I am standing in a greenhouse in Sweden, gazing at a tree. Small and shrublike, with long green leaves, it doesn’t look particularly special – but this tree is the last of its kind. Called Sophora toromiro, it is a species that grew on the Polynesian paradise of Easter Island. But by the time European settlers arrived on the island in the 1700s, rampant deforestation had transformed the island into a wasteland, and the “Easter Island tree” had become almost extinct. In the Fifties, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl gathered a handful of seeds from the island and donated them to the Botanical Garden of Gothenburg.
Today, though extinct in the wild, this tree is thriving, and every spring Swedes gather to watch its flowers burst into bloom. The Easter Island tree is just one of the horticultural treasures that Gothenburg has to offer. Long neglected by tourists in favour of Stockholm, this coastal city has become increasingly popular with Britons in recent years, in large part because of its garden scene.
Every summer, people flock to attend the Gothenburg Green World festival, during which temporary gardens blossom all over the city (the theme this year is “Green and Grand City”). It is said that there are 175 square metres of green space for every citizen. Gardening in Sweden is no easy task: with those long nights and nippy temperatures, the temptation to curl up indoors with a cinnamon bun and a crime drama is strong.
But the Swedes’ love of nature is even stronger. “Unusually for a botanical garden, ours was inaugurated by a city, rather than a university,” Anders Stalhand, the head gardener, tells me. “With around 16,000 plants, we are a sort of gene bank. But the atmosphere for the public is just as important as the science work we do – we want everyone to be able to come in and enjoy the garden.”
He is particularly passionate about a project called “Green Rehab”, in which people on long-term sick leave caused by stress and depression are brought into the garden to walk, talk and help tend it. “The success rate for getting the participants back to work is 97 per cent,” he says.
It’s little surprise that the locals find the Botanical Garden so relaxing; at 170 hectares, it’s one of the largest in Europe. There is the picturesque rock garden, with its dramatic waterfall; the fragrant walkway through the pinetum; and a vast collection of dionysias – tiny alpines from Central Asia, in a kaleidoscope of colours. But the most charming aspect of the garden is that only 40 hectares are cultivated. The rest is rugged wilderness, where the locals can walk, jog and cycle. “The balance between wildness and nature is very important to us,” says Stalhand. “We don’t want it to feel too tamed.”
A love of naturalistic planting is a recurring feature in the city. The Garden Society of Gothenburg is one of the best-preserved 19th-century parks in Europe. With a greenhouse modelled on Kew Gardens’ Palm House (the structure was shipped from Britain) and a rose garden, it has a distinctly old-fashioned feel. But last year the city invited British horticultural experts James Hitchmough and Phil Askew, who oversaw the planting at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, to create a wilder look.
Formal flower beds have been replaced with alliums and grasses, as well as exotic plants not seen in conventional 19th-century gardens, such as yuccas. The overall effect is exciting – a historic garden reinvented for the 21st century. On the outskirts of the city is another historic garden undergoing major change – though this one is looking back rather than forward. Gunnebo House and Garden was built in the 18th century for a wealthy banker.
Today, the estate is open to the public, and head gardener Joakim Seiler is obsessed with restoring the baroque garden to its glory days. In 2016, he completed a seven-metre-high arbour, based on 18th-century drawings of the garden. Now he has moved on to rebuilding a lost orangery. The building is still under construction, but he has already converted two areas outside into orangery parterres, filled with lemon, orange and even pomelo trees. “We found the original plant list for the orangery, dating back to 1810,” he says. “There are lots of unusual varieties: back then, the more strange citruses looked, the more valuable they seemed to be. The owners wanted curled leaves and oddly shaped fruits to show off to their guests.”
It is not only in the parks and gardens that Gothenburg’s love of horticulture shines through. Wandering through the streets at dusk, I notice how many restaurants have installed vast pots of colourful flowers outside. Land art – works of art created using natural materials – is also everywhere. My favourite is a dramatic floating cloud of bamboo, created by Japanese artist Tetsunori Kawana for 2016’s Green World, which stands outside the city’s theatre. “We didn’t want the sculpture to be in a park – we wanted it to be part of the fabric of the city,” Kawana tells me. “The colour changes minute by minute, as the bamboo dries. I want the public to appreciate nature shifting before their eyes.”
Even Gothenburg’s main attraction, the theme park of Liseberg, places as much emphasis on flowers and foliage as it does on Ferris wheels and flumes. Creative director David Schofield (yet another Briton persuaded to lend the city his green fingers) guides me through various “rooms” his team have opened, including “The Forbidden Garden” – a playful collection of poisonous and medicinal plants – and “Emily’s Garden”: a Victorian-style garden with a carousel at its heart, surrounded by pink roses and purple salvias.
Everywhere you look, there is greenery; on one roller coaster, there are flower beds that almost brush your cheek as you hurtle past at 100mph. “People don’t come to Liseberg for the gardens – but if you took them away, they would miss them,” says Schofield. “It’s the same for the city as a whole. So many cities take away all the green. But nature enhances our experience. It makes this theme park, and Gothenburg, special.” It might be all the cinnamon rolls talking, but I can’t help but agree.
For more information, visit the Gothenburg Tourist Centre