The university Botanical Gardens, a lush oasis in the centre of Prague

01-06-2011

In a lovely corner of Prague just south of the busy square Karlovo Náměstí is one of the city centre’s special secrets. The Charles University Botanical Gardens are not the biggest in the city but they have the distinction of a perfect location: crammed into a normal city block between the old town and the hill of Vyšehrad are the enormous greenhouses that with the surrounding eight acres host some 5,000 types of plants from all over the world and provide a peaceful oasis for Prague denizens.

Ladislav Pavlata is the director of the Botanical Gardens:

“The Botanical Gardens of Charles University are among the oldest university gardens in Europe. Before it was moved to this side of the Vltava, it was on the Smichov embankment on the other side, and since that time there is the street “V Botanice” in Smichov. The first university gardens there went back to the 14th century. But at the end of the 19th century the gardens were moved here to Na Slupi street, where they’ve been now for some 112 years.”

The garden was originally divided into two halves by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one for the German University and one for the Czech university and the two parts were only brought together under the inauspicious circumstances of 1939, when they were reserved entirely for the use of the German university. In 1945 then, after the war, the German university was merged into the Czech, and the gardens were solely under the auspices of Charles University.

Pavlata: “The students here are able to do experiments for their bachelors’ degrees or dissertations, of course they also use the gardens for general botanical studies, and it’s also a place where they can relax between classes. The Department of Botany of Charles University is right here in the gardens, as are the departments of plant and animal physiology at the edge of the gardens, so they also use it as a shortcut from the trams.”

The public can get almost as much out of this educational institution as the students though. The gardens are freely accessible from morning to evening in the summer, as are the gardens’ dominant features, the historic tropical and subtropical greenhouses, open to the public for a mere 50 crowns and boasting some very unique flora, like a two to 400-year old Cycas Cecalis estimated to be worth a million crowns. Doctorate student Tomáš Procházka showed me around some of the rarities.

Pavlata: “The exhibits that we have in the Botanical Gardens are really unique because they’ve been here since the 1920s, like the exhibit of cacti or the exhibit of exotic birds. The cacti exhibit begins this weekend for the 44th time. We organise it in concert with the Association of Cacti and Succulents Growers and it will run for 14 days. Visitors can see the collections of Czech cactus growers and if they’re interested they can get a lot of advice on raising cacti and purchase some. It’s a very popular exhibit of high standard that brings cactus growers from all over the country.”

The Botanical Gardens have always worked closely with amateurs, whether fishkeepers, bird breeders or cactus cultivators, some of which Mr Pavlata says have become so good that the gardens needed their own cacti specialist, which they found in Mr Prochazka, to stay on top of their game. Taking an amateur interest in biology is just one of many ways you can enjoy the central Botanical Gardens to the fullest.

Pavlata: “The gardens have three and a half hectares and it’s a wonderful oasis of peace in the middle of the city, used by mothers with children and locals for relaxation… There’s a wonderful climate and a wonderful atmosphere here, so you really don’t even realise that you’re in the middle of the city.”

01-06-2011