Plant 348

Linnaea borealis L. (Caprifoliaceae)


Linnaea borealis is a beautiful plant occurring in cool, moist pine woods, or in the shade of mountain rocks, in northern Europe, northern parts of Asia and parts of North America. The species grows most abundantly in Norway, Sweden and Lapland. Being a small evergreen dwarf shrub, with creeping horizontal stems and small, rounded, opposite leaves, it sometimes covers tree stumps and moss-covered rocks. Its stems produce adventitious roots, upright non-flowering shoots and flowering shoots carrying a single pair of delicate, nodding, pale pink, bell-shaped flowers. Hence the common name twinflower. In northern Britain it is now considered scarce. It is always a joy to find this plant in its natural habitat. Cultivating the plant from seed has proved difficult.

The name Linnaea was first proposed by the Dutch botanist, Jan Frederik Gronovius, to honour Carl von Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised the modern binomial system of naming plants and animals. Linnaeus first described Linnaea borealis, under a different name, when he found it on his journey to Lapland in 1732; first using the new name in his Species Plantarum in 1753. Linnaeus called it ‘my flower’ and it was depicted in his coat of arms and in his portraits. It has become the provincial flower of Småland in southern Sweden, where Linnaeus was born.

Linnaea borealis has been used in folk medicine in Norway, being recorded since the eighteenth century. It is reported to cure shingles and many other kinds of rash, including eczema, measles, scabies and ringworms and has been advocated in the treatment of rheumatism. Three different methods of treatment have been adopted. One method was boiling the plant in water, milk, or even beer, and to drink a decoction of it, most likely using whole plants but occasionally using the flowers. Alternatively, boiled plants in water were made into a compress and deployed on the body. Thirdly, leaves were heated and dried in a dry coffee pot and the fumes inhaled by the patient. Scientists in Poland and Norway have recently suggested that a pharmaceutical investigation into potential medicinal properties of twinflower is needed.

Until 2013, twinflower was thought to be the only species in the genus Linnaea, with three subspecies. However recent molecular phylogenetic work revealed that previously closely related genera, with similar floral structure, Abelia (excluding section Zabelia), Diabelia, Dipelta, Kolkwitzia and Vesalea should be included in Linnaea; it now comprises 16 species.

Further reading

Christenhusz MJM 2013. Twins are not alone: a recircumscription of Linnaea (Caprifoliaceae). Phytotaxa 125: 25-32.

Thiem B and Buk-Berge E 2017. Twinflower (Linnaea borealis L.) – plant species of potential medicinal properties. Herba Polonica 63: 56-64.

Serena Marner