In the Garden: Gardens of Scandinavia

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Formal gardens at Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark. Photo: Charles Kidder.

“Garden” may not the first word that comes to mind when you mention Scandinavia.

Fjords, sophisticated capital cities, Danish pastry, lutefisk, conifer forests, long summer days, Bergman (either Ingmar or Ingrid), certainly. But, gardens? Admittedly, not many people set out for Scandinavia specifically to enjoy horticultural attractions, but there are worthy gardens to be found in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Denmark

Only about a half-hour walk from Copenhagen’s touristy waterfront section of Nyhavn, the 25-acre Botanical Garden attracts both the dedicated plantsperson as well as the lover of greenspace. As part of the Natural History Museum of Denmark (in turn part of the University of Copenhagen) the Botanical Garden is home to over 10,000 plant species.

A small lake forms the central feature of the Botanical Garden, surrounded by winding paths and convenient benches. The Rock Garden hill, home to many well-labelled alpine plants, may well be one of the highest points in a flat city. If the weather proves to be foul during your visit, pop into the Palm House Complex. Dating from 1874, the spiral staircase takes you up toward the roof of the conservatory, allowing you to walk through the canopy of the tallest plants.

Beer aficionados will appreciate the Botanical Garden’s Beer Garden. It’s not the typical place where you enjoy beer in a leafy setting; rather it’s an actual garden with many of the plants—hops, for example—that are used in brewing beer.

While in Denmark take in a castle or two, along with their attendant gardens. Forty minutes north of Copenhagen by car is Fredericksborg Castle, dating to the 16th century and home to the Danish National History Museum. The largest garden here is a formal parterre, although a romantic English-inspired garden provides a counterpoint.  

Head west from Copenhagen about two hours and you’ll find Egeskov Castle, near the village of Kvaerndrup. Rated as “One of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in Europe” by Conde Naste Traveler and home to Count Michael Ahlefeldt and his family, this is not only a castle, but gardens, museums, events, etc. all located in a pastoral setting. Reflecting the castle’s age—more than 460 years— some of the massive hedging dates back 280 years.  Nineteen separate gardens include a rose garden with more than 100 varieties that peak from mid-June through mid-July, and as the roses fade, 140 varieties of dahlias come into their own. You could easily spend a full day here and spend the night at one of the coastal towns nearby.

Sweden

Heading southeast from Copenhagen the seven-mile Oresund Bridge/Tunnel takes you to Malmo, Sweden. Instead of immediately traveling east and north to Stockholm, head almost due north up Sweden’s west coast to the town of Helsingborg, a nice place to stay for a couple of nights. Only three miles to the north is Sofiero, at one time the summer home of the Swedish royal family, now belonging to the town of Helsingborg. You could refer to it as a castle, but Sofiero is really more a large summer house with castle-style towers, not the imposing stone pile of a true castle.  Architecture aside, the gardens are the centerpiece of Sofiero, and one could easily spend the better part of a relaxing day enjoying all of them. In early summer the rhododendrons—planted in two “gullies”—are the main attraction, followed by roses in mid-summer and the dahlias at summer’s end. A very well-maintained garden, with a friendly feel. While at Sofiero, look across the narrow strait to Denmark, and you’ll spot Kronborg Castle in the town of Helsingor. The latter name translates to Elsinore and was applied to Kronborg castle by Shakespeare.

New foliage at the Rhododendron Garden in Sweden. Photo: Charles Kidder.

Before leaving this part of Sweden make an effort to visit The Rhododendron Garden (@rhododendrongarden.se). In a rural area about a half hour north of Helsingborg lies the private garden of Lisbeth Nilsson and Ulf Jonsson. As the name suggests, the concentration is on rhododendrons, with over 500 varieties, but with trilliums, hostas, Japanese maples and magnolias acting as foils. All were planted in beds of peat that was laboriously brought onto the site. Even in July when the rhodies are not in bloom, their newly flushed foliage creates a wonderful effect. Be sure to contact Lisbeth before planning a visit.

Now turning east toward Sweden’s Baltic coast, in Svadesholm (near the town of Kivik) you’ll find The English Garden (Den Engelska Tradgarden). Dating from 2014, the labors of gardeners Maria Nillson and Anette Cato have produced an unabashedly English garden, because as Maria says, “They have the best gardens!”  Featuring double perennial borders, a rose garden, a cottage garden and a kitchen garden, you could indeed imagine that you were in the U.K.

“Soccer balls” at Sofiero Castle in Sweden. Photo: Charles Kidder.

Although known for its extensive green spaces, Stockholm is not home to any well-known botanical gardens.  Visitors might want to take in Millesgarden, known more for sculptures, fountains and terraces than plants.  Or consider a visit to the allotment gardens in Tantolunden Park.  Dating from the early 1900s and originally intended to provide additional vegetables in hard times, these plots now trend more toward the ornamental side, with tiny cottages serving as weekend retreats.

Norway

Oslo is home to a very fine Botanical Garden, part of the Natural History Museum/University of Oslo and a half-hour walk from the waterfront and railroad station. A few highlights: the Systematic Garden, displaying related plants in groupings; the Meadow, an endangered plant community; a Rock Garden with over 1700 species; and a 19th Century Palm House that includes a Mediterranean Room, a Desert Room and a Victoria House specifically built for the giant water lily.

If you’re traveling between Oslo and Bergen either by rail or car you’ll traverse a mountainous plateau that includes two national parks, Hardangervidda and Hallingskarvet. The average elevation is about 3,500 feet, with some peaks over 5,000’.  With its harsh climate the terrain is essentially treeless moorland, sprinkled with lakes, ponds and a few glaciers. We only passed through quickly by train, so I’m hoping to return to explore this piece of alpine tundra in southern Norway. 

The English Gardens in Sweden. Photo: Charles Kidder.

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