Near or Far

Near or Far: September-October 2017

by cathym on September 2, 2017

What’s in a Name?
A visit to the garden of Carl Linnaeus

by Reynolds Kelly

Rudbeckia in Linnaeus's country garden

Rudbeckia in Linnaeus’s country garden

It’s summer in upstate New York, and all our flowers are in bloom. Few are as appealing to me as blackeyed Susans. Some call them coneflowers, and they’re in the sunflower, or daisy family (Compositae): bright and cheerful. Horticulturists and botanists call them by the genus Rudbeckia. As a layperson, that name, like so many scientific names for plants, has always puzzled me. Rudbeckia? I never knew what it meant, but it sounded “rude” for such a friendly flower.

Turns out that the origin of that name goes back to the earliest days of botany as a science. Plants, of course, have been around forever. But the modern system of naming plants, binomial nomenclature, dates back to the mid-1700s in Sweden, and was the brainchild of botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, the “Father of Modern Taxonomy.” Linnaeus started gardening as a boy, and Sweden’s climate is not unlike that of our own upstate growing season. In the 1720s, Linnaeus attended Uppsala University, about 50 miles north of the capital, Stockholm. By his second year he was selected to give lectures, a rare distinction for someone his age. After growing to doubt the common plant classification system then in wide use, Linnaeus went on to publish Systema Naturae. By the time Linnaeus published his twelfth edition in the 1750s, people sent specimens from all over the world for inclusion, and Linnaeus is credited with inventing the index card to keep track of his work.

Linneaus's private, fireproof museum

Linneaus’s private, fireproof museum

Building with a sod roof in the country garden

Building with a sod roof in the country garden

As a successful botanist and physician in Uppsala, Linnaeus enjoyed a country estate (the Hammarby) and a city home, both with extensive gardens. Out in the country he constructed a private fireproof museum for his botanical specimens. He wasn’t about to risk losing the world’s most extensive collection to fire, as happened to his mentor years before. A stately home, with outbuildings for the needs of his household, embraced a formal garden. A turf roof offered not just more opportunity to grow plants, but protection from fire—a spark landing in a garden is less likely to burn your house down than one landing on dry wooden shingles.

While Linnaeus’s country estate offered beautiful botanical bliss, in town he was all business. Linnetradgarden—Swedish for “the Linnaeus Garden”— was and is a living laboratory of plants and flowers, all carefully designed by Linnaeus and maintained today by Uppsala University. All of the plants are known to have been grown by Linnaeus himself (he kept scrupulous records) and are organized by his Sexual System. There are careful distinctions between spring and autumn flowering plants, with separate sections for different aquatic ecosystems. The garden is a jewelbox of botany: No more than an acre, it is rich with specimens and alluringly organized.

UGJ publisher Jane Milliman in Linneaus's town garden

UGJ publisher Jane Milliman in Linneaus’s town garden

But back to Rudbeckia. Naming seems to have been a fond hobby for Linnaeus. Born Carl Nilsson, he adopted the last name Linnaeus from a linden tree that grew out of an old stone heap on his father’s farm. When it came to naming the cheerful black-eyed Susan, Linnaeus chose the name of his longtime mentor at Uppsala University, botanist Otto Rudbeck. This time of the year, I see these flowers every day in my own garden, and think of Otto.


Lunch at Hambergs Fisk

Lunch at Hambergs Fisk

Stockholm is wonderful in summer. Nights are long and the city is easily traversed by bike ( Pedal through the Old Town of Gamla Stan, and head to B.A.R. for dinner (

Rent a car to explore Uppsala. Start with the Hammarby (, then head to the quaint university town center to see the Linnetradgarden ( Stop for a relaxing lunch at Hambergs Fisk (, and be sure to sit outside along the banks of the River Fyris. Later you can drive to the outskirts to see ancient burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala, just a few miles out of town.


Near or Far: November-December 2016

by Megan Frank on November 14, 2016


Location: Bovara, a village nestled in the olive groves on the slopes near Trevi, Italy.

Name: Sant’ Emiliano (that’s the name of this individual tree—it’s a thing, in Umbria)

Genus/species: Olea europaea

Common name: Olive tree

Age: 1,000 years (Or 700 years, or 1,700 years. Or something)

Submitted by: Reynolds Kelly

Reynolds says: Umbria in Autumn is as beautiful and peaceful a place as you will find anywhere in Europe. Lacking the high-wattage tourist appeal of nearby Tuscany, Umbria busies itself harvesting grapes (in August and September) and olives (in October), and having homey local festivals celebrating the local sausage, or local truffles—even the humble local celery.

Driving through a landscape filled with beautiful vineyards and cascading olive groves never gets old, but those olive trees themselves? They do. Umbria’s oldest olive tree, Sant’ Emiliano, is said to be 1,000 years old, and continues to produce a healthy crop of olives year after decade after century. It’s a little odd for a tree to have a name. Here in the Umbria Valley, Saint Emiliano was an Armenian monk who served as bishop in Trevi in the 4th century, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. The legend goes that Emiliano was tied to an olive sapling and beheaded, and that sapling became the tree that bears his name. That’s a conventionally gruesome martyrdom story, and if it is to be believed it would make the tree about 1,700 years old. Other accounts place the tree at 1,000 years old (a suspiciously round number) or 700 years old. I couldn’t find any account of a core being taken to verify the stories, but my first-hand report is that this is one very old tree.

Surrounded by much younger siblings (or cousins, or great-great-grandtrees) it’s easy to see how much older is our friend Sant’ Emiliano than its brethren. Signposts help you find it among thousands of acres of trees, and a stone walkway and rustic fence provide a dignified setting for this eminent geezer of the groves. No matter how old the tree really is—and may it keep growing, that we should never learn—the peaceful setting in groves of trees that have turned out fine olive oil for centuries is a fitting monument to the modest industry that is Umbrian olive oil.

If you visit Umbria and our friend Sant’ Emiliano, do stop at the bottom of the hill at the local oil cooperative. If you have time, stay for lunch Umbrian style. If not, buy as many bottles of the cloudy green oil as you can carry. You’ll thank me.


Near or Far: September-October 2016

by Megan Frank on September 15, 2016


Location: National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Name: Survivor Tree (note: there is a tree of the same name that survived the 1995 Oklahoma City’s bombing)

Genus/species: Pyrus Calleryana

Common name: Callery Pear

Age: Unknown, but it has been part of the memorial since December 2010

Submitted by: Joshua Ingrowski

Joshua says: Pulled from the rumble of Ground Zero, this tree was merely a charred stump with little life left in it. The tree was rescued and nursed back to health for over nine years. Once the director of design and construction at the memorial tracked down the tree at the Parks Department nursery in the Bronx, he and the horticulturist who cared for the tree planned its return. There is a short documentary titled “The Tree That Will Not Be Broken” chronicling the journey of the tree—very powerful!


Near or Far: May-June 2016

by cathym on May 18, 2016


Corpse Flower

Location: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Name: Corpse Plant

Genus/species: Amorphophallus titanium

Common name: Titan Arum

Specs: Over 8 ft tall; over 5 ft blooms

Age: 15 years old; average lifespan 40 years

Submitted by: Anonymous

Anonymous says: The name definitely lives up to the smell. It’s hard not to turn up your nose, or even plug it. There were many people around me that did just that. After you get over the stench, it truly is a unique specimen. I would say it looks like a hand or foot emerging from the center too. A once in a lifetime opportunity!