Sunday, December 26, 2010

Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, Spain

The Royal Botanic Garden, Madrid, Spain

Larix Bonsai in fall color
Before I left on this trip I sent a message to Jean Vache’ of the Mediterranean Garden Society in Pasadena telling her I was going to Spain and Morocco.  She very kindly sent messages to members in Spain and a few of them actually contacted  me.  So when I was in Madrid, I had the fortune of meeting with Silvia Villegas Navarro, the Conservator of Living Collections at the Royal Botanic Garden.  Before we met outside the gate, I toured the Royal Botanic Gardens on a beautiful afternoon bathed in wonderful light. 

Museo del Prado
The garden is located next to the World-renowned  Prado Art Museum.  It was originally commissioned by King Fernando VI to house a collection of 2,000 plants collected by the botanist Jose’ Quer y Martinez on another site, and was moved to it’s present location by King Carlos III, the new garden opening in 1781.  The garden was designed on four terraces, with a reservoir at the top level to provide water  through out the garden.  One of the most pleasant features is the siting of circular stone fountains fed by natural water  pressure at the center of each parterre, where gardeners could conveniently scoop water with a bucket to irrigate the surrounding beds.  The beds were arranged using the taxonomy system developed by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.  The Garden’s Herbarium contains over 1 million specimens of plants from all over the World.  The garden is also home to a large number of stray cats, which for some reason is typical of botanical gardens I’ve visited in other cities.
Terraza de los Cuadros Fountains

The terraces are divided by clipped hedges of Laurus nobilis punctuated by statues of historic figures in the field of botany.  The uppermost terrace is called the Terrace of the Laurels, with a fine collection of bonsais added in 1985. Below this is the Villanueva Pavilion, which was exhibiting a fantastic collection of botanical paintings called Images of Paradise.  This show featured stunning botanical paintings of tropical flora from South America from the renowned collections by José Celestino Mutis (1783-1816), and the modern private collection by Shirley Sherwood from Kew Gardens in London.
Oval Pool and bust of Carl Linnaeus

One of the Grape Arbors
The Desert Garden
The Terraza del Plano de la Flor fronts the Villanueva Pavilion, centered on an oval pond with a statue of Carl Linnaeus at it’s center.  There is a nice Taxodium distichum, the Bald Cypress from the S.E. of the U.S to one side in full bronze fall color.  Trees and shrubs are arranged around curving symmetrical paths.  One of my favorite parts of the garden were the iron arbors with varietal  grapes grown throughout Spain, and an alley of types of olive trees, though many of these were not in the greatest of health, possibly due to shading by other trees.  On the north side of this terrace are two greenhouses containing a nice little desert garden, a tropical garden with misters, and a temperate garden.
Terraza de las Escuelas Botanicas

Below this is the Terraza de las Escuelas Botanicas, which  contains 12 square beds with plants arranged phylogenetically,  from the most primitive species to later states of evolution.  There is a small fountain at the center of each of these beds.
Terraza de las Escuelas Botanicas
The Terraza de los Quadros is the lowest terrace with 16 parterres containing ornamental, medicinal, aromatic,  endemic, and edible plants, and a small orchard of fruit trees.  The parterres are lined with low clipped boxwood hedges in either linear, square, round, or octagonal shapes which breaks up the monotony that is often found in formal gardens. 

Vegetable Beds, Terraza de los Cuadros
The plantings were expanded considerably by a collection of some10,000 plants brought to Spain by the remarkable explorer Alessandro Malaspina in 1794.  This sea captain traveled extensively all over the World, including the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, mapping coastlines and establishing relations with native peoples with the goal of expanding Spain’s colonial influence. 

Square Parterre, Terraza de los Quadros
Ulmus minor, the Field Elm
Each parterre in the garden contains a different grouping of plants with varying themes, though the academic and scientific aspects have given way to more ornamental ones, such as displays of flowers and vegetables , and the ubiquitous rose garden. Some plants are grown simply to show that they can be and are struggling along, but there are many beautiful specimens.  Many of the largest trees were  lost in an 1886 cyclone so there are few ancient trees.  Perhaps the largest remaining tree in the garden is a two trunked Ulmus minor, the Field Elm which I believe is named for it’s resemblance to a pair of pants.  There are some lovely specimens of Sophora japonica and it’s weeping form as well.  I noticed some plants common to the Pacific Northwest, such as Mahonia aquifolium, our Oregon Grape, Symphoricarpos albos, the Snowberry, which was sporting lots of nice white berries, Pseudotsuga menziesii, the Douglas Fir, and Calocedrus decurrens, the California Incense Cedar.

Steps cut around the roots of a Cypress Tree
Nice details in the garden include a set of stone stairs cut around the roots of an old Cypress tree.  There is a beautiful gate called the Puerta del Rey that fronts the Paseo del Prado with two round guard houses.  The primary gate is the Puerta de Murillo, facing the Museo del Prado with a ticket booth and small funky garden shop selling sad little plants, seeds, bulbs, books and gifts.  It is here that I met Silvia and her husband after my self guided tour.  We went to a nearby café for a beer and talked about our careers and the joys and pitfalls of gardening and garden maintenance.  She described the volcano concept where the gardeners continuously remove all the fallen plant matter leaving a cone of bare earth at the base of each plant.  Her English husband is doing a private garden consulting business for estates around Madrid.  They met in London while working at the Kew Gardens.

Puerta del Rey
From there we walked to the nearby Caixa Forum, where French designer Patrick Blanc has installed on of his fantastic vertical gardens on the north facing wall of a building.  Looking something like an abstract painting, the wall has grown into an organic tapestry.  The plants are tucked in to small pockets cut in a kind of black fabric with an irrigation system built to water and fertilize the plants by saturating the fabric.  He has a fantastic book called Vertical Gardens that I bought earlier this year, with many of his projects in his native Paris.
The Caixa Forum Vertical Garden

I hope to give a lecture at the Royal Botanic Garden before I fly home in early March, perhaps the prelude to a lecture I will be giving twice in Southern California in April on ‘The Pleasure Garden’ including fantastic Islamic gardens and architecture I am seeing while traveling in Morocco and Andalusia in Southern Spain.