Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A quartet of Botanical Gardens


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Evening food and drink in Tartu University Botanical Garden, SotM Baltics 2013
I've visited four botanical gardens in Eastern Europe in the past 18 months: Krakow, Riga, Tallinn and Tartu. I did the last three on my trip to SotM Baltics.

In recent years I have started visiting botanical gardens, not just because they are attractive places, but to look at particular groups of plants in detail. Often they have collections of local native plants which might be hard to see or find in the wild, and they may have other collections which reflect local environmental conditions or academic interests. These places also often have a great deal of historical interest, and often reflect aspects of a country's culture which aren't otherwise apparent to the casual visitor. (François Mitterrand is alleged to have changed his less-than-high opinion of the British after visiting Kew Gardens, but then he was also fascinated by Margaret Thatcher's ankles).


Jagiellonian University Botanic Garden, Krakow.

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Formal part of Krakow Botanical Garden, with Order beds in foreground.
This is a large collection situated fairly close to the city centre next to the main hospital, with a distinguished 200+ year history. The size of the garden means a nice balance between very formal bedding and semi-naturalistic areas in the arboretum. The areas next to the entrance, main buulding and the older glasshouse are extremely formal, with very large areas given over to Order beds. Beyond these informality increases with various ponds, water gardens and alpine areas. At the furthest end of the garden is the arboretum and some semi-natural areas.

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Main pond with specimen trees (Dawn Redwood in centre; ancient Oak to Left)
I visited on an unseasonally warm April day, and the gardens were already active with bird and insect life; and frogs were croaking in the ponds. There were plenty of spring flowers in bloom, but most trees were only just coming into leaf. The gardens seemed to have a prodigious number of gardeners and were very well maintained.

I actually probably spent quite a bit of time taking photos of insects rather than plants, as their were quite a few unfamiliar beetles about, and a very elusive sawfly which I failed to capture.

Interpretation panel explaining the different types of Beech Forest in Poland

The area of the garden which made the biggest impression was an area of quasi-natural Beech woodland. Not only was this extensive enough to give a reasonable feel for the habitat it was accompanied by a very useful interpretation board. What I learnt in here informed how I looked at woodland elsewhere in Poland, particularly when I visited the National Parks in the Tatra and Podlaskie.

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An alpine Primula sp.
The Alpine garden had many attractive Primula species, and a spectacular Phlox Gypsy's Blood (of this group of plants more later).

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Phlox subulata Gypsy's Blood

Tallinn Botanical Garden

Looking towards the Palm House, showing the park-like character of Tallinn Botanical Garden

Unlike the other gardens which are located within the built-up area of their respective cities, the Tallinn Botanical Garden is larger, and in aspect is much more park like, even containing substantial areas close in appearance to natural flora. At the NW edge of the Garden are areas of pine woodland, and the southern boundary has a fairly typical river gallery woodland with willows, Aspen and other water tolerant shrubs and trees.

Wood or Blue Cow-wheat Melampyrum nemorosum
© the author


Right at the entrance is a patch of meadowland, which had some lovely flowers growing. The night before I'd noticed flowers of Wood Cow-wheat Melampyrym nemorosum growing along the roadside in the Tallinn suburb of Haabersti. Although this plant was obviously a Cow-wheat I didn't know which one, so I was delighted to find it in this meadow, labelled and with good enough light to take a decent picture.

Pasqueflower, probably Pulsatilla vulgaris.
© the author
Another lovely native flower here was a Pulsatilla. I don't know which one, but think it's P. vulgaris. These are pretty rare in Britain and usually seen early in the Spring around Easter, which is why they are known as Pasqueflowers. To find one in high Summer was a surprise.

The meadow was part of an extensive nature trail which goes beyond the grounds of the Garden, but something I like very much as it brings the collections and their natural setting closer together. The only other garden which I'm aware doing the same thing is the National Botanical Garden of Wales which has a large nature reserve attached which is based on a traditionally managed farmstead.

I didn't have time to follow the nature trail, but instead spent time in the tree collections: specifically those of Birches (Betula), Alders (Alnus), and Willows  and Poplars (Salicaceae). All three groups are boreo-temperate in distribution so it was a chance to examine and take photos of species I had not come across before.

Leaf and female catkins (new ones green, old ones brown) of Alnus crispa.
This is a North American alder closely related to the Green Alder Alnus alnobetulae (=viridis) of European mountain areas. This was one of several related species in the collection which have subsequently had me searching through my reference collection for more information.
© the author
The last thing I noticed on my way out was a very fine bed of Phlox, of which more later.

Tartu University Botanic Garden.


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Clematis sp., Tartu Botanic Garden
The smallest of the four, and easily the most exquisite as a garden. Being small it is easier to manage with the reduced manpower resources available these days. It is also more formal, the scientific aspects of the collections being more down to labelling, than extensive areas obviously devoted to teaching and research (order beds, generic collections etc.). Like the Krakow collection its roots are in being a collection of plants with herbal and pharmaceutical properties which would be used for teaching Medicine.

It was certainly a delightful place to eat and drink on the Saturday evening of SotM Baltics under the watchful eye of a pagan Lithuanian goddess (see main picture), but there was no chance to really explore, and the light was not good for photography.

By good chance I met Zkir on top of one of the towers of the old cathedral and we returned to the Botanical Garden together on Monday. It was far too hot to contemplate visiting the glasshouses, but we had a nice tour before the need for ice-cream manifested itself. The Gardens themselves are situated on a former bastion of the city fortifications, which presumably explains the bowl where we had our Saturday evening event.

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Clematis sp., Tartu Botanical Garden
The highlights for me were a wonderful collection of Clematis with many different species in flower, and a beautiful arrangement of Phlox. I was beginning to realise that, unlike in Britain, where they are regarded as somewhat old-fashioned, these flowers are, rightly, very popular in eastern Europe. For instance, Zkir's mother has a big collection at the family dacha.

Phlox collection at Tartu.
The planting is very clever ensuring that the bright colours of the flowers do not overwhelm everything else.

University Botanic Garden, Riga

Arboretum area of Riga University Botanic Garden
It turned out that the Latvia University Botanic Gardens were about 200 m from the quirky hotel I stayed at (ground floor full of snooker tables), so it was an obvious place to visit. In some ways this was the most disappointing, largely because it is obviously under-staffed and many areas are now not well maintained.

In terms of collections it is similar in size to the others, with around 5000 species and varieties. It has a good tree collection with a range of larches (Larix spp.), but the water features were either dried out or somewhat overgrown.

Staff were working on the order beds when I was there, and these contained an interesting range of plants. One oddity was to see Canadian Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) in the Order beds: this is clearly a major invasive species in the Baltic States as it was very common along roadsides and I saw several places where it dominated ruderal vegetation on the outskirts of Riga.

Of course Riga also had a large collection of Phlox, and a substantial Dahlia bed, which looked to be supported by local enthusiasts. I don't know how botanical collections work elsewhere, but in the UK there are many national collections: some maintained by amateurs, with others being held in major private and public gardens. I have a friend who maintains the national Hydrangea collection in Derby, and another who used to keep the national Crocus collection (until the stress incurred when it was attacked by mice made it too big a responsibility. The University of Nottingham also had the national Canna collection, which was held in the walled garden. So I suspect the Dahlias in Riga were something similar.

Mapping Botanical Gardens

As this is a blog about maps, I better steer slightly on topic.

OpenStreetMap has made a great and enjoyable tradition from mapping zoos. Botanical Gardens are a somewhat different proposition. Even a large zoo rarely exhibits more than a couple of hundred species, and even some of these (fish, reptiles, etc.) are small. Only the so-called charismatic mega-fauna are likely to occupy their own distinct areas of the zoo.

Orientation map of Jagellionian University Garden
Showing different areas colour-coded by type, important specimen trees , as well as visitor facilities.
Even a small botanic garden like Tartu can have several thousand species of plants, often represented by a few specimens occupying a tiny area. Furthermore places like Tartu also place a high premium on aesthetics which means many different plants are cheek-by-jowl. On the other hand gardens may have more obvious research, curation and didactic purposes which tends to mean related plants are grown together. The typical combinations seen are : order beds, areas of the arboretum devoted to specific genera to trees, large collections of single groups (Phlox, Dahlia),  collections organised by geography or habitat (such as Alpines). These groupings perhaps correspond most closely to how we map zoos. Of course when in a single bed or group of beds the same idea can be applied, but trees are often grouped quite loosely.

In the main the botanical gardens I've checked have similar features mapped:
  • The path network
  • Water features
  • Glasshouses, administration buildings, cafes and toilets.
  • Some areas mapped as woodland (often this is somewhat inaccurate).
  • A number of nodes tagged leisure=garden marking a specific feature, such as a Rose Garden.
Maps generated from this OSM are not as informative as the maps I bought for the gardens in Riga and Tallinn. The latter was particularly attractive showing the nature trail, where about 20 tree genera were to be found and a lot of other info.

Interpretation panel showing species of Acer (maples) in the Jagellonian University Botanical Garden.
This is representative of the type of detail which mapping gardens might entail.
 In a place like Tartu, it would be nice to be able to locate the distinctive trees which would require some individual tree mapping as they are placed to enhance the beauty of the gardens rather than according to some scientific scheme. The local council in Nottingham has produced some very nice leaflets for many local parks highlighting interesting trees, but although I've been on several tree walks I've still not mapped any. This aspect has a lot in common with detailed mapping of parks, but botanical gardens may have a certain advantage in that many trees will be identified on name plates!

Perhaps it's time to have a special mapping party.


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