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Botanical Garden

Quite literally a growing attraction

With 14,000 plants from across the globe, Munich’s Botanical Garden at Nymphenburg Palace is world-renowned among botanists and nature-lovers alike. But, while it may be the city’s only one, it is not the first. The seeds of the development were first sown in the early 19th century, when a garden was created in Elisenstrasse, near Karlstor, at the behest of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Officially opened in 1812, the garden boasted an impressive collection of tropical plants from around the world, spread across some 5.1 hectares. Yet, no matter how green-fingered the gardeners, back in 1850 there was one thing that was growing even faster than the plants—industry. In 1853 the Bavarian Government made a decision that would ultimately mark the end of the original botanical garden: to allow a giant greenhouse to be transformed into an exhibition center, the Crystal Palace, in preparation for a national industrial trade fair. Although replacement greenhouses were built on either side of Sophienstrasse, the garden’s central core had been irrevocably damaged and, in the light of yet more industrial pollution from the ever-expanding railway station, it was finally decided, in 1908, to uproot the entire garden.
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The first step was clearly to find a new site. Needless to say, the status attached to the garden prompted councils in many areas of Munich to offer their land. But it was finally agreed that the palace at Nymphenburg provided the ideal location: it was within easy reach of the city; was surrounded by chestnut trees, which offered protection from the elements; its location in royal grounds meant the chance of other building work being carried out in the future was slim; and it had a regular water supply from the Nymphenburg canal.
The next task, designing the garden, was put in the hands of the new director, Karl Immanuel Eberhard von Goebel, who was given just six years to complete the new development. But it wasn’t long before he encountered problems. In 1909 any plans he had already made had to be scrapped and rethought because the city had decided to lay a new tram line to the garden. As soon as work began on the site, it became clear that the earth was anything but suitable for such an array of plants. Therefore some 130 cubic meters of more fertile soil had to be brought in from Moosach and Dachau before anything could be expected to flourish. Finally, in the winter of 1912, with the key earthworks complete, the first trees and plants were transplanted from the original garden.

Clearly, with Munich’s northern European climate, greenhouses were necessary if the tropical collection of plants was to have a chance of survival. Construction work on these, and on the botanic laboratories and a museum, which no longer exists, got underway between 1911 and 1913, with most work completed in time for the official opening, on May 10, 1914.

Elsewhere in the world, of course, the troubled shoots of war were sprouting—prompting the start of yet more difficult times for the garden. Not only was there a lack of money and shortages of fuel and staff, with many young gardeners called away to fight, but Germany’s international reputation also meant links to countries that had been the sources of important plants were suddenly cut off. In fact, it was some 20 years before the situation improved, by which time, of course, World War II was already threatening. Again, similar shortages occurred, and in 1944 the Allies bombed the Botanical Garden, killing many valuable trees in the arboretum. Once the war was over, it was up to the new director, Karl Suessenguth, to do his best to repair damages. He gradually built up foreign contacts and started using the garden to grow vegetables and tobacco for employees, who suffered from the aftereffects of the war. Indeed it is this diversity that is the key to success of any garden. And although the original aims of creating a space for both scientific research and enjoyment have remained unchanged over the garden’s 200-year history, its content has been influenced by changing social circumstances and the personal interests of its various directors. With high points ranging from an entire greenhouse devoted to Mexican cacti, to giant water lilies capable of supporting weights of up to 70 kg and temporary exhibitions on individual species, such as onions, roses or, as was the case this year, mushrooms, there is little doubt that Munich’s Botanical Garden has enough variety to prosper and flourish for many years to come.

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