Slate labels

Slate label in The Linnaeus Garden, Uppsala University. The slate label is painted white and the name of the plant and its distribution is handwritten.
Photo: A Ahlstedt

The choice of labels for the plants in a botanic garden or public park is a perennial problem. They need to be durable enough to withstand strong sunlight, water and sub-zero temperatures, without breaking or the text fading, but should ideally also be inexpensive. Many different materials have been tried over the years, including porcelain, zinc and, in the Botanical Garden in Uppsala, even slats from Venetian blinds. Common materials nowadays are aluminium or double weatherproof plastic with engraved text.

In a historical garden it is also necessary to consider what material is most historically appropriate. This was a problem faced by the Swedish Linnaeus Society in the early 20th century, when the Linnaeus Garden – the original botanic garden of Uppsala University – was to be recreated as it had been in 1745. Linnaeus’s own writings give no clue to the material used for his labels.

In the yearbook of the Swedish Linnaeus Society for 1923, Nils Svedelius gives an account of how the Society decided on a material for their labels. At the Society’s spring meeting in 1922, three different models were shown. The one that received general approval was a slate label borrowed from Uppsala University’s ”new” botanic garden. At that time these labels were still used for larger plants in the glasshouses, and were believed to be very ancient. Nils Svedelius speculates that they might even derive from the old Linnaeus garden.

During the following winter, 2000 labels were delivered from the Grythytte slate works in the province of Närke. The labels were given a smooth rendering and a coat of base paint, and then had the text added by hand with a steel pen and Indian ink. Slate labels are still used in the Linnaeus Garden, but are no longer written by hand. The University herb gardener Gunnar Pettersson, who managed the Linnaeus Garden for 38 years, in his day used to spend 300 working hours every winter writing new labels and touching up old ones. At the initiative of former University herb gardener PhD Lars Jonsson, the hand–written text was replaced by text on an aluminium plate mounted on the slate base. 

Not as old as the 18th century

The debate about durable and weatherproof labels also found its way into the horticultural magazines of the mid-19th century. In the December 1864 issue of Tidning för Trädgårdsodlare there is an account of a discussion at the meeting of the Stockholm Gardeners’ Association on 6 November that year. At the meeting, Mr Lindgren demonstrated examples of slate labels that had been sent to Stockholm by Head Gardener Georg Löwengren at the Garden Society of Gothenburg. The meeting agreed that this type of label could be recommended, although it was thought that they ought to be made longer, about 18 to 20 inches.

​In March 1865 there follows a comment to the previous story, in the same magazine. Adolf Rosengren at Kungelf & Nordö slate works announces that slate labels, ”probably the first to be manufactured in Sweden, this past summer have been produced in response to a trial order from Uppsala botanical garden”. The labels referred to by Adolf Rosengren are in all probability those that later came to serve as models for the slate labels of the Linnaeus Garden. They were thus manufactured in 1864 and are considerably younger than had been thought.

This also means that the material in the copies and the originals is likely to be different. Nils Svedelius was of the opinion that the material in the old labels was Dalsland slate, that is to say a clay slate similar to that quarried at Grythyttan. However, the ”slate” found on Nordön, north of Kungälv, is in fact a grey micaceous schist. Slate is thought to be superior to schist in durability, lightness and beauty, and should be a better raw material for labels. Schist splits into thicker plates which are suitable for garden tables, floors and paving stones. No early examples of labels survive, either in Uppsala or Gothenburg, so it has not been possible to confirm this difference.

Text: Karin Martinsson


  • Petersson, Gunnar, 1998: I Linnés tjänst – örtagårdsmästaren ser tillbaka. Carlssons bokförlag, Stockholm.
  • Pihl, Axel 1864: Stockholms gartnersällskaps sammanträde den 6 november 1864. Tidning för trädgårdsodlare 3(12): 94–95.
  • Rosengren, Adolf, 1865: Svenska skifferetiketter. Tidning för trädgårdsodlare 4(3): 20.
  • Svedelius, Nils, 1923: Linnéträdgården 1922. Svenska Linnésällskapets årsskrift :175­–177.
Last modified: 2023-08-02