taking a class about the life and science of the famous 17th century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus). The class is web-based, so I had not met any of the other participants, but yesterday and today we as a class went on a couple field trips to various historical sites connected with Linné.

Yesterday, 22 maj, it seemed as if summer had finally come to Sweden: very few clouds, more than 20C, just lovely weather. The five of us met at EBC (my workplace) and drove south through the industrial part of the city to a region called Danmark, where Linné had his summer home Hammarby. We arrived before the place opened and so got a personal tour of the main house, which has been preserved quite well. We then took a walk through the grounds, with our guide Jesper pointing out various plants that the man may or may not have planted himself. The walk goes up a steep rocky slope up to a small building where Linné, afraid for good reason of fire, stored his collections. On the way back down, you can see a very fake-looking "runestone" that he had carved for himself. We picnicked in the cafe garden, then went to a lecture given by Åke, a rather jolly retired Uppsala professor, about Linné and his thoughts on food (in Swedish—he spoke slowly and clearly and so I understood about half of it maybe). Linné, who could not resist classifying everything, even put breads an drinks into different categories; he thought that semlor should be eaten not too much, and his view on spirits ("brännvin är förgift för dig") was shockingly primitive. He had opinions about everything, even the types of metal that various coffee-making implements should be made of (copper to boil the water, silver to serve it).

We then left Hammarby for town, back to Linné's University house and working botanical garden, now a Museum of course. I have been to both places several times before, but of course it is nice to get guided tours (and it's fun to compare how different tour guides tell the same stories, they're almost always a little different). Alexandra, our guide for the garden, is a relative of Anders Sparrman, one of Linné's disciples, and gave a good hour-long tour of the important plants (at least the visible ones, it's still a little early in the season here). Then we went into the house, which was nice and cool after our tramping about in the sun for so long. This tour guide, Audrey, was initially a little grumpy about having to give the tour in English, but seemed to warm to us as it went on—as a group just coming off a class, we were perhaps unusually informed (and genuinely interested).

It was fun day but quite exhausting, and that evening we went to a birthday party, as our Swiss friend G. turned 30 on May 23. That day just happens to be Linné's birthday as well—he would have been 303—and every year that we've been here, to celebrate this day, the town puts up ads and banners and flowers and generally makes a fuss. Are you aware that you share a birthday with Linné? I asked G., to tease him a little. "Yes," he said with mock seriousness, "It has been brought to my attention."

Unfortunately yesterday was the end of Swedish summer. Tune in tomorrow for a recap of what happened today...

A few extra details that I found interesting, put here for my memory as much as anything:

I know (finally!) know what the word "Hammarby" means: it means "rocky slope" in local dialect. Which also explains the name of the football club I follow in Stockholm, Hammarby, whose football pitch is located on quite a rocky slope indeed.

Linné, initially opposed to coffee, discovered that drinking it made his migraines better, and so he became a convert. He was not generally an empirical scientist, except in this case!

I never knew before that the pond in center of the botanical garden is full of newts, but it is ("The small kind not the big kind," the guide took pains to point out)—there are only two types of salamander in Sweden, which is at the northern extreme of amphibian range—these were mindre vattensalamander, and they appeared to be engaged in breeding behavior.

As early as 1400-something, and up until 1800-something, it was illegal to have a male hop plant in Sweden; the reason the part used in brewing beer is the female flower, not the seed; if the flowers get pollinated, they become very bitter and the beer is bad. I did manage to resist the temptation to make some snarky comment that maybe they should put that law back into effect because in general Swedish beer is not so good.

Other plants we looked at included dog's mercury (the first plant in which Linné was absolutely able to demonstrate sexuality in plants), sweet cecilia (tasty but looks just like another thing that is poisonous), snake grass (the guide seemed quite interested to learn this American name, she said it fits well), and the other plant whose name I can't remember, but it's sure not bleeding heart, which is what Linné was actually after. The flower is very sweet-smelling; ants are its pollinator, and its seeds look like ants, and the oil pods that the plant rewards the ants with look remarkably like ant pupae. In Sweden, bumblebees chew through the bottom of the flower to get to the nectar.

As it turned out, our little group included one person with my birthday, and two other football enthusiasts. Per, a high school teacher, and Stina, a student at UU, both had plans to watch this evening's Champions League final. I mentionend that I had watched the women's final on Wednesday, and the two of them at least knew what I was talking about, if not who had finally won, but then the Swedish contender had crashed out in the semifinals. Per shared some amusing anecdotes about traveling to Germany in 2006 to watch the men's matches and we all had a good laugh about the general state of football in Sweden (deplorable).


  1. Corydalis nobilis, Sw. "Sibirisk nunneört". No idea of the English name, I'm afraid.

  2. "Siberian nun weed"? Really? (maybe I better stick with the Latin)

  3. "Noble fumitory" has been bandied about in various places. I think you're still better off with the Latin.