Gunny Larsson was a pioneer within horticulture in Norrland and she was one of the pre-eminent research scientists in the field of Swedish berry- and fruit-growing.
Gunny Larsson was born in 1917. She came from a simple background and was brought up in the village of Hyltarp in Scania. Her father, Alfred Larsson, was a blacksmith and machine dealer. Her mother, Ester, ran the home and cared for her two children. Gunny Larsson gained her education in Scania but eventually settled in Norrland, initially in Öjebyn just outside Piteå, and then in Umeå where she remained until her death in 2004. She never married and was a single mother to her daughter Linda who was born in 1953.
Gunny Larsson was a young woman at a time when gaining a school-leaving certificate and then continuing onto higher education was not an obvious route to follow for women. Further, parents had to pay a significant amount in order for their children to be educated. Gunny Larsson had scholastic aptitude. She was morally supported by her parents in her desire to continue her studies but was forced, in the main, to pay for them herself. Once she finished school in Malmö she trained to become a horticulturalist. Three years’ practical experience were required before one could apply to the horticulture course in Alnarp. Gunny Larsson obtained this experience by working in the gardens at Skabersjö and Alnarp castles, amongst other things. She spent three years studying at Trädgårdsskolan (the horticultural school) in Alnarp, the first year of which was spent as an ‘extraelev’ (special student). She was advised not to apply to the course as at that time the school had not accepted female students for the last 20 years. The school apparently believed that female students tended not to make use of their training and then ‘ended up in the poorhouse’.
Following her graduation as a horticulturalist in 1940 Gunny Larsson spent a few years working but wanted to continue her education and thus returned to studying. One of the fields she deepened her knowledge in was genetics and this later became important to her future career as a plant breeder. She gained her Bachelor’s degree at Lund university in 1946. Opportunities for travel in Europe opened up again following the end of the Second World War and Gunny Larsson made her way to England. There she spent her first year at an experimental centre for sugar beets in Norwich, followed by six months at East Malling Research Station in Kent where she studied fruit-processing. Her time in Kent proved significant as she met researchers from all over the world there. Gunny Larsson made important connections for her future research. During her time in England Gunny Larsson was encouraged by Fredrik Nilsson, her professor at the Alnarps lantbruksinstitut (agricultural institute), to apply for a post as assistant at a newly-established experimental centre in Öjebyn near Piteå.
The state-run agricultural experimental unit in Öjebyn had emerged from the government’s Norrland enquiry, which sought to promote agricultural development in Norrland by prioritising plant types suitable for a northerly climate. Horticulture was a poorly developed field in Norrland at that time and it was believed that better products would improve the national diet whilst also provide higher incomes for small agricultural businesses. When Gunny Larsson arrived in Öjebyn in 1948 the enterprise was just in its infancy and she came to play an important role in the developments at the experimental centre. Her work comprised collecting plants, experimental plant-breeding in order to generate hardy types, and the selling of plants. She also gave public lectures and wrote articles for horticultural journals.
In the early 1950s Gunny Larsson attempted to return to Scania by seeking a post at the Alnarps lantbruksinstitut (agricultural institute). She was put forward for the post but when the board learned that she was pregnant and would become a single mother the offer was withdrawn. She thus remained in Norrland. When the Statens trädgårdsförsök (national experimental horticultural research) organisation was restructured in 1963 Gunny Larsson was appointed as chief district research scientist at Norra trädgårdsförsöksdistriktet (experimental horticulture district) of Lantbrukshögskolan (agricultural college). She did not immediately move to Umeå, however, as the enterprise required preparation in Rödbäcksdalen, and thus she commuted between Öjebyn and Umeå until 1973.
Gunny Larsson was inquisitive, keen to expand her knowledge, and interested in developing her skills. She was several times offered stipends to enable travel to the USA which she finally accepted on the third occasion. She spent the period of 1955–1956 as visiting scholar at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
In addition to her work at Statens trädgårdsförsök in Öjebyn, and later in Umeå, Gunny Larsson undertook research, maintained international research connections, travelled to conferences, and wrote up scientific reports. In the early 1960s she took a sabbatical and spent time in Lund where she gained her Licentiate degree in 1967. She continued her research and in 1970 gained her doctorate in agriculture. Her thesis earned top marks and in 1976 she was appointed docent in fruit- and berry-breeding. Her research involved northerly types of berries within the Rubus L. family, which includes the arctic bramble and the cloudberry. She successfully cross-pollinated an unusual new berry – the allåkerbär (all field berry). This is a cross between a wild arctic bramble which grows in the most northerly part of Norrland and the Alaskan raspberry. The aim of this berry breeding was to generate a new type of berry which was abundant, had a good flavour, and could be grown throughout Sweden. Gunny Larsson won international acclaim amongst the global community of berry-breeders through the all-field berry. The berry received internal recognition in 1980. Gunny Larsson produced five different varieties of the berry for commercial production.
The crowning of Gunny Larsson’s career came in 1976 when the position of national horticulturist – focused on Norrland horticulture – was created just for her. This title is used by those who hold higher scientific posts at the agricultural university, comparable to professorial posts, but where the focus lies on applied research. At this time Gunny Larsson also became the head of the then newly-set up Avdelningen för norrländsk trädgårdsodling (department of Norrland horticulture) at Lantbrukshögskola which was located at Röbäcksdalen. She also received several merits in recognition of her efforts within Norrland horticulture.
Gunny Larsson made significant research contributions despite being forced to overcome many hurdles purely for being a woman. Her passion for plants carried her towards her achievements, along with her dedication and strong will. She was a modest, friendly, and generous individual who was liked by her colleagues across the world, as well as by her employees whom she always highlighted for their roles in her achievements.
Gunny Larsson died in 2004 and is buried at Limhamn cemetery.