It is one of the last beautiful November days with the sun shining, the morning haze slowly disappearing and the trees, bushes and flower beds glowing in various shades of green, yellow, orange and brown; walking through the spacious grounds of the Botanical Garden at Kiel University almost makes you forget that you are in the middle of the city, between high rises and the B76 dual carriageway. In passing, I notice the different domestic landscapes, dune, alder quarry, pond landscape, heath and moor, with their typical vegetation, followed by the biological departments, the medicinal garden and the southern European landscapes. The Botanical Garden really is beautiful, diverse and refreshing – but also a museum?
I meet Dr Martin Nickol, the curator of the Botanical Garden, in front of the public greenhouses. With a team of 22 employees and 13 trainees, he manages an area of over eight hectares of open land as well as the seven public greenhouses. He has been fighting for the Botanical Garden to be recognised as a museum for more than 20 years. “It is our mission to explore, document, present, explain and preserve the plant world. This makes us the liveliest museum you can imagine, not just because we exhibit living things. Every day we can offer something new.”
Just like other museums, the Botanical Garden also features various collections, such as the collection of insect-catching plants, the succulent collection, the liana and climbing plant collection or the mangrove plant collection. Nickol: “If I think this through theoretically, this garden consists of individual collections which are, however, presented as an integral whole. The individual collections are systematically arranged, by landscape type or growth habit.” In general, the garden has been arranged according to plant geography: in the west, you can find America with its indigenous plants, Asia is at the south eastern end of the garden and in the middle there is Europe and the Alpine garden with its high-altitude plants.
The seven large public greenhouses in the Botanical Garden, where plants from distant climate zones feel at home, are the perfect destination for a cloudy and cold winter’s day, The warm and humid tropical greenhouse is abundantly green with its lianas, bamboo, bananas, cocoa, nutmeg and clove trees as well as the fish tail palm growing up to the ceiling. “Green has a calming effect and also opens your mind, makes you think clearer and even lowers your blood sugar levels, cholesterol and stress hormones,” the garden expert explains. An ideal retreat, not only for stressed-out university staff.
The air in the Victoria house is even more humid, with mangroves and tropical water plants (including the Victoria, the largest water lily in the world). The titanium root, which the Botanical Garden is famous for, can also be found in the Victoria house. It currently boasts three gigantic leaves. The cloud forest greenhouse is characterised by moderate temperatures and high humidity, ideal conditions for plants from tropical high mountain areas such as ferns or great horsetails.
The African desert house is home to a variety of succulents, including so-called ice plants (Aizoaceae), which are also known as living stones, and the butter tree (Cyphostemma currorii). “The specimens in Kiel are the largest butter trees outside their native habitat,” explains Nickol proudly.
Another special feature of the African desert house is the Welwitschia. This plant can live for 3,000 years and has only one pair of leaves. By the way, there are no cacti in the African house. The natural habitat of cacti is, except for one species, limited to the American continent; therefore, the cactus collection of about 600 species can only be found in the American desert house. The subtropical greenhouse is characterised by a mild climate, with a thriving collection of crops such as citrus plants, coffee and tea, capers, cotton and sesame seeds, passion fruit and mate. The Mediterranean greenhouse is dedicated to the plants of the Mediterranean region, the Canary Islands and similar climate zones with dry summers and mild, rainy winters in Africa, California, Southern Chile and Australia.
An unbelievable variety of 14,000 plant species is cultivated in the Botanical Garden. Martin Nickol probably knows them all by name, and he has interesting stories to tell about many of his fosterlings. “I’m always very surprised when someone asks me if we have anything special. Considering there are about 4,000 plant species in Germany and we have 14,000 here, you can imagine that you will certainly be able to see things you would otherwise never see.” He recommends visitors to the garden let their eyes wander in all directions. To not just look up or down, but be open. “We are diverse on many levels. Just take a wander through the garden and pay attention to your feet walking our sandy paths, paved paths or mossy paths. Your feet will tell you where you are. This is not necessarily something you will notice, but you will certainly go home happy.”
Author: Kerstin Nees
More information: www.botanischer-garten.uni-kiel.de/en