The Empress’ Herb Garden

Notes from Nature: Apr. 2010

Columns | R S Hughes | April 2010

"One of the things we’re most proud of is our old trees," says Michael Kiehn, Professor of Botany and Director of the University of Vienna’s Botanical Garden. We are standing near to the garden’s main alley, looking up at a majestic sycamore that is close to 200 years-old and perhaps 40 meters tall – its muscular trunk dappled pink-grey with age. The maelstrom of Renweg, one of the city’s main traffic arteries, plays out just meters away.

This eight-hectare sanctuary – of which the ghostly sycamore is just one of many draws – is cocooned by the city’s heavily built-up third district, but has resisted Vienna’s urban sprawl for more than two centuries. Established in 1754 by the Empress Maria Theresia, the Botanical Garden was originally intended to raise medicinal herbs for Vienna’s new Medical University. Led by Dutch doctor Gerard van Swieten, it was the first of its kind in the world and considered the cornerstone of modern medicine. Thus began a tradition of the University’s study of botany that was fully ‘hands on.’ The garden fulfills a similar brief today: While it is also open to the public, "everything you can think of to do with the research, conservation and teaching of biodiversity is centered here," says Kiehn.

Wandering up its gently ascending slopes – past joggers, mothers and toddlers, and dustings of the crocuses, snowdrops and blue bells that signify the onset of spring – we arrive at a dense copse of Bamboo. Kiehn ushers me in. Thanks to collaboration with Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, a walkway has been constructed – all angled, tubular steel – allowing visitors to savor this sanctum-like space. Stem collides with stem in the breeze, and a muffled, muted, living orchestra strikes up. "We purposefully made it into a dead-end," says Kiehn. "Even if people are in a hurry, they have to stop and experience the Bamboo."

As we do this, a young boy wearing a tiger mask wanders among the plants and Kiehn calls to the child’s mother to return him to the path. The Bamboo grows directly below the surface and tentatively throws up fragile, delicate new shoots in the spring.

"If they are hurt only once, they will not grow," Kiehn explains, gesturing to a bare patch of earth that has been trampled once too often.

This is a symptom of a larger problem. The garden attracts around 150,000 visitors a year, Kiehn explains, as we wander into the cool, cloistered forest of 80 or so sculptural trees belonging to the pine family. Making the garden public outside University hours necessitates a team of wardens. "And when they cost approximately the same as an academic teacher, you can see the conflict," Kiehn says. Only because the University has recently received sponsorship from Raiffeisenbank has it been able to open on weekends again.

We approach two North American giant sequoia trees, one of the tallest species on the planet, and wrap our arms around their rufous-coloured trunks to estimate their girth. "About 3.5 metres," says Kiehn. They are deeply spongy to the touch – something that protects them against damage by fires.

I wonder how important it is that the garden remains open to the public. Kiehn has already explained how proud he is of the ‘green school’, an on-site teaching initiative for everyone from kindergarten children to adults attending evening classes. And his enthusiasm for "creating curiosity", as he puts it, among members of the public, is obvious.

"We don’t charge an entrance fee, so the University’s philosophy is quite clear – we invite people as long as we can afford it," he explains. But he also says that when the garden had to close for weekends, he received a letter from two local residents, who are 92 and 97 years-old. "They wrote that they can just about make it from their apartment to the first of the garden’s benches," he says. "They said the option to visit us is instrumental to their survival."

As we continue our walk, Kiehn pauses and looks out across the garden. "We have been very fortunate to find a sponsor," he says. "At least for this year."

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