Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Munich’s Beautiful Botanical Garden

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By Samantha Rothbart

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The Munich Botanical Garden may be a little sparse at the moment, but even without the vibrant green foliage that dominates the city in the summer, it is an impressive sight. You might expect the leafless branches to create an air of dejection. On the contrary, they serve to highlight the beautiful structure of the trees and plants—what Roy Campbell called the “clear anatomy” in his poem Autumn.

Even so, new signs of life are starting to soften the severe edges. Green shoots peek through the rich, dark soil in the ornamental garden. Soon, the tulips will begin to flower and the plants will need to be potted and then replanted, Dr. Andreas Gröger explains. He is a botanist and the scientific curator of the Botanical Garden. Though he is not overly fond of the stylized beauty of the ornamental garden—he was initially quite hesitant about having to assume responsibility for it—he acknowledges that it’s a magnet for the “normal” folk who find themselves out and about for the day. The manicured lawns and whimsical flowers are a gateway drug for first-time visitors and would-be botanists. They draw us deeper into the secretive greenhouses of the wild species that so fascinate Gröger, and expose us to what he calls “real ecology.”

For most of us, a trip to a botanical garden is little more than a pleasant way to spend the day. With Gröger, it becomes a dizzying journey through intricate histories. Each greenhouse has a story, and it is impossible not to be swept up by the drama of it all: thrilling tea smuggling adventures in the spicy balminess of the Camelllia greenhouse; the curious case of the towering bamboo, where all over the world, people waited for one particular species to flower—“and then, all at once, they were flowering everywhere. And then they were dying everywhere,” says Gröger, gesturing up towards a towering ornamental bamboo.

It’s somewhat surprising that in a jungle of such enthralling plant species, the main attractions are butterflies and tortoises. (A few weekends ago, the butterfly exhibition attracted a staggering 2,500 visitors in one day). Gröger rolls his eyes playfully when he tells us this, explicitly adding that we are not to ask when we can see the tortoises. But, like the ornamental garden, the animals are an excellent way to hook the public. Once visitors have been reeled in, they can begin to experience the plants in an exciting new way; instead of simply viewing them passively and in passing, they can actively engage with the histories of the plants—a blend of the commonplace and the exotic.

Before we enter the butterfly exhibition (the purpose of our trip), we come face to face with one of the garden’s more sinister specimens: ficus galletii, a species of strangler fig. The diminutive figs look more like tiny green apples or berries and belie the cold and calculating nature of the plant. Tall and slim, almost skeletal, the strangler fig is unusual in many ways: The little fruits do not hang from twigs and branches but instead grow straight from the trunk. A thick, twisted snarl of roots extends stiffly alongside the tree into the ground. We learn that these trees vie for space in dense forests, and the seeds take root in the forest canopy, selecting a host and then working their way down to the forest floor. Wily and ruthless, the roots gradually entangle the host, sapping it of nutrients until nothing but a hollow shell remains.

We leave the innocuous looking ficus behind us and step into the humid confines of the butterfly room. It is quite magical—walking into it is like walking into a tropical rainforest. A powerful wave of grapefruit assaults the senses, but quickly dissipates among the heavier organic aroma of chrysalides and the fish pond. Water drips in fat globules from waxy leaves; spiky little caterpillars make their slow journey across vast, leafy landscapes; and everywhere, everywhere, the delicate flutter of wings can be sensed rather than felt. In this one space, we are able to see a complete lifecycle unfold. Tiny eggs—no more than pinpricks of white—become slightly less tiny caterpillars; expertly camouflaged caterpillars hang from silken threads to mimic leaves; fat atlas moth caterpillars glow atomic blue-green, before wrapping themselves in an impenetrable silken pod that comprises a single thread almost 2 kilometers long. And of course, there are butterflies and moths of all sizes, shapes, and colors: some fresh and magnificent, others shabbier, their wings patchy and threadbare.

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It is a wonderland of the strange and beautiful, a slick landscape of vitality, but also tranquility. To get these species here is no mean feat. Crates of chrysalides are delivered according to a carefully planned airfreight schedule. Pupae typically take one week to hatch and even the smallest error means that the butterflies could arrive before the vessels do. In contrast, at the end of the exhibition, fully grown butterflies are caught in nets and transferred to paper envelopes that trap their wings together—Gröger raises his hands above his head, palms together like an amateur diver, to demonstrate; they are then handed over to the Augsburg Botanical Garden. He says that catching the first 300 is the easy part. Once they realize what’s going on, they dart off every which way in a heroic bid for freedom.

You could spend hours in here and not feel the passage of time, but we don’t linger—we haven’t quite reached the end of our trip. We journey into the citrus house, where we are met with a gorgeous, heady fragrance: a mixture of honey and jasmine and coconut, all rolled into one. It is intoxicating and heightens the senses to some of the greenhouse’s more bizarre residents, like the Buddha’s Hand, an unusual citrus fruit that resembles a claw. In the orchid house—an oasis of sculpted petals and stringy roots—we also finally meet the little terrapin army that inhabits the rockery pool inside. They are a comical bunch, paddling about or lying on rocks with their legs splayed in baffling ways. They seem so out of place in the quiet dignity of the orchid house, unabashedly—almost defiantly—making eye contact with us all.

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The Botanical Garden showcases a plethora of wild and wonderful species and just walking through its greenhouses is a restorative for the soul. It is a space where conservation, cultivation, beauty, and knowledge intersect. “Plants don’t tell their own stories,” says Gröger. Luckily, they have him and his excellent team to ensure that we are exposed to the rich tapestry of their histories.

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