Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gunnebo - the ultimate riches to rags in less than a generation

Gunnebo from the south side facing the formal French gardens with bosquets surrounded by lime alleys.

At first sight, Gunnebo's looks are utterly deceiving. Like a shining pearl, this petite 18th century palace stands on top of a ridge, forming a perfect centre point to its well-manicured, French-inspired gardens leading away along north and south facing axes. But in all its minute perfectness, Gunnebo really is a memorial to a love story that went awfully wrong; a mistress that seduced and held its masters captured until all their means were exhausted.

The terraced entrance garden facing north. Originally, Gunnebo's orangery and greenhouses contained over 100 lemon-, bitter lemon and orange trees, almond, mulberry, bay and olive trees, 125 pineapples grown in containers and over 200 species of other exotic plants. All these were the first to perish after John Hall Jr.'s bankruptcy. Today, some of the species are displayed on the terraces. 

Gunnebo was built as a summer residence for John Hall Sr. (1735-1802), a son of a British immigrant who became a successful Gothenburg merchant; for some time, he was one of the wealthiest men in Sweden. After acquiring the lands of Gunnebo in 1778 he gave Carl Wilhelm Carlberg, then the town architect of Gothenburg, completely free hands to design everything from the house, utility buildings and gardens to the smallest interior details as door handles and flower pots.
Clearly a dream commission for any architect, Carlberg embarked on a creative frenzy seldom experienced in the usually simplicity-loving Scandinavia. He had just returned from a lengthy visit to central Europe full of inspiration and ideas, and in Gunnebo, he got a unique chance to put all of them in practice. Especially fond of the Palladian villas of Italy and gardens of Louis XIV in France, he held them as model at Gunnebo despite the huge difference in scale. No expenses were saved; with strict attention to detail and workmanship, Carlberg hired the carpenters and craftsmen, overlooked the building work and even paid their wages.

The beautiful kitchen gardens and utility buildings were reconstructed in the 1990s according to Carlberg's original drawings. The produce is used at the excellent restaurant housed in the yellow building in the first picture, worth even a longer trip to visit.   

Twenty four years later in 1802, John Hall Sr. died without seeing Gunnebo being finished. Up till then, over 600 000 riksdaler had been spent on it, and the costs were still running with no end in sight. As a comparison, Carlberg's annual salary was 150 riksdaler; the head gardener of Gunnebo had to make with 50 riksdaler a year. Christina Hall, John Sr.'s wife, wrote already in 1794 to a friend how the project was draining their resources, and just five years after John Sr.'s death, his son John Hall Jr. (1771-1830), a bohemian and artistic man without any business skills, was declared bankrupt. Still a wealthy man and equally obsessed with Gunnebo as his father, he tried to regain it through several unsuccessful lawsuits and eventually became destitute in the process. John Hall Jr. spent the last years of his life begging and wandering around the streets of Stockholm; in the end, his worn out and threadbare body was found in a roadside gutter of the city centre.

The orangery, also reconstructed in the 1990s after drawings from beginning of the 19th century. The kitchen gardens are planted creatively to provide both produce and to be visually attractive. Here cardoons and marigolds mingle together. 
Soon after the bankruptcy, Gunnebo fell into deep decay. The luxurious plants in its orangery and greenhouses died, the ponds of the gardens grew over and its windows crashed in the storms; a contemporary eyewitness described it as a 'living corpse". The fast fall from immense riches to the deepest misery attracted visitors from afar and the dilapidated house with its overgrow gardens became a popular attraction in Gothenburg. In 1832, what remained of Gunnebo was sold on auction for 6786 riksdaler to a new owner. In 1948, the city of Mölndal bought Gunnebo. In 1990s, it went through an extensive restoration and reconstruction, meticulously executed after Carlberg's original drawings and carried through with authentic 18th century methods and materials.

Magnificent stairs lead from the house to the formal gardens on the south side, a pool with a fountain and clipped lime trees act as a end to the central axis. The formal style of Gunnebo was considered old-fashioned already when it was being built; surprisingly, the English landscape garden style that otherwise was all the rage during that time made no impact in Carlberg despite his spending over a year in the country during his travels.
I visited Gunnebo with my family for the first time in 2006. Initially, I had difficulties in comprehending what had gotten such a talented business man as John Hall Sr. to spend so much on something that gave him nothing in return? And his artistic son to hold on to something as material as a house and a garden, instead of letting it go and living a comfortable life secured by the means he had inherited? 

During that visit, we ended up in the middle of a 18th century enactment, complete with children dressed in period clothes and a battle taking place on the otherwise bucolic fields of the English park behind the French terraces and bosquets of the formal gardens. The buildings had only just been finished according to the original drawings and specifications from the original period. Usually, I am a real 'ruin romantic'; I love the patina and decay that only real passing of time can generate, so I was uncertain what to think about this gleaming building with its manicured gardens. But instead of longing for the patina, Gunnebo's polished state made me feel I was transferred to the time of its first owners, who sadly never saw it finished. I could understand, or maybe more feel, what had seduced the Halls - both Senior and Junior - so badly that they never recovered. Gunnebo was, and now again is, the perfect little palace (really too small to be called as such), an escapist dream inspired by the southern latitudes of Europe, landed amongst the northern forests and shores of Sweden. A folly, yes, but a beautiful one.

One of the few places at Gunnebo where the passing of time is evident...

We all dream, and in our gardens, we often express those dreams with the choices we make. And maybe that is why Gunnebo still manages to captivate us with its charms, two hundred years after it was originally built. It was and still is the ultimate dream its first owners, and simply by being that it resonates with the dreams that we all bear inside us, whatever the final outcome.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I can almost smell the coffee...

A bit of nostalgia: I just stumbled upon this picture from our garden in Sweden. This is where I used to take my morning coffee on the old wooden bench, gazing at the sprinkles of sun reflected by the nearby waves and listening to the hum of the tireless little bees working through the lavender. I find it curious that I thought there was so much to do, so much to improve in this garden... Now, three years later, I would be happy if everything would just be as it was when I left. A good lesson, I guess.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Porphyry vase: the most absurd garden element in Sweden?

A light-hearted Friday post about what I think is the wackiest garden element in Sweden: the huge Porphyry vase in the gardens of the Rosendal Palace on the island of Djurgården in Stockholm. This 5 meter high tazza was commissioned by King Charles XIV John of Sweden, a Napoleon's Marchal who became a King of Sweden (his might be one of the most successful careers on record). It was carved out of a single 140 tonne piece of granite from the King's mines in Älvdalen i northern Dalarna. After two years of meticulous carving and polishing, the finished piece weighing 9 tonnes was transported to Stockholm with the help of 100 strong men, tens of draft horses and a fiddler (nice touch, the last!).

I'm sure psychologists and political scientists could elaborate in length about the King's motives to produce this huge statement; boasting about the natural resources and skillful subjects of his newly acquired kingdom surely were two, and self-aggrandizement certainly still another of them. Despite countless fountains and sculptures of all forms and sizes in Swedish parks and gardens, the Porphyry vase still holds an unique position amongst them. In way, it is completely out of scale and it has no function whatsoever. It just stands in the middle of a circular island of lawn, its base adorned with flowerbeds of dubious beauty. In my eyes it would have made much more sense as a fountain with water running down its scalloped rim; all it had needed was a large basin below.

All the same, I find the Porphyry vase handsome and almost deliberating in its massive, classicistic grandeur so far away from all moderation and self-restraint that usually are the preferred virtues of the Swedish society. I mean, there is so much beautiful art, architecture and gardens in that country, from harmonious 18th century interiors to airy modernist creations and contemporary sleek Scandinavian design. But as much I love it all, sometimes all that "good taste" (I'm well aware of the relativity of the concept) makes me crave for a bit of craziness. And that is where I think the Porphyry vase comes into the picture; with its gigantic size, it provides a vital touch of the slightly absurd and out-of-scale in the middle of the well-tempered beauty of Djurgården.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rewinding to early spring at Mount Rainier

Just a couple of pictures from our recent hike on the slopes of Mount Rainier, 1,5 hours drive south of Seattle. Not very experienced hikers of this iconic mountain in Washington state, we didn't undertake any treacherous mountain climbing expedition, but a relatively easy hike to a nearby top with amazing views of the ice-covered Rainier.

Arriving at the trail head at some 5700 feet above the sea level, we were  immediately transferred from late summer back to early spring. As the first half of this summer had been the coldest on record, snow still covered the north-facing slopes, forcing us to climb over man-high mounds while tracing the constantly disappearing trail through the forests. Despite the cold, an amazing botanical variety greeted us: glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) peeked through the snow and filled the melting meadows at sunnier glades and thrifts of the American false hellebore (Veratrum viride) pushed towards the sun at the mountain sides. At the top, tiny penstemons (pink P. davidsonii and blue P. procerus) and western pasqueflowers (Anemone occidentalis) popped up from the the gravel-covered steep ground like small, delicate jewels.

Glacier lily pushing through snow; western pasqueflower; American false hellebore.

I love alpine plants, but I've never been a great fan of man-made rock or alpine gardens. I find them too artificial, as they usually are awkwardly filled with boulders to simulate the extreme conditions that these tough but discriminating plants need to survive (I'm not talking here of rock gardens on natural cliffs - they can be simply stunning). To really appreciate the resilient beauty and hardiness of these tinies, they need to be seen amongst the rocks, snow and hard winds of the mountain sides where they originally grow. But that would deny access to them for many plant lovers, so I understand why botanical gardens around the world keep building their alpine gardens despite often being close to sea-level.

Phlox caespitosa; unidentified little bellis-like plant; Penstemon davisonii.

In private gardens, I seldom think it is a good idea to compose mini-Matterhorns or Mount Rainiers to grow alpines. Instead of engaging in that kind of "make-believe", growing them in stone troughs and planters mulched with small gravel is so much more beautiful and stylish, allowing easy access to the small plants by lifting them to the eye level (Vita's old troughs with alpines in Sissinghurst are an excellent example of this). As I love alpine plants, I decided adding a "Mount Rainier alpine collection" somewhere on my garden in Sweden as a reminder of these majestic slopes. There are great cliffs already, so just need to find  a couple of old stone troughs to be used as a focal point...

It is impossible to create better alpine displays than these found on the slopes of Mount Rainier, but I still would love to have a couple of old stone troughs with some of these gems.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Still not giving up on Pehr Kalm's Sipsalo...

A large oak stands in the far end of Pehr Kalm's experimental garden in Sipsalo; supposedly, it formed the end of the central axis of the garden. A long vertical scar runs through its trunk, so it was propably struck by lightning when young.

As some of you might know, Pehr Kalm's Sipsalo, the farm where he cultivated seeds from his botanical voyage to North America in 1748-51, was sold in late July for a new owner who wants to remain private. The Green Party has made an appeal for the city of Turku to use its pre-emptive right to buy the property, which is now being examined further. However culturally interested the new owner might be, in private hands we do lose a major opportunity for research and cultural exchange that otherwise could have taken place in Sipsalo. (To read about our passionate effort to save this 18th century garden for future generations, please start here.)

The main house at Sipsalo where Kalm worked; Siberian crab apples, Malus baccata: a large old Malus baccata that Carl Linnaeus loved still stands on the grounds of his farm called Hammarby in Sweden. He got the seeds from Finnish natural historian Eric Laxman, who served as a clergyman in Siberia in 1765. Could Kalm's trees be of the same origin?

Just before Sipsalo was sold, I made a summer excursion there with Katri Sarlund and Kalle Euro, who have both been very much involved in the project. During our short visit, we managed to find many plants directly connected to both Linnaeus and Kalm in the lush, jungle-like gardens. Only a plant detective with proper DNA-analyzing equipment could tell if these plants originate from Kalm's American seed collections or from Linnaeus' botanical gardens in Hammarby, but with their botanical and historical connections, I found it extremely exciting to find them growing in the middle of the neglected Sipsalo. 

The stables just outside Kalm's garden are from the 1930s and could be used as an excellent space for research and exhibitions; Amelanchier canadensis was on Kalm's original list of seeds that he brought from North America in 1751. Could these struggling self-seeded whips that we found in the garden be great-grandchildren of those seeds?

An old thicket of Siberian pea tree, Caragana arborecens, grows near the house in Sipsalo; Linnaeus had some growing in Hammarby, too. He was concerned about the large amount of trees cut down to build fences, and preferred living fences planted with these thorny shrubs.  

Crataegus coccinea (now C. flabellata var. grayana) was also on Pehr Kalm's list of seeds he imported from North America. Small plants grow abundantly in the woods of Sipsalo.

Musk strawberry, Fragaria moschata, and sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, are two plants that were commonly grown in gardens in the 18th century. Musk strawberries grow into large plants with hairy leaves, but they need both male and female plants to produce their delicious fruit, so they were replaced by new hybrids of the garden strawberry (F. x ananassa) in the 19th century. The scented leaves and stems of sweet cicely have been used for medicine and cooking. Musk strawberries and sweet cicely thrive also in the glades of Linnaeus' Hammarby, and maybe Linnaeus used them to treat his gout, as both plants were used to cure it in his time.

Roseroot, Rhodiola rosea, grows wild in Lappland, and Linnaeus used its Swedish name 'rosenrot' in 1755. It was used as a cure for arthritis and headache, and got its name after its roots, which could be destilled to produce rose-scented oils and waters.

Several huge old Salix purpurea and Salix viminalis grow in Sipsalo, planted in a similar manner as some Salix bushes at Hammarby. There is evidence that Kalm got cuttings from Linnaeus in 1771 (mentioned in a letter), and these bushes could be those same cuttings that have survived the time.

As you understand, I want to remain optimistic about the city of Turku acquiring Sipsalo, even if I feel that there might be little hope for it. Seeing what a national treasure Linnaeus' Hammarby is in Sweden, it would be highly regrettable to miss the chance of creating a similar monument for the history of botany, culture and science in Turku. I hope the decision makers will wake up, now.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recreating your paradises: Ornö - Chelsea

One of the most captivating views of my vacation was this field of barley, grown as fodder for the sheep of the beautiful island of Ornö near Stockholm. Like sparkling sapphires emerging from a feathery sea, bright cornflowers filled the stony soil between soft mounds of bedrock, blissfully oblivious to the fact that weed-free, roundup-ready seed for barley has ever been invented... The golden greens and radiant blues were stunning in their simplicity, shimmering against a background of leaden greys and greens provided by the surrounding cliffs and forests.
While contemplating how hard the elysian look of natural meadows is to recreate, I suddenly remembered  a picture that I snapped at the Chelsea Flower Show back in 2007. Somehow this tiny, highly-groomed show garden planted with Mexican feather grass and hot orange Potentillas managed to deliver an impression that resonated with the ancient agrarian fields of Ornö, despite their being each others complete opposites in purpose and execution, and even contrasting in colours. 

At their best, meadows are like grassy seas interlaced with flowers, large enough to be waded through to get that special feeling of paradise-like freedom that I think is so typical for them. Usually, to achieve their  natural, wild beauty, a fair amount of space and land is required. But sometimes, as the picture from Chelsea shows, miniature meadows can work like gem-like icons, conveying in a condensed form all the qualities of a larger meadow. 
I'll keep this pair of pictures in my mind; I find them completely fascinating. And maybe, a mini-Ornö will appear somewhere in my garden one day. You never know.

Special greetings to my dear friend Yvonne, with whom I've wandered through both show gardens in Chelsea and barley fields at Ornö...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A little pat on my own back...

Just have to share this with you... a day before leaving for Scandinavia, the summer issue of Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin came out, carrying my first published article here in the US. My article was about the Otways Rainforests in South-Eastern Australia, and the cover - a photo of mine - depicted old giant myrtle beeches that have grown in the area since all continents were joined as the supercontinent of Gondwana.
Since the 1930s, many prominent botanists, horticulturalists and other garden professionals have contributed to this quarterly journal. As you can imagine, I am extremely honoured to have been included in it. And now, after patting myself on the back a little, I need to get back to work with the next article, which will be about the Garden of Souls at the Utopian Heights in Seattle... 

Gathering thoughts, chasing words...

If there would be one single picture to describe the last four weeks, it would be the one above. Despite being back at home in Seattle for over a week now, I'm still trying to gather my thoughts to scribble down one single post on my blog.
Not being connected is completely addictive. Just being present in one's own, slow-paced life, and not skimming through the ever-changing virtual reality of the net. I think I even heard my own thoughts for a while, and listened to them, too.
Swimming amongst waterlilies, picking some blueberries and chanterelles, and just enjoying the calm stillness of the Scandinavian summer. Complete bliss. Now I just need to wake up and find the way back to my words again.