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18 February 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 11:37am

Botanical gardens are the cathedrals of our times

In the bleak midwinter, there are few walks more energising.

By John Burnside

As a child, I was always intrigued by the question: what is it that distinguishes a city from a town? Is it size? Population? Location? When I asked grown-ups, the confident answer was that a city has to have a cathedral – which, to a child raised in a devout Catholic setting, made sense. Yet the historical logic (that cathedrals, as centres of pilgrimage, had been big business from the Middle Ages on) wasn’t what struck me; naively, I just assumed that these ecclesiastical businesses were important only for the spiritual and psychological succour they offered the poor and the weary.

Even now, cathedrals remain powerful statements of a culture and, to Christians, significant symbols of their faith, but if I were drawing up the rules for what made a city of any worth, my first point of reference would be its botanical garden. These days, I find I have no need of organised religion to guide me through the days. Yet as a denizen of what Henry Miller called “the air-conditioned nightmare”, I find comfort in almost any exposure to the intricate order of the natural world.

For a city-dweller, this is especially important in winter – and it is where the botanical garden comes into its own. Clearly, any well-kept garden will be a source of pleasure in the summer months; in the bleak urban midwinter, however, there are few activities more likely to energise the spirit than a botanical walk.

The Botanischer Garten in Berlin has one of Europe’s finer winter trails, leading in careful order from glasshouses devoted to African-American and Australian desert species, through a fine collection of tropical plants, and on to the orchid house. The wanderer emerges into the open air – past stands of yucca and high desert cactuses that can survive even a heavy snow, past an elegant conifer arboretum – to a final high point in what may be the most beautiful of winter trees, the Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), a beauty that offers not only translucent yellow flowers, but a surprisingly heady scent, even on the coldest days (the flowers can survive temperatures of -10°).

This walk, like other planned winter trails in gardens all over the world, understandably emphasises plants that offer bright colour and sweet perfumes during the winter months. But another aspect of any large garden is the simple beauty of winter trees – and again, botanical gardens and arboretums excel here because they usually situate a large variety of different tree species in close proximity, allowing the viewer to appreciate, by direct contrast, the huge diversity of forms, habitats and nuances that the arboreal realm offers. Those cathedrals our ancestors built were inspired by forests; as Emerson writes, they

plainly originated in a rude adaptation of the forest trees with all their boughs to a festal or solemn arcade, as the bands about the cleft pillars still indicate the green withes that tied them . . . In the woods on a winter afternoon one will see as readily the origin of the stained-glass window, with which the Gothic cathedrals are adorned, in the colours of the western sky seen through the bare and crossing branches of the forest.

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A modern arboretum brings us that ancient forest and, with it, a changed apprehension of time, a renewed appreciation of the elegance of natural form and a renewed sense of wonder at the variety of the world we inhabit. For this reason alone, surely the best way of judging a city’s worth for our own time is not so much the size or beauty of its cathedral, but the energy that goes into the creation and maintenance of its gardens.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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