Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

A Lush Desert Garden in the Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia

Jardi Botanic de la Universitat de Valencia
Botanic Garden of the University of Valencia, Spain

I have a thing for botanical gardens.  When I was studying landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in the late 1970’s we had 3 terms of Plant Materials classes.  These were outdoor classes, wandering the campus and surrounding areas.  We would learn to identify plants by looking carefully at them, the leaf structure, the way they are arranged on the stem, the shape of the bud, the flowers and fruit, and the form they take on from a distance, as well as how they like to be grown.  When you learn how to identify plants you start to see them as individuals, and you see the World in totally different way.  I was so in to it I used to ace the tests.

Frequently when I first meet with new clients, or talk to friends or family about plants, it is like talking about an alien world.  I sometimes call it the Tree/Bush syndrome.  You can point at a tree and say, “what is that?”.  “A tree”.  You can point at a shrub and they will say “a bush”.  And that one over there?  We’re heading in to new territory for most people at that point.  It is one of the main reasons roses are so popular.  Most people know what they are.  But in reality, most people don’t really look at plants when they pass them, at least not as individuals or related plant communities.  Believe me, to have this knowledge makes the World a far more interesting place.  The same goes for architecture, hence the reason I write about what I do and see.  I want to share the joy I derive from having an understanding of what is out there.  That is to assume that I really know what is going on.  I’m probably just making it all up.

Plant Pens
Botanical Gardens are sort of like plant zoos.  All too frequently they look like plants in pens, in straight academic lines, as is frequently the case of much of the Jardi Botanic de la Universitat de Valencia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  This is in large part because the gardens are old, the oldest in Spain.  They started out as a place to study the medicinal properties of herbs in 1567.  Many new introductions were flooding in from the New World, a great time of discovery for Spain.  The present gardens were started in 1802 in the Tramoieres Orchard at the edge of the city.  A grid of rectangular beds were laid out with irrigation canals running axially through them in order to water the beds.  The plants and trees in the collection were placed in their blocks in part to teach Darwinian ideas of how they evolved, or according to Phylum, or agricultural and industrial and medicinal value.  The beds filled up over time with collections.  Some of the trees would get very large.  210 years is suitable for venerable old growth status.  Here in lies the reason to visit this garden.  Formality can have it values and faults.  It makes for perspective axis that takes the eye to the termination of straight symmetrical lines.  Fountains can embellish the junction of paths.  Buildings can easily be arranged in relation to the layout of paths as well.  Or it can be as boring as a dial tone at times depending on how well the elements are arranged.  Plants need to be combined to play off of each other in beautiful ways.  There are a lot of  rose gardens in the World that can be the saddest places if the paths and walls aren’t laid out to cover for the thorny broomsticks of Tea roses in winter.  I know, I live in the ‘City of Roses’.  There are some beautiful sections of the botanic garden in Valencia.  It does not have the level changes that make the Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid so interesting (see my blog on that garden from December, 2011), but there is enough geometry and opening and closing of spaces and variety to make the garden a pleasant place to stroll.
Fountains were originally used to irrigate the garden beds

The modern botanic gardens in Parc Montjuic in Barcelona in contrast are planted in a fashion to allude to the environment that the plants grow in naturally.  This sort of works but for the difference in climate and geology of the site they have been forced to inhabit.  The garden is too young to be all that exciting yet, but it will be amazing in a hundred years if global warming doesn't wipe them out.  The wide white angular concrete paths and rusted steel walls will always be the unfortunate downfall of that garden, although I love the use of steel and the way it patinas as it rusts.  I had a hard time finding attractive sight lines for photographing that garden because it was probably designed predominantly in the plan view and not from the perspective of ground plane vistas.  The paths feel more like highways.  

A flattering view of angled paths and walls in the Barcelona Botanic Gardens

Plants are curvaceous creatures if you look closely at them.  The use of rough limestone to create more natural looking environments works a little better, but the work was not masterful.  I was spoiled by the works of Antonio Gaudi and his ilk that I was immersing myself in around Barcelona.  They have set a very high bar to aspire to.  I can only imagine how World class fabulous the Jardi Botanic de Barcelona would be if Roberto Burle Marx had designed it.
I wish this path was paved in gravel.  I feel like I should be driving

It was interesting to see and compare these two gardens. The one in Valencia is tricky to find.  I am used to some big gate and high fence.  Maybe there is the enticement of a hothouse poking up through a mass of foliage.  I have a knack for taking the long way around.  I started in the park in the dry bed of the Rio Turia.  This park is great because it lies below the level of the rest of the city so it feels separate.  There are some great masses of plantings in it and some interesting fountains and pools, and the best play structure I have ever seen.  This is a giant fiberglass sculpture of Gulliver that human Lilliputians can climb all over and slide down.  It was crawling with happy Lilliputians when I walked around it.  The ultra futuristic and magnificently bizarre Ciudad des Arts y de Science is in this long beltline park as well.  That is a whole different topic, but for the fact that the future features nature in a zoo format as well.  The Jardi botanic was full of doves.  The Ciudad was empty but for captive aquatic Ocean creatures in the Oceanografic and a scattering of awestruck people.
Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides

After consulting the map I saw that I had probably gone too far in the river bed, so I found a ramp to get back up to street level and located a garden across the road.  This turned out to be an ultra modern park called the Jardi de Hesperides.  This relates to a classic tale of Hercules.  Lines of sheered Italian Cypresses must have looked great on the plan, but as well built as this garden is, it was so quiet that the only people there were 3 homeless people sleeping on sleek benches in the shade.  A modernist statue of Hercules posed where it was placed on the drawing on one side of an arrow straight hedge from a very rectangular reflecting pool.  It needed something to reflect in it.  I love to take photos and I had a really hard time finding a good view of this place.
Botanical Scooter

There was lush exuberance of tall trees on the other side of a high masonry wall so I tried to figure out how to get to it, but once again I went the long way around.  It was long blocks of tall residential blocks with iron balconies.  And then there was a clue, a white motor scooter painted with plants and insects.  You don't see botanical scooters all that often...

Around the corner was a wall covered in high end graffiti of anthropomorphic plants with roots like fingers and an octoplant.  I felt I was getting warmer, but where were the grand iron gates with a jungle of botanical riches trying to be made to behave that I was seeking.  
A marvelous fantasy mural near the Jardi Botanic
Entry Atrium to the Botany Building of the University of Valencia

A drab rather ugly building has a totally unceremonious entryway in to a spatially cool round atrium with a large tree reaching up to the circle of light at the top.  A veil of Pothos hang from the round balconies like green cascades.  Beyond that is a 210 year old grove of everything that survived being planted there.  Half the beds are rather scraggly because of the root competition with some true giants but there are many magnificent trees and shrubs to be found here.
Giant Gingko biloba

The largest Gingko biloba tree I have ever seen was in full gold fall color to one side of the first set of perpendicular paths, maybe 20 meters tall (60 feet).  Then the biggest Zelkova carpinifolias. A 120 foot Italian Stone Pine surpassed it in height.   Massive oak species native to southern Spain I didn’t know existed soared over me.  A huge Chorisia speciosa from Argentina with its spiny bulbous trunk must be spectacular when covered in pink blossoms.  

A towering Quercus cerris, the Turkey Oak
The smaller Nolina longifolia  was only 5 meters tall (16 feet) but that is gigantic for the species.  I was starting to get a botanical boner!  You know what they say...big plants...

Cousin It, a magnificent specimen of Nolina longifolia

A beautiful specimen of Podocarpus nerifolius
Zelkova carpinifolia, native to the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe

A Casurina stump had a badly translated elegy by its stump, but they are kind of ugly trees and certainly not rare, so if you had to lose one…

There is a wonderful iron shade house that was restored after a fire in 1990.  It shows that you can still build things like this.  It was originally made of cast zinc.  My favorite thing inside was a small ball of Tilandsias hanging on a long wire over the central fountain.  The hot houses, that are a big draw for me in botanical gardens were not all that exciting.  They are old but not particularly elegant, being a half arc in front of a heat absorbing wall and were full of overgrown specimens that no longer fit gracefully in the spaces.  One has the usual collection of orchids and another has bromeliads, but these were not open to visitors.
A reconstructed iron Shade House replaces a zinc structure of the same design that burned in a fire
The most sculptural and interesting part of the garden is the Cactus and Euphorbia Succulent area.  Aeoniums are native to the Mediterranean and grow in to beautiful specimens here.  Cactus grow in the western hemisphere, while their biological cousins the Euphorbias fill th dry environmental niche in the eastern hemisphere.  
Aloes, Euphorbias, and Palms

Barrel Cactus

A potpourri of cactus

Agaves and Aloes and Yuccas add a spiky contrast to the linear and platy shapes of the cacti and candalabra forms of tall Euphorbias.  A large Euphorbia candelabrum in the garden has wonderful wavy ridges in the bark of the trunk that look like serpents climbing the plant.

A beautiful specimen of Yucca brevifolia shows how stately this plant can become with age, developing an elephant foot like trunk.
North American native Yucca brevifolia
Must be fun to weed around Agave americana
Cycads in a bed of prehistoric plants

Spending the afternoon in the garden was a much needed haven from the bustle of the city.  Turtle doves were cooing all over and lighting on fountains to drink.  I looped around for a second or third look at various parts of the garden.  There are vegetable beds and a collection of citrus that were laden with fruit, and I filled my day pack with a delicious assortment for later.  Now I am in the beautiful city of Malaga, which also has a Botanical Garden.  I look forward to indulging my botanical fetishes there once again.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey


  1. Jeffrey
    Great post! I had a wonderful visit here, as well, after spending days exploring the Turia Gardens, Monforte, and more.
    I stayed across the streeat at a boutique hotel, Hotel Jardín Botanico - very convenient.
    Have yet to visit Morrocco so I'm filled with garden travel envy. Please keep in touch about your book.
    Good to find your blog via FB - Bracey Tiede's link. Cheers!
    aka Alice's Garden Travel Buzz

  2. I really enjoyed touring these botanic gardens with you. Wonderful to see centuries-old trees -- no experience quite like it. I so agree with your comments about spaces designed from a plan view and how they fail on the ground plane. Perhaps an over-reliance on CAD...

  3. Looks like you had a great time! And you had much BETTER weather than my cousin and I did a week before. I am so happy for you.
    spain itinerary