Human Flower Project

A Garden at the Top of the World

Jim Wandersee and Renee Clary don’t miss much, including a chance to see the world’s northernmost botanic garden, in Tromso, Norway. It’s closed for the next six months, but thanks to the EarthScholars, we visit today.


Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis sp.)

Tromso Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

This past August we were working in Oslo, so only a thousand miles away…. We just had to see it—the world’s northernmost botanic garden!  The Tromso Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden is, at least in our estimation, the 8th wonder of the botanic world.

Can Tromso, Norway, really stake claim to the world’s northernmost botanic garden? Yes. It is farther north than its two closest competitors—the Polar-Alpine Botanic Garden at Kirovsk in Russia and the Akureyri Botanic Garden in Iceland. For US readers’ geographical comparison, Tromso’s Botanic Garden lies at approximately the same latitude as the northernmost point in Alaska: Point Barrow.

imageMap of Norway

It does require flying to Tromso, Norway, a city on an arctic island about 220 miles inside of the Arctic Circle. The first church was built here way back in 1252, though the city was “founded” more than five hundred years later. Tromso (pop. 63,000) dates officially from 1794 and is currently comprised of over 110 nationalities, yet its surrounding environment remains surprisingly pristine. The city also boasts the world’s northernmost university—the University of Tromso, which administers the Arctic-Alpine garden.

Upon arrival via city bus No. 20, a Geology Trail leads the visitor from a birch woodland downward to an amazing landscape- architectural revelation—a footbridge vista with 172,000 square feet of “rock garden heaven” arrayed on the east-facing hillside below. Behind that sit the glistening arctic waters of Tromso Sound, backed by snowcapped mountains. It is a scene to remain forever etched in your authors’  visual memory—stepping out of that forested greenery into an explosion of colors “painted” atop a beautiful rocky outcrop canvas.  (See also our previous HFP article on rock gardens.)

imageOverlooking the Tromso Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden

August 2008

Photo: EarthScholars™

Research Group

Tromso has a longer growing season than you might expect —late May to mid-October—thanks to the moderating effects of the Gulf Stream. The Garden is abloom during those months, but in August, it awaits you in its most dazzling state. What are some of the flowering plants you can see during the summer? In May, Greek and Patagonian Cushion Plants; in June, New Zealand Buttercups; in July, Himalayan Blue Poppies;  in August, South African Dorotheanthus; and in October, Blue Gentians. During the other six months of the year, snow covers the Garden, and it is closed to the public.

The Botanical Garden is situated on former farmland. The previous owner was a teacher named Hansine Hansen (she passed away in 1947). Upon her death, it was revealed that she had wisely bequeathed the property to Troms County for educational purposes.  What better legacy to leave humanity than that?

The Garden has many helpful interpretive signs and plant-name signs in English explaining each plant grouping. Arranged by geographic area (i.e., alpine areas of the continents) and grouped by botanical association, the Garden displays thousands of taxa in 20 separate plant collections.  (To clarify, “alpine” is a biogeography term applied to plants found growing at higher elevations, namely, above the tree line.)

Winding gravel paths, rock assemblages, and designs that respect the natural terrain help divide the garden into different plant collections (although we noted that the Garden’s trail inclines and unpaved surfaces would pose hurdles for wheelchair-bound visitors). A pond and two waterfalls are located near the center of the garden, and a stone amphitheater is conveniently situated adjacent to the pond, for teaching purposes.  There is also a play area here for little children.

What makes the Garden remarkable is its ability to sustain delicate alpine plant life under the cold, stressful, and insular conditions of this particular polar region in the Northern Hemisphere. Professor Finn Haugli is the Director of the Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden in Tromso. Under his watchful eye, the Garden has built-up a number of notable collections: for example, Meconopsis, Primula, Rhododendron, and Saxifraga.

imageTromso Botanic Garden Director, Dr. Finn Haugli, University of Tromso

Photo: University of Tromso

Dr. Haugli earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has been a professor in molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Tromso since it opened in 1968. He has also served as the Director since the Garden’s inception in 1998 (a forerunner of the current garden was planted 90 years earlier—an exhibition garden outside the Tromso Museum’s former building).  We applaud Dr. Haugli for his vision and for the execution of this magnificent rock garden plan.  We also noticed that new areas of the Garden are under construction. It’s “a growing place” that’s, itself, growing.

“Most people do not know what a botanic garden is, “ Dr. Haugli has observed. “It’s a ‘library’ where plants are collected, and where people get to know rare plants.” One of his student workers hypothesizes that Finn Haugli and his two assistants “live in another aesthetic universe—one much more non-verbal, natural, and far-removed from the everyday bustle and artificiality of campus life.” This individual muses, “If I could only absorb their sense of the weather, the seasons, cycles of growth and bloom, the detailed knowledge of the identity of each and every plant, and its cultural history!”

Dr. Haugli’s student-worker has noticed that some people who visit the Garden are what we would call botanically incurious.  What does that mean? In short, while they enjoy being amid floral and vegetative beauty, they exhibit no thirst at all for botanical knowledge about the plants surrounding them in the Garden.  The student-worker adds, “Fortunately a good number of the visitors to the Garden are plant lovers, botanists, and natural historians, students and pupils from various schools in town, and children for whom there is a built-in playing corner. I was particularly impressed when a teacher took out pupils originating from foreign countries to learn language skills through plant observation.”  Teacher Hansine Hansen had dedicated the Garden property for learning, and her noble dream is now coming true.


Photographing signs along the Garden’s trailside displays of Norway rocks

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

What impressed us as geobotanical educators were two unique and outstanding educational features of the Tromso Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden:

1.The Garden’s impressive Geology Walk explained and displayed the rocks that represent Northern Norway. In short, the visitor learns about the rocks before seeing the plants.  We had never seen rocks displayed in large labeled arrays trailside. The very entrance to the Garden itself is ringed with labeled rock specimens and associated geobiological interpretive signage.  The Geology Walk is of substantial length, and geological learning opportunities continue along the trail—with even more of them under construction,  It has always been our geoscience education contention that rock gardens should interpret the rocks they display as well as the plants. Nowhere have we seen this done better than in Tromso.

imageInterpretive sign at the Garden that explains how ocean currents affect plant communities

Photo: EarthScholars™

Research Group

2. The Garden’s bi-lingual (Norwegian, English) interpretive science signage system is extensive (in size, quantity, and quality) and can help visitors receive a scientific overview of alpine plants that grow on every continent. The “continent hike” concept helped visitors process, organize, and understand what they were seeing—while lower levels of signage interpret the details.  Having cataloged the opportunities to learn (photographically) during two lengthy visits, we are still analyzing the number of geological and biological concepts that were introduced and explained to the public.  No rock garden worldwide that we have visited does this better than Tromso does.

Our research has shown that such trailside signs, interpreting scientific ideas for visitors, have a much greater and more positive educational impact than trail guide brochures do. Why?

Signs are easier to read; they allow multiple, self-selected pathways and choice of objects of interest. As well, they are always available, eliminate the need for waypoint identification, and prevent littering. Further, brochures, usually made available at trail guide boxes, tend to mandate one-time decisions for visitors. Trailside signs encourage serendipity AND focus, wandering AND learning.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades

Forever and forever when I move

  Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Ulysses” 1842)

imageThe blue bridge to

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

Tromso Botanic Garden

Photo: EarthScholars™

Research Group

Seeing how other countries and cultures grow, understand, use, respect, and interpret plants may offer profound insights to us all for teaching and learning about plants in our home country. Isn’t that the bold and brave idea behind the Human Flower Project? We are all expanding our experiential arches!

The Tromso Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden is open May-October. Admission is free.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/11 at 05:17 PM


An impressive essay.  I never thought it possible to make the Artic Circle attractive, but Renee and Jim’s chronicle of the Tromso Botanic Garden and their visit has done just that.  Thank you.

Posted by Georgia on 11/12 at 12:15 PM
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