JARS v58n1 - Sofiero - A Royal Garden

Sofiero - A Royal Garden
Borje Malmgren
Malmoe, Sweden

Translated by Alan Duncanson
Genarp, Sweden

Sofiero Castle Garden lies in Sweden (a kingdom for more than a thousand years) situated between the 55th and 69th latitudes in North-Western Europe. The country is one of the largest in Europe, covering an area of some 450,000 square kilometers. The population is almost 9 million. Compared to the North American continent, Sweden's position on the map would be the equivalent of stretching from the northern part of James Bay to Victoria Island, or all of the area of northern Canada. Another comparison would be that Stockholm, approximately 600 kilometers from Sweden's south coast, lies on the same latitude as southern Greenland.

It is then perhaps not surprising that Sweden is, in foreign press, more or less jokingly, described as a country in which Eskimos and polar bears freely roam the streets! This is obviously not meant seriously, but the description could have been quite correct.

That this is not the case depends on the fact that we have a warm ocean current, the Gulf Stream, sweeping past the British Isles and the northwest coast of Europe. This doesn't mean that we have the same temperature levels throughout the country. It becomes colder and more barren the further north you travel. The distance, in relation to the open sea and to the larger inland lakes, has too an important significance.

It wasn't so long ago that the South of Sweden Rhododendron Society became an integral part of the ARS. Sweden has, nevertheless, for centuries enjoyed a lively exchange with the North American continent, with for the most part the USA. I will therefore name a few important historical events.

During the 1800s and up until the start of the 1900s, more than a million Swedes immigrated to the USA, the main concentration of which settled in Minnesota. I can, among these immigrants, name Mr. John Eriksson, who came to the States in 1839. He was an important inventor, known mainly for his development of a new type of ship's propeller. This was installed in, among others, the armored ship Monitor, which via its famous victory over the southern states' Merrimac made an important contribution during the American Civil War.

Sweden also had a world famous botanist, Carl von Linné (1706 – 1778) who in his great work Species Plantarum laid the foundations to the system of plant classification we use today. In this work was to be found five species of rhododendron and six species of azaleas, such as Rhododendron maximum and R. periclymenoides . One of Linné's pupils, Peter Kalm, lived for some years in North America, studying and researching new plants, which might be possible to cultivate in Sweden. This particular plant material included, among others, findings of "laurel trees," which Linné named Kalmia latifolia (state flower of both Connecticut and Pennsylvania) and Kalmia angustifolia , both of which were named after Peter Kalm.

Rhododendrons can be successfully cultivated as far north as the 60th latitude. The coastal areas and those within 50 kilometers of the inland lakes offering the best conditions, these becoming more and more favorable the further south you travel. Further north, the cultivation of only extremely frost hardy plants can occur, primarily in coastal areas. Perhaps it should be said that Sweden has two native wild species, Rhododendron lapponicum , which can be found in the northernmost arctic areas and R. tomentosum , found in the southern part of the country. As a curiosity I can mention that R. lapponicum cannot be grown where I live, (56th latitude) - it's too warm!

There are two larger, more comprehensive rhododendron complexes in Sweden. Firstly, Gothenburg Botanic Garden, which is well worth visiting, both for its contents and for its layout, situated in the heart of the city of Gothenburg. The total area is some 175 hectares, of which 15 hectares make up the actual botanical garden.

Secondly, Sofiero Castle Garden, situated just outside the city of Helsingborg, which is just across the sound of Oresund, opposite the Danish city of Helsingor. The garden has an area of some 15 hectares. Within Sweden there are approximately 1,000 organized society members cultivating rhododendrons, representing every type of layout from great park gardens to much smaller terraced town house gardens.

After this more general survey I would now like to concentrate on Sofiero Castle Garden and its magnificent rhododendron collection. But first let me wind back the clock, the history of the place being rather special.

The story of Sofiero began in 1864, when Crown Prince Oscar (later King Oscar II, reigned 1872-1907) and his wife Sofia allowed themselves the luxury of having built a summer castle at the point where the sound between Sweden and Denmark, Oresund, is at its smallest. The castle stands on a plateau with two natural ravines, one on each side, the two becoming one in front of and below the castle. The old monarch had no idea that the next owner would eventually transform this setting into something quite spectacular, the equal of which cannot be found anywhere in the northwestern part of Europe. There are no more than 4 kilometers across the nearby sound to Denmark, where Hamlet's castle Kronborg dominates the skyline.

Sofiero Castle In May-June the ravines explode
in colors
Sofiero Castle situated on the top of a slope covered
with rhododendrons, standing on a plateau between
two natural ravines, both joined together in a pond.
Photo by Christel Kvant
During May-June the ravines explode in colors
when thousands of rhododendrons emphasize its
magnificent  flowering.
Photo by Jorgen Schwartzkopf

In 1905 Oscar II gave Sofiero to his grandson, Gustav Adolf (later King Gustav Vl Adolf – reigned 1950-1973), and his wife Margareta as a wedding present. The marriage was blessed with five children and it became tradition for the family to spend its summers at Sofiero. Crown princess Margareta (daughter to the English Duke of Connaught) died far too young in 1920 and the King remarried three years later another English aristocrat, Louise Mountbatten.

Even after the second marriage the yearly summer visits to Sofiero continued. At this point in time, until 1950, his father, King Gustav V, reigned and Gustav Adolf bore the title of Crown Prince. Since the end of the First World War the King of Sweden has had no political power, but was instead made Head of State for the kingdom of Sweden. The monarchy has in Sweden a very substantial support amongst the Swedish people. As Head of State the King made, of course, regular contact with other State leaders from other countries.

Both of the American presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson visited the King at Sofiero and as far as I know he always took his special guests for a wander in the garden. His interest in the garden developed him into an absolute botanical and horticultural master scholar. He was also a very learned archeologist, focusing on Mediterranean cultures and with a keen interest in antique Chinese porcelain.

When the castle was acquired there was not much of a garden and apart from a large lawn in front of it, the rest was untouched nature surrounded by beech woods. Crown princess Margareta grew up at Bagshot Castle in Sussex, in the south of England. She had lived in a very distinguished horticultural environment combined with an education in the arts. She combined her knowledge of gardening with her burning interest in art and started and implemented several considerable garden projects that stand to this day as a stable foundation in the layout. She has described her work in two books, Our Garden at Sofiero and From the Flower Garden . She even created several paintings in both oil and in watercolour with views of Sofiero.

The first of Sofiero's rhododendron plants are thought to have been put in place in the deepest parts of the ravines in 1910-15. They have grown into a majestic copse and you can today wander via a constructed path under a roof of rhododendron foliage and flowers. The King's real interest in rhododendrons is perhaps more correctly dated around 1935-36. Why it became rhododendrons I do not know, but perhaps there is a natural explanation. Both of the ravines are deeply cut into the loose iron-rich slate. This is low in lime and porous and the crumbling earth consequently acid. In other words the ideal conditions for these acid-loving plants.

Ponds in the upper parts of the ravines gather rainwater, which then passes through the lower pond before reaching the Sound - the flow sometimes so great that drainage has had to be installed. The surrounding thinned out beech woods give protection and wandering shade, and down through the years they have dropped tons of leaves, which has in turn become the perfect humus. It is in these ravines that most of the rhododendrons grow. The many self-sown plants that have come up down through the years are proof enough that rhododendrons thrive in this place.

It was then from the mid-thirties that the King started to expand on his rhododendron interest and through time he became a considerable expert on the subject. He acquired ready-made plants, mainly from English nurseries and botanical gardens, but he also increased his collection from seeds and from cuttings. The cultivation process continued thereafter in the King's own nursery before the plants were added to the already existing beds.

The King was rather fond of the wild species and among them his special favorite was Rhododendron fortunei ssp. discolor , a plant that blooms in June-July with fragrant white flowers. He also planted very many hybrids, most of which were crossed by English cultivators. He would, however, take great pains to determine the parentage of each hybrid.

R. fortunei ssp. discolor
The King’s favorite, R. fortunei ssp. discolor , flowering during
June-July, fragrant, white to pale pink in trusses of 8-10.
Photo by Erik Liljeroth

The Second World War effectively stopped the import of plants to Sweden and there was the added problem of extremely cold winters during the first three years of the '40 s. During prolonged periods there were temperatures below –30°C and this of course caused much damage to the rhododendron collection. After the war the King started importing plants again and continued to propagate. One important change was that at this point the King started to register each and every plant - a written documentation of supplier, year of delivery, where possible seed collector, collection number, or alternatively which crosses had been made in hybrids, plus sowing and planting out dates. Every year thereafter the King recorded plant information mainly on flowering time, growth, hardiness and any eventual damage. Through time, irreplaceable material for future research was created.

To me (and almost everyone else) Sofiero was like a secret fortress, the whole park surrounded by a high stonewall, broken at one point by a black iron gate, only opened to the chosen few. This very closed situation changed though - I can't remember the exact date, but I would think it was in the '50s. The public was allowed access to the garden between 1pm and 2pm each day, the timing carefully chosen to coincide with the King and his family's lunch, which would be served and enjoyed indoors. One of my first visits was at the end of the '50s. It was here my interest for rhododendrons was born, a passion, which has almost become the leading light of my life. I was mostly interested in browsing in the nursery, where I could have a look at all of the wonderful species and hybrids, most of which had arrived from English nurseries such as Hydon, Hillier, Waterer, Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Apart from the plant label you could also find a delivery label addressed "To the King of Sweden." To find myself so intimately going through this material first hand almost made me feel an integrated part of the garden complex.

One important thing happened during a visit on the 13th of June 1970. I had arrived together with a delegation from Gothenburg with Dr. Harald Ahlander (founder and at that time Chairman of the Swedish Rhododendron Society) as leader. To everyone's surprise, but also immense joy, the King himself guided us round. Despite being almost 90 years old he displayed an amazing vitality and an impressive wealth of knowledge about cultivating rhododendrons.

The King obviously had several helpers under the leadership of the castle head gardener. He had the overall responsibility for both flower and vegetable gardens; the goal for the latter was to produce every necessary vegetable and fruit to the Royal family and to, above all, present them with the year's early vegetables as soon as possible. Even if the rhododendron family dominates the collection of flowering shrubs, Sofiero Castle Garden has large borders with many different perennials, roses and dahlias plus lots of bulbs, all of which are planted in big groups. Apart from the natural beech woods, you will also find a substantial collection of primarily exotic trees.

King Gustav VI Adolf working with notes
King Gustav VI Adolf working with notes in his files regarding his
collection of rhododendrons. By his side the Castle Head Gardener,
Mr. Ingvar Danielsson.
Photo by Erik Liljeroth

During his entire connection with Sofiero, the King had the great privilege of having the support of a truly inspired head gardener. The first one served from 1912–1960 and his successor until 1980, seven years after the death of the King. The third Castle head gardener upholds this honorable occupation to this day. Even when the King wasn't staying at Sofiero, he would have regular telephone and letter contact with the head gardener. The King would make a first visit for the year around the end of April - beginning of May, his summer visit proper starting after the Swedish National Day, the 6th of June. In doing so he unfortunately missed part of the flowering, although during his lifetime he did sometimes turn up earlier. He was continually at work planning new rhododendron beds, the last of which being implemented after his death.

After the death of the King, in 1973, the whole park and its buildings were donated to the city of Helsingborg, the collection including some 5,000 rhododendrons. The park was thereafter open to the public and an admission was taken. Some farmland and a fruit garden were sold off and the man in charge now was City Head Gardener Stig Billing. The park was looked after in the same way as before, but eventually ensued a lot of clearing work and new plantations. In order to make the whole complex more user friendly the paths were upgraded and in the ravines a few trees were felled, some of which had become, in relation to the rhododendron beds, far too big. A rather substantial new plantation took place especially in the south ravine's eastern part. The documentation and labeling the King had built up did not continue with the result that most of the labeling disappeared. The first floor of the castle was turned into a café, a change that was not a success.

As the park also has very large open lawns, it has, since the late '70s even been used for music concerts, both rock and classic, hound exhibitions and veteran car meetings. A decision was taken in the early ‘90s to enlarge the parking area and to build a more inviting admission gate.

In 1993 Ole Anderson took up the post of new City Head Gardener. The plans for the new gate and parking area were implemented. The castle has been very carefully restored and it now houses a first class restaurant and a café in a built-on conservatory, from where you have an impressive view of the castle garden, Oresund (the sound) and Kronborg Castle. Apart from the arrival of new rhododendron beds, the existing material has been updated and almost every plant a label. Special rhododendron paths have been extended complete with instructive signs. A special rhododendron pavilion has recently been opened, where you can, mainly through the use of a computer, receive a very comprehensive written and visual documentation of existing species and hybrids and where to find them.

The public relations side of things has been substantially improved, with a never-ceasing string of activities from early spring until late autumn each year, the main events in the calendar represented by the Rhododendron Days during the height of the flowering period in May-June and the Garden Festival at the end of August, both of which the South of Sweden Rhododendron Society partake in. The commercial events that take place on the large lawns are perhaps not all of the friends of Sofiero's cup of tea, but they are nevertheless, in all probability, necessary in order to economically guarantee the whole complexes existence and development.

Cardiocrinum giganteum
The giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum , grows naturally
in a bed just at the beginning of the right ravine; different
plants flower every summer.
Photo by Erik Liljeroth

Sofiero Castle Garden, with its natural ravines, is a complex well worth its prominent place in the rhododendron world. There exist today almost 10,000 rhododendron plants, with more than 300 different species and hybrids. The photographic material in this article shows only a small portion of the diverse collection in situ and every year the stock is increased with both new species and hybrids. Without a doubt this complex is something quite special and at the same time attractive for professionals and amateurs alike, the total of some 260,000 yearly visitors perhaps confirming that theory.

How do you get there from the States? The easiest way is to fly to Copenhagen Airport and from the terminal by train directly to the city of Helsingborg, from where you can travel the last 5 kilometers by taxi. Alternatively, you could hire a car at the airport and drive to Sweden via the new Oresund Bridge or by ferry from Helsingor to Helsingborg.

Mr. Malmgren and Mr. Duncanson are members of the Swedish Chapter of the ARS.