Rhododendron City

Rhododendrons in Bergen  2013 (photo: Mathew Reeve)

Rhododendrons in Bergen 2013 (photo: Mathew Reeve)

Bergen is one of the wettest cities in northern Europe where normal winters are mild, damp and grey. When spring finally comes along, some deep-rooted immigrants ensure an explosion of color only previously seen in distant lands. Bergen bursts into an array of purple, white, red, cream, yellow and pink. The town is bewitched from its winter melancholy thanks to one type of plant: the Rhododendron. With so many colors from so many varieties, it is easy to understand why some people call Bergen, the Rhododendron City!

The Rhododendron is not native to Norway’s west coast. In fact, it travelled many thousands of kilometers, and passed through several different countries to get here, legally or otherwise. The Rhododendron’s in Bergen owe their existence to a mixture of scientific curiosity, past trends and the inhospitable climate.

On a scientific note, the plant seems to have held the interest of Bergen botanists as far back as 1787, when a Bergen botanist by the name of Martin Vahl discovered the variety Rhododendron lapponicum at Lomseggen. This variety was not suited for the coastal climate and needed much colder temperatures than Bergen could offer. In the decades that followed, especially in the mid-1800’s, the Rhododendron truly became a plant of fashion.

The rich people of Bergen took a strong liking to the plant and in well-to-do neighborhoods like Kalfaret and Nygårdshøyden, the plant flourished. The customs register from this time shows that most plants were imported via Hamburg. Some people also suspect that successful business men were smuggling plants with them on the ships when returning from business trips in the UK.

Even though these plants were imported from European countries, many varieties are originally from the distant slopes of the Chinese Himalyas. Harald Kåtveidt is the President of the Norwegian Rhododendron Union and he told me that the varieties that feel at home in Bergen are harvested from an altitude of 3000 m in the Himalayas. That’s where the climate starts to become similar to the one we experience on Norways west coast. According to the University of Bergen, the Rhododendrons in Bergen need a humid and mild climate so it’s not surprisingly that it also thrives in places like Edinburgh in Scotland. Bergen is also a well suited because its soil is slightly acidic with pH’s of between 4.5 and 5.5; perfect for the Rhododendron.

Even more Rhododendrons in Bergen 2013 (photo: Mathew Reeve)

Even more Rhododendrons in Bergen 2013 (photo: Mathew Reeve)

So the Rhododendron is one of the few visitors to Bergen’s shores that appreciates the climate. However, it is clear that different varieties have different thresholds, and prefer very different climates. If Rhododendron varieties do not thrive in a particular climate then it is an art to cross varieties and develop new varieties that do. Barrie Porteous tells the story of how plants were developed to withstand the blisteringly hot summers and frigidly cold winters of Toronto, Canada.

Even though it was a plant of fashion from the 1850’s, it wasn’t until Rolf Nordhagen, Bergen University’s second Botany professor visited Britain in the 1920’s that Bergen really started to make its mark in the Rhododendron world. Nordhagen came home with lots of ideas and plants. He crossed varieties and started to fill the University Garden to capacity. Rolf Nordhagen is referred to as the person who encouraged the ‘Rhododendron-wave’ in Norway in the first half of the last century.

The main collection of Rhododendrons has always been at the University (Musehagen), where many of Nordhagens original plants can still be found. However, after a while they soon ran out of space. In 1971 businessman Fritz C. Rieber (a real ‘rhodoholic’) donated the money needed to build the arboretum in the city center. Outside these more official locations, you can see Rhododendrons all over town. However you’re running out of time this year. The petals are already drooping!

The Rhododendron in Bergen helps brighten up the whole city every spring. It is a truly well-travelled plant with passport stamps to make even the hardened backpacker envious.  So next time you notice these colorful plants, spare a thought for pioneering botanists, dishonest businessmen and not least our wet, grey climate!

 

Thanks to Harald Kåtveidt and Terhi Pousi of the Norwegian Rhododendron Union for their input. Find out more about the organisation at www.rhododendron.no

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Mathew Stiller-Reeve

I am a postdoc researcher at Uni Research Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I research the monsoon in Bangladesh and I am the founder of ClimateSnack; an community that hopes to give all young and early career climate scientists an opportunity to practice and improve their scientific communication skills.

Latest posts by Mathew Stiller-Reeve (see all)

  • Angus

    Great article Mathew, flows really well and I especially like the sentence mentioning passport stamps! One thing to watch though is apostrophes: no for plurals (one rhododendron, two rhododendrons), yes for ownership (Bergen’s shore, Norway’s coast). “Its” is an exception to the second rule, which you used correctly (its winter melancholy). Some readers are quite judgemental about this sort of thing so it’s worth getting it right!

    • Thanks for your feedback Angus! I hope the article has been altered correctly.

  • F. Ahmed

    A different type of marvellous article Mathew! Flower, City and Climate! I also like the sentence mentioning “Passport Stamps”!
    A general observation- perhaps in most of the countries of the world, plantation of rare and different tree or flower species flourished rapidly with the assistance and aesthetic sense of some rich people, though contribution of the Botanists are not negligible. However, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a wonderful garden was established in 1909 by a landlord, Narendra Narayan Roy. He named the garden “Baldha Garden” after the state of Baldha (during the British period). The garden has two section- “Psyche” and “Cybele”. Psyche is for rare local and exotic plants with aesthetic and economic importance, like ‘Aloe’, ‘Cycas’ and so on. On the other hand, the Cybele is quite rich with the collection of arboretum plants like ‘Orchids’, ‘Aroids’, etc. It is also mentionable that our great poet Rabindranath Tagore (a Bengali Polymath) also spent sometime in the ‘Joy House’ (a bungalow) of the Baldha Garden and wrote his famous poem ‘Camellia’ after seeing Camellia flowers blooming in the garden! The Rhododendron City might have the same type of story!

    • Mathew Reeve

      Thank you for these interesting and colourful insights. I will have to visit the Baldha Garden when I am next in Dhaka.

  • Carbomontanus

    We have severe “Isbrann” dammage to Rhododendron, Callula vulgaris, Juniperus communis, crippled pine Pinus mugo and oak near Oslo this year. Surpizingly, Vitis vinifera , apples, hasel, Buxus sempervirens and roses are not hurt.

    But the common large and red Rhododendron shoots and flowers well from “burnt” and naked twigs.

    Rhododendron lapponicum is rather easily found also well south of Lomseggen if you know where to look.

    We passed over the Alps by bcar and went out to look on the top. I found 2 Rhododendrons. One rather similar to E. Lapponicum just a bit larger, and a next one rather an Asalea.

    Then we have Finnmarkspors, Ledum palustre according to my book, which is also a Rhododendron.
    So they are hardy.

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