Shirking the Skirt and More: Norway’s Alpine Botanist Hero

Fjellvalmu, the rooted mountain poppy, one of the rarest and longest-surviving high alpine plants in Norway (Photo: Hans-Jacob Dahl)
Fjellvalmu, the rooted mountain poppy, one of the rarest and longest-surviving high alpine plants in Norway (Photo: Hans-Jacob Dahl)

Wildflowers, one of the little delights of travel.

In Kongsvoll fjellhage, the only alpine garden in Scandinavia, usually closed by August 27 when we arrived, we picked up a vocabulary of Norwegian wildflowers.

Wildflowers local to the Knutshø mountains, an area that’s attracted royalty and pilgrims travelling the Kongevegen (“King’s road”) for almost a thousand years.

Wildflowers Magellan and I returned to see, having been in the area the day before to visit Snøhetta and hike in search of musk-oxen.

Wildflowers (and mosses and lichens) that wouldn’t be there if not for Dr. Thekla Resvoll, the first woman to earn a doctorate in botany with her thesis, On Plants Suited to a Cold and Short Summer.

Thekla, and her sister Hanna, who was also a botanist, have said they owe their scientific careers to their mother’s great interest in plants and her beautiful flower garden. 

After studying in Oslo and Copenhagen, Thekla was made an associate professor at the University Botanical Garden in Oslo where she taught from 1902 until her retirement in 1936. The biology textbook she wrote and published in 1902 was reprinted ten times.

Thekla’s main interest was the overwintering strategies of slow-growing mountain plants that took years to bud, then flowered and seeded quickly in good summers. She meticulously observed individual plants and plant population, following several species every summer for years at Kongsvoll.

While her PhD in 1918 was groundbreakingly original, it didn’t get much attention because it was written in Norwegian. Her unique book Winter Flora (1911) about recognizing trees and shrubs in winter by examining their buds is still regarded as the country’s most thorough resource on the topic. And her newspaper articles on botanical subjects were popular with readers.

In 1923-24 Thekla founded an alpine garden at the Kongsvoll railway station, once a stagecoach post, where passengers could disembark for twenty minutes and enjoy a walk in the garden before carrying on. 

When Thekla became an associate professor, many considered it immoral that a married woman who was financially secure should receive the promotion. They were even more upset when she became the first woman in science at the university to have a child—and was allowed to keep her position!

They shouldn’t have been surprised. In 1896 at the age of twenty-five before she became a botanist, Thekla held “agitation” meetings for the Women’s Suffrage Association. The following year she joined its board. At the University of Oslo she chaired the Women’s Students Club. And in 1923, Thekla was elected to the Norwegian Science Academy, only the third woman to receive this honour.

Her alpine garden was administered by the University of Oslo until 1975. Simen Brettan, manager of the Kongsvoll Biological Research Station across the road, championed re-establishing Thekla’s garden at its current location. The Kongsvoll Fjellhage Magellan and I saw came to life in 1991. 

Of all the wildflowers in the garden Fjellvalmue, a Norwegian mountain poppy, might best represent Thekla. One of the country’s rarest plants, this hardy perennial may have survived the last ice age by growing on high mountain peaks that protruded above the ice. Maybe Norway should rename it in Thekla’s honour.


Kongsvoll Fjellhage. “Hagens historie.”

Vaalund, Ann. “Thekla Resvoll: Vennlig, men bestemt.” University of Norway.



2 Responses

  1. Yes, maybe more sunshine in their brief summer. I just did a latitude check: Kongvoll is at 62 ° while your home in White Fox is at 53.°

  2. Interesting, the Reindeer Lichen is also present right here in Saskatchewan, called Caribou Moss. We have lots right on our property and in areas, is also home to several mushroom families. It is a wonderful ground cover and feels like mother nature’s air mattress, in my estimation. Seems like if the sun gets to the moss it dries it out quickly, these areas can be good for mushrooms when you have early frost and moisture overnight.
    Interesting that they growing season in your story is so short, possible high sunshine hours in that time line though.

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