Roots run deep…

As long as I can remember I have been fascinated and enthralled by the botanical garden in the town where I was born. Visby lies on the Island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea.

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As a small child I loved walking along the rose terraces in high summer, burying my nose in rose after rose, admiring the colours and filling my nose with exquisite fragrance.

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Rose and lavender beds in March.

As I grew slightly older I was completely fascinated by the fact that my great, great, great grandfather, John May arrived here in 1858 when he was offered the position of head gardener for the then newly founded D.B.W. Botanical Gardens.

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He spent the rest of his life in service to the gardens, travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway to China and Manchuria in search of rare and exotic plants and seeds such as the tulip tree, empress tree, pride of India, handkerchief tree and different magnolias. He also oversaw the day to day work in the garden and trained many students in botanical studies.

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As I stroll around the garden now, in the spring of 2018 my thoughts try to grasp the fact that almost all of the majestic trees around me were planted by a member of my family around 160 years ago. The link to the past is so real that every time I visit the garden, I walk up and hug the majestic Gingko tree. The younger members of the family raise their eyebrows at this peculiar behaviour, but I simply cannot help myself.

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For many years in the late 19th and early 20th century my family ran a plant nursery and seed shop on the adjacent land, and in this photo you can see John’s son, Charles May along with his wife Emma. To the left stands one of their sons, probably Harald May and the young boy in the sailor cap is my grandfather, Sylve May. My great grandmother, Alva, is not in the photograph. On the gable of the House is the sign for the May family seed shop.


Both John and his son Charles trained in horticulture in the Dessau-Wörlitz garden region of Germany and there is a story about Charles that is just too interesting not to be told. When he had finished his training in around 1870 he wanted to see the world and sailed on a tall ship from Copenhagen all the way to Cape Town in South Africa where he ended up taking part in the expedition led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley in search of the missing Dr. David Livingstone.

During the expedition, Charles came down with a fever and regrettably missed the moment on the 10th of November 1871 when Livingstone was found in Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika, and Stanley reportedly asked, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. Charles was said to have been carried on a stretcher back to Cape Town, where he eventually recovered from what might have been Malaria and travelled back home to Visby to work at the plant nursery and in the gardens.

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This oil painting shows the Plant nursery and the house where the family lived.

It is a magical feeling to be able to visit the garden today and see the way in which it has developed and matured over 160 years. By now it is a wonderful botanical and cultural heritage that can be enjoyed by all.

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The black mulberry tree spreads out across the lawn.

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A very old apple tree.

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Paulownia, Empress tree in the summertime.

 The roots of the old trees run deep by now and it makes me think of our own garden in Ireland where we have planted so many different species of trees. What will they be like in 160 years time? Will my great, great, great grandchildren marvel at and admire their beauty? It is a dream tucked away in my heart.

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Ulmus minor ‘Suberosa’, Cork barked elm in the summertime.

You can visit the Visby Botanical Garden page here. If you ever find yourself in Visby, the garden is a sight not to be missed.

5 thoughts on “Roots run deep…

  • How fascinating to have such history. Our history does not even go back that far. One of my friends here is a direct descendant of someone who was on the first ship from Spain to land in Monterey, which to me, seems like a VERY long time ago, and even before my ancestors arrived, but is is not nearly as old as some of the relatively recent history in Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Most people of that time knew a lot about plants, perhaps more so than in Europe because most were on their own in relatively primitive society. My great grandparents in Oklahoma got their land in the Land Rush, but there was nothing there. They grew what they needed. Commerce was limited. It was important to know what grew in the garden, and what plants grew in the region, and what they were useful for. Here in the Santa Clara Valley, the orchards were a very important industry. Horticulture was very important to previous generations, whether they enjoyed it or not.

        Liked by 1 person

  • You are absolutely right. They needed to know a lot to survive. But I also think many grew a couple of decorative plants and flowers just for fun. I think we have a lot to learn from them and need to grow more of our food in a similar way today. That is one of the reasons behind the blog I write. Small scale food production, working with nature, encouraging wildlife and learning as much as possible about the endless benefits of plants.


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