Human Flower Project

Berry Tippling in the Arctic

For winter visitors to Lapland, lingonberries in many forms take the sting out of dogsledding and icebedding. Thank you, Allen!


Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Lingonberries), the toast of Lapland

Photo: H. Zell, via wiki

By Allen Bush

I was introduced to Lapland through the Weekly Reader in Miss Goodwin’s first grade class at Chenoweth Elementary School. I can’t recall anything else about other faraway places. Lapland was the focus of our attention. I learned at the tender age of six that days in the Arctic Circle were long in summer and short in winter.  There were reindeer, dogsleds and the northern lights. 

I don’t remember hearing about lingonberries, a blueberry and cranberry relative, though Hans Andersen gave hints of them in The Snow Queen.

When they reached the bush with the red berries they found the reindeer waiting for them…

imageLingonberries garnishing hot reindeer meat, carrots and potatoes for snowmobiling guests at the Lunch Hut, Kiruna, Sweden

Photo: Allen Bush

I know now they’re plentiful.  Laplanders, known now as Samis, picked their delicious fruit – still do. At any time of year, Swedes enjoy the privilege to “roam” on private or public lands. In summer they are free to pick wild lingonberries;  Allemansrätten is everyman’s right. In fact, it is permissible to pick fruits, wildflowers or mushrooms as long as roamers don’t intrude on gardens or cultivated fields and keep a reasonable distance from private dwellings. The privilege is a two-way street: “Do not disturb and do not destroy.”

Earlier this month I found lingonberries and berry concoctions everywhere in Sweden. They were served on cereal in the morning, as a warm drink anytime of day, and as a cocktail with vodka in the evening.  The versatile lingonberry can carry you from appetizer through dessert —moose to mousse. 

During my trip, I saw thousands of spruce and pine trees, but I didn’t see any low-growing lingonberry bushes. They were snow-covered.

My friend Nick Brookes asked, nearly a year ago, if I would be interested in a mid-winter trip to Stockholm and the Arctic Circle. I didn’t hesitate for a minute. “Sign me up,” I said. For the next eight months I wondered what I’d done. Why escalate winter from Louisville’s unending gray and wet-cold to Sweden’s unending gray and dry-cold?  But I knew that Nick and Phil Walker would be good company, guaranteed for fun and lots of laughs, and in the weeks leading-up to the trip I was good-to-go. (Well, mostly good-to-go. I did have to deal with a whopper of a kidney stone the week before.  My urologist plucked the stone, a procedure he described as “like taking a ship out of a bottle.” )

imageCarl Linnaeus statue, Linnaeum, Uppsala, Sweden

Photo: Allen Bush

I arrived in Stockholm five days later, three days ahead of Nick and Phil who flew from London. It gave me the chance to recover from jet lag and catch a train one day to the university town of Uppsala to pay homage to Carl Linnaeus (only the botanically obsessed make this pilgrimage in the dead of winter).

Linnaeus is the Father of binomial nomenclature—a simple system for identifying all living organisms. It was he who named the lingonberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea.

On a February day, too cold to linger outdoors, the Linnaeum Orangery was a good spot to warm-up and commune with Carl. There wasn’t a soul in sight. His statue was displayed in the foyer’s apse. (The sculpture showed Linneaeus dressed up, though he preferred to show visitors around his home garden in his nightclothes.)

imageAgave guiengola in the Cactus Room of the Linnaeum Orangery, Uppsala

Photo: Allen Bush

Carl’s Uppsala University mentor was Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660- 1740). The name Rudbeckia, that identifies a genus of over twenty North American species of black-eyed Susans, honors the younger Rudbeck and his father, a professor of medicine. 

Both Olof and Carl would have enjoyed the sunny cactus room at the far end of the Linnaeum – a dry land oasis of a few hundred tender Central and South American species protected from the cold. Outside were some 10,000 species and cultivars, most of them buried in several feet of snow.

She was most likely going to Lapland, because there is always snow and ice there!...

imagePhil Walker in the Main Hall of the Ice Hotel, Kiruna, Sweden

Photo: Allen Bush

Kiruna is located in Sweden’s far northeastern corner, 90 miles inside the Arctic Circle. The area is known for its rich iron ore and space research, but the nearby Ice Hotel, in the village Jukkasjärvi, put Kiruna on the winter tourist map.

The first guests arrived in 1992 and didn’t mind cocooning in a sleeping bag on top of a slab of ice covered in a reindeer skin, with room temperatures of 23 F (– 5 C). It seems a pity that this all begins to melt away in May, but a new hotel is constructed from ice every November. In March, over 10,000 tons of ice will be carved from the adjacent Torne River and stored in a refrigerated warehouse for the next season.

Except for my light-snoring English roommates and Houdini-like struggles to free myself from the sleeping bag and dash-off-off to a warm bathroom half a football field away, I slept like a baby in the ice room. A hotel worker awakened us early in the morning with camp-counselor good cheer, bringing warm cups of lingonberry juice, poured from a backpack.  Breakfast followed with lingonberries and muesli.  We were ready for the day—all six and one-half sunlit hours. (Kiruna doesn’t see the break of day from December 12th – January 1st.)

imageReadying the dogsleds

Kiruna, Sweden

Photo: Allen Bush

The adventurers in Kiruna enjoy dog sledding in temperatures near 0 F (-18 C), hard winds blowing across the frozen river. So we outfitted in six layers of clothing,  looking like a cross between Star Wars storm troopers and Michelin tire men. Even so, it was hard to keep all digits warm. Our guides were sensible and stopped so that we could thaw-out and drink some steaming hot lingonberry. We went snowmobiling another day, stopping at a hut for a hearty lunch of reindeer, boiled carrots and potatoes, topped with lingonberries, and washed down with warm – you guessed it—lingonberry juice.

The northern lights came and went with such regularity that you could count the seconds between their coming and going.

Well, the northern lights didn’t come the night we hoped to see them in Abisko—an hour and half’s drive north of Kiruna. We got shutout.

“Should have been here last night,” northern lights guide Chad Blakley said. He showed us beautiful images from the night before, of green plumes darting all over the sky.  Our consolation was the barest white feathery wisp.  “Those are the northern lights,” a guide pointed-out, after we’d stood for an hour in blowing 30 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures. This barest confirmation was permission to go back to the warm bar.  A sweet liqueur made from cloudberries, Rubus chamaemorus, was offered as a one-time alternative to lingonberries.

imageChad Blakley and Aron Andersson seek some warmth with snowberry liquer

Abisko, Sweden

Photo: Allen Bush

I mentioned my trip and the northern lights to a few friends after returning home. Sightings, to my surprise, have even been made around the Ohio Valley and across Kentucky. John Hale remembered being awakened by his parents one winter’s night in the 1950s and seeing a color show from his home across the Ohio River in the knobs of New Albany, Indiana. He mentioned this to friends years later, who doubted the sight could be visible so far south of the North Pole. Hale researched archives and found that his memory had not played tricks on him.  And Lenore Crenshaw remembers seeing them in Monticello, Kentucky, her hometown, in the 1950s. Maybe Hale and Crenshaw were watching the same night? 

From now on, my eyes are peeled whenever I take the few paces to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I’ll be on the lookout, here in Kentucky, for the aurora borealis, the northern goddess of dawn. As for lingonberries:  I can’t grow them this far south. The Louisville heat and humidity do them in.  But preserves sit on a shelf at Burgers Grocery, just up the street.  I am now well stocked.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/18 at 01:45 PM


I think I ate lingonberry jam on toast when I was in Munich last fall.  If you live near an IKEA, you can order Swedish meatballs with lingonberry preserve at its restaurant!

Posted by Georgia on 02/22 at 09:14 PM

Thanks, Georgia. My work colleagues in Germany are big on lingonberries. They like them served-up with pork and venison and said they help improve digestion. Seems there are all sorts of other health benefits, too…
I’m working on my second jar of preserves!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/23 at 11:24 AM
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