The Trees of Mt Atlas The Trees of Mt Atlas

The Trees of Mt Atlas

16 Apr 2022
Bernhard Schirg


The Atlantica was not the only project that Rudbeck pursued in the final decades of his life.

Around 1700, he was working on a heavily illustrated botanical work called the Campus Elysii (‘The Elysian Fields’). This atlas of plants – produced with support of the crown and his entire family – intended to present all botanic specimens known at the time using thousands of woodcut illustrations.

Botanical woodcuts recur within the volumes of Rudbeck’s Atlantica. The third one (1698) includes a set of nine which all show twigs of conifer trees.

Illustrations of conifer twigs
One of the pages showing conifer twigs in Rudbeck, Atlantica, vol. 3, p. 535. Cf. RfA-IDs 543, 544, 545, 546.

Pliny's Conifer

Rudbeck used these illustrations to solve an unanswered riddle from a passage in Pliny Natural History. The ancient Roman encyclopedist had written about Mount Atlas, a site traditionally associated with Northern Africa.

The Atlas range was one of the many disputed sites from classical mythology that Rudbeck was eager to claim for Sweden. Botany should now prove him right.

The slopes of Mount Atlas, so Pliny wrote, are

filled with dense and lofty forests of trees of an unknown kind, ... with very tall trunks remarkable for their glossy timber free from knots, and foliage like that of the cypress ...PLINY, Natural History, V.1

Which ‘cypress-like’ tree could the Roman have had in mind? Rudbeck’s trail of evidence began with a woodcut showing a cypress twig.

Woodcut of a cypress twig
Cypress twig and pinecone printed in the Atlantica. See RfA-ID 546.

This tree, the versed botanist remarked, features comparitvely small needles, measuring only half a finger in length. With the help of further illustrations, Rudbeck ruled out possible candidates for Pliny’s conifer. All of their needles were simply too long to qualify as contenders, he argued.

Hover over the woodcuts from the Atlantica's third volumes to see Rudbeck's comments.
Note that in pre-Linnean times, botanic names were descriptive rather than systematic.
Alba picea
Alba picea

Needles still twice as broad and long as 'our spruce'. Grows in Germany and Bohemia.
Cf. RfA-ID 544.

Pinus ossiculis duris
Pinus ossiculis duris, foliis longis

Needles much too long (8–10 fingers).
Grows in Italy, Spain, Africa. In Sweden only if protected during winter.
Cf. RfA-ID 538.

Pinus sylvestris montana altera
Pinus sylvestris montana altera

Needles are shorter than the specimen to the left, but double as broad.
Grows on snowy mountains in Austria.
Cf. RfA-ID 539.

Pinaster conis erectis
Pinaster conis erectis

Similar to the pine on the right, but with longer needles.
Cf. RfA-ID 540.

Abies nostra
Abies nostra

'Our pine' (Sw. 'Gårtall').
Cf. RfA-ID 543.


The yew has longer and broader needles than 'our pine' to the left.
Grows in Sweden and Germany.
Cf. RfA-ID 542.

Yet there was one tree in the North, he argued, that fit the Mediterranean author’s description. The needles of this tree are of a size comparable to those of the cypress. Its branches also start shortly above the ground. And both trees grow in a narrow, cone-shaped form.

Row of spruce trees in the horizon
Silhouettes of conifers near Städjan, Dalarna, Sweden.

The tree that Pliny described, Rudbeck explained, had to be the one that grows all across the entire Swedish-Norwegian mountain ridge, flourishing well beyond 64° latitude where it forms ‘dense and lofty forests’ capable of carrying the load of a harsh winter every year. To any Swede, the answer to Pliny’s riddle must seem short and simple – it just had to be ‘our spruce’.

Twig of a spruce
Twig of 'our spruce' (abies nostra / 'wår gran') as printed in the Atlantica. See RfA-ID 545.
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Further reading and references

The cover image shows Mount Städjan (Northern Dalarna) which Rudbeck described as one of the peaks of the true Atlas range (photograph by Bernhard Schirg, autumn 2020).

^ botanical work called the Campus Elysii: Two volumes of this work were printed (see volume 2 on before the Great Fire of Uppsala destroyed thousands of woodcuts for the remaining volumes.

^ the answer to Pliny’s riddle must seem short and simple – it just had to be ‘our spruce’: The line of argumentation is developed in Rudbeck, Atlantica, vol. 3, p. 573.

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