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.
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