From Russia with love: St Petersburg Botanical Garden and how a tropical beauty got its name

When I visit a city abroad I try, if possible, to visit the botanical garden. I am lucky enough to live less than a mile from arguably the world’s finest botanical garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Inevitably I draw comparisons with Kew when I go to other gardens, but it’s always fascinating to see, for example, how plants are arranged in their plant families, the standard of horticulture and the method of communicating the garden’s message to its visitors.

In May this year I travelled to St Petersburg in Russia and went to two very different gardens. I shall tell you about the gardens at the Tsars’ summer palace at Peterhof in a future blog post. Today it is St Petersburg’s Botanical Garden I would like to introduce to you and, more especially, to a plant associated with it. The garden is located to the north of the city centre, on Aptekarskiy or Apothecary’s Island, one of the many islands which make up this unique and grandly imperial city. The island is named after the medicinal herb gardens founded by Peter the Great in 1714.

The approach to the gardens from the Metro station is along streets lined with turn of the (19th) century apartment buildings, the last stage of the walk being alongside a canal. I confess that my overall impression of the garden was not favourable. I should mention that the weather was unusually hot and dry for mid May, so inevitably the flower beds looked dusty and droughty. But what I found sad was that, unlike the lavishly restored and maintained visitor attractions we had been to, not least The Hermitage and its annexe, The General Staff Building, this seems to be a site which has yet to receive an injection of cash to bring it up to world class standard. Admittedly, we arrived too late in the afternoon to join one of the guided tours of some of the 25 glasshouses, and had we done so I might be giving the garden a more positive review. What I did find impressive was the alpine area where different species of silky haired Pulsatilla nestle in the crevices of the rocks and the Japanese garden featuring a traditional tea-house facing a pond edged with Azaleas. Near the main entrance to the garden stands the Herbarium which is housed in an impressive three storey building, built in Art Nouveau style or Style-Moderne as it is known in Russia.

It wasn’t until last month, when I explored Kew’s Tropical Nursery during London’s annual Open House weekend, for the two days of which buildings usually closed to the public open their doors, that I discovered a link to St Petersburg’s Cinderella of a botanical garden. This was a rare opportunity to see the organisation’s conservation work in practice, where specialist horticulturists help to bring critically endangered species back from the brink of extinction. There are several different zones in the nursery, where the heating and lighting are adapted to particular plant families, for example ferns, orchids and cacti. On a table outside the Bromeliad section, my eye was drawn to plants native to the South American rainforests, Neoregelia, and a sign noting that the genus is named for Eduard von Regel (1815-1892), director of St Petersburg Botanical Gardens from 1875 until his death. I couldn’t help thinking that he might be saddened to see the garden in which he worked for so many years in its current slightly down at heel state. Not so these magnificent plants with their broad, rather flat leaves which are often brightly coloured in greens and reds with banding or striping. The other striking feature of the plant is the reservoir of water which collects in a shallow depression in the centre of the plant, and through which the flower rosette blooms. There are numerous specimens of this spectacular plant growing in the central zone of Kew Gardens’ Princess of Wales Conservatory.

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Readers of an earlier blog post (12 December 2017) where I wrote about the quirky and apparently cantankerous Miss Ellen Willmott, will have noted my interest in the personalities behind names of plants. In his obituary in the journal Nature, the German born Eduard von Regel was described as ‘learned and genial’. I hope that one day his garden will be restored to its former glory and in the meantime his name lives on in the name of a beautiful tropical plant.

 

 

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