Photo by Melody

A Garden Like no Other

By Larry Rettig (LarryRDecember 10, 2009

This is the time of year when thoughts turn to colder weather. Gardens (and gardeners) hunker down for the coming winter. Outbreaks of cold air swoop down from the Arctic, that land of perpetual ice and snow...

Gardening picture


 Garden in




Located at almost 70 degrees north, 217 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the
Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden in Tromsø is by far the northernmost botanical garden in the world (see map at end of article).  But it's not forever snow- and ice-bound.  A branch of the Gulf Stream sweeps along the coast of northern Norway and imparts a moderating influence on the weather.

The warmer Gulf waters provide the city of Tromsø and its environs with relatively mild winters, the average winter high hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Snow generally accumulates from October to April and usually has melted by mid-May.   Summers are cool, with average highs in the mid-50s.

Daylight is another important weather factor for gardens this far north.  From mid-May until the end of July, the sun never sets completely.  Theoretically, the potential average hours of sunshine during this period is 680.  That number is mitigated by cloudy weather, so the actual average is about 200 hours.  However, even when it's cloudy, there is still daylight, which has a positive impact on plants.  Not only do they grow more rapidly than their counterparts further south, but their blossoms tend to be larger and, thanks to the cool temperatures, the colors are much brighter.

The Garden opened in 1994 and is located on the grounds of an old farmstead that covers about four acres.  In 1947 the last owner of the farm willed it to Troms County, in which Tromsø is located.  Today this acreage houses the Garden, the Tromsø Museum, and most of the University of Tromsø.  The Garden is open to the public from late May to early October.  There is no entrance fee.

Arctic and alpine plants from all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres inhabit the Garden, but many other species more familiar to gardeners in temperate regions of the world have found a happy home here as well.  Among them are buttercups, campanulas, columbines, crocuses, various herbs, ligularias, lilies, pinks, primulas, and rhododendrons.

The thousands of species and cultivars that the Garden displays are arranged by geographic area and grouped by botanical association.  Helping to divide and separate the various plant collections are gravel paths, rocky outcroppings, and other natural elements of the terrain.  A unique feature, not found in other botanical gardens, marries botany with geology.  All types of naturally occurring rock are identified with markers.  Even the Garden entrance is surrounded by labeled rock specimens and interpretive signs.

While it's not possible to take you on a real live tour of the garden--and even then it would be covered by a blanket of snow at this time of year--I'll do the next best thing and give you a brief photo tour.  On your right is a series of photos from the various garden areas.  Below is some more information about Tromsø and links to information about plants named in this article.

                          The City

ImageFounded in 1794, Tromsø, with a population of about 60,000, is often called "the gateway to the Arctic."  It's here that many explorers and adventurers have launched expeditions to the North Pole.  Not only is it home to the northernmost botanical garden, but also to a university, a brewery, and a cathedral, all situated farther north than any others in the world.

Much of the city, including the downtown area, is located on a small island in the Tromsø harbor.   The Tromsø Bridge connects the island to the mainland.

ImageDowntown Tromsø is known for its large number of wooden buildings, the oldest dating from 1789.  The most famous downtown landmark, though, is the Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.  It was designed by Jan Inge Hovig and is often called "the opera house of Norway," in reference to the famous Opera House in Sydney, Australia.




ImageEstablished in 1968, the University of Tromsø is one of seven universities in Norway and the largest in north Norway.  Its location makes it a natural for studying the local environment and the region's culture and society.  Specific research areas include the Arctic environment, biotechnology, space science, fishery science, multi-cultural societies, social medicine, and auroral light studies.

ImageTromsø is also noted for its central location in the Northern Lights Zone.  It's one of the best places in the world to observe the Aurora Borealis.  This exotic and well-known phenomenon forms about 60 miles high in the sky and is due to electrons colliding with air particles and lighting them up.

Because of the Earth's rotation, the lights are visible from about 6:00 PM until around midnight and then only between August and April, when there is darkness.  There is too much daylight during the rest of the year.

                                     Tromsø in perpetual night

                          Tromsø in snow (view from mainland to island)

                                    Tromsø Location



                                                                            Martin Hajman
16.  Sorbus koehneana (fall color and fruit)

                                                                            Kristian Nyvoll
17.  The Garden in winter

For more information on the plants mentioned in this article, please click on the plant name in the list below:

Saxifraga x arendsii
Gentiana bavarica
Pulsatilla rubra
Rhododendron chamae-thomsonii
Meconopsis grandis

Astrantia major
Delosperma basuticum
Primula marginata
Campanula thyrsoides
Papaver alpinum
Diascia anastrepta
Sorbus koehneana 


It is with much gratitude that I thank Kristian Nyvoll, Arctic-Alpine Botanic Garden, for his generosity in offering spectacular photos free of charge from his own personal collection and from the collections of his colleagues Brynhild Mørkved and Martin Hajman.

Initial garden photo courtesy of Brynhild Mørkved

Bridge photo,  cathedral photo, university photo, northern lights photo and Tromsø in snow photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Thanks to Hanneke Luijting for her beautiful perpetual night photo


Questions? Comments?  Please scroll down to the form below.  I enjoy hearing from my readers!

Click HERE for a text only version of this article. 



From the Garden Collections

                                        Brynhild Mørkved
1. A grouping of summer perennials along one of the garden paths

                                                      Brynhild Mørkved
2. A collection of
 perennials surrounds the Hansine Hansen farmhouse

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
3. The European Alpine Collection

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
4. A stunning planting of Saxifraga x arendsii

    Individual Specimens

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
7.  Gentiana bavarica

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
8.  Pulsatilla rubra

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
9. Rhododendron chamae-thomsonii

                                                           Kristian Nyvoll
10. The lovely Meconopsis grandis  is a true sky blue.

                                                      Hanneke Luijting
11.  Astrantia major

                                                           Martin Hajman

12.  Delosperma basuticum

                                                           Martin Hajman
13.  Primula marginata

                                                           Martin Hajman
14.  Campanula thyrsoides (foreground)Papaver alpinum (orange poppy, center)

                                                           Martin Hajman
15.  Diascia anastrepta

© Larry Rettig 2009


  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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