An Afternoon in Berlin’s Botanic Garden

An impossibly high greenhouse, all glass and steel arches, rises up against the first blue sky we’ve seen in February. Surrounding it, the vast landscaped garden seems austere with its winter branches but a few proud evergreens scatter touches of dark green at least. Despite the whip of the wind and a rain cloud on the far horizon, crowds of people, young, old, local, visiting, wander along the broad central path, turning off onto small winding ones when they spot a plant or bush that captures their attention.

Last Sunday we celebrated a few hours of winter sunshine with our first visit to Berlin’s world-renowned Botanic Garden. Second in size and diversity only to Kew Gardens in London and established in its scale and scope in 1910 way out west in Dahlem, the Botanic Garden is rich with the imperial optimism and bourgeoise intellectual aspiration so typical to Berlin in that late imperial era.

The greenhouses, ambitious in size and design, were built under the guidance of chief architect Adolf Engler, using the latest industrial techniques of the time. As with other European botanic gardens, these greenhouses were in part to enable research into and to proudly display plant species brought back by Germany’s colonialists. Amazingly, these fragile forms have stood up to over a century of repeated political and social tumult.

As with so many building projects of the era, grandeur was just one intention. The desire to create a pleasing, healthy civic space, at once physically and intellectually enriching for Berlin’s burgeoning upper middle class was another. In the landscaped gardens, arranged by continent, Berliners could take their air and improve their scientific knowledge of plants.

But the origins of the Botanic Garden are far older than 1910. The real story begins with the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg and Prussia – the history of the garden neatly charting the rise of Germany as a nation. It was Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, who in 1679 ordered that his kitchen garden in Schöneberg be extended into a royal landscaped garden. This garden was then considered too expensive by the successor of his successor, and assigned in 1718 to the care of the Prussian Academy of Science.

The garden evolved as others in Europe would – the early medicinal interest in plants being replaced by the drive to display and scientifically research the exotic species discovered by 18th century explorers. This was an age of naming and classifying, as botanists defined their own branch of science. And, when the original Schöneberg plot became too small to house all the wonderful plants and ambitious botanists, what could have been more fitting to the late 19th century love of status symbols than to create one of the world’s finest gardens.

We were happy to benefit from that weave of history on a sunny February afternoon. The arching greenhouses provided the perfect spot to warm our chilly fingertips – and we all enjoyed marvelling at the bright orange bark of a manicured Japanese tree. The latest story is one of conservation. Now under the umbrella of the Freie Universität, today’s botanists are working hard to prevent the decline of plants across the world – a mission we were happy to support with our 6 euro per person entry fee.

If only the cafe had served something other than cake and potato salad, we would have said it was the perfect day out. My advice to the hungry visitor – bring your own sandwiches. Other than that, we loved it. Go too!