A Horticultural Prague Spring
by Bobby J. Ward
The Czech playwright Karel Čapek is celebrated for introducing the word “robot” to the world vocabulary. It was coined by his artist brother, Josef, and appeared in R.U.R., a science fiction play that Čapek wrote in 1921. To gardeners, however, Čapek (pronounced CHOP-ek) is known for The Gardener’s Year (1929), in which he wrote, “Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart.” From that you can infer that the book is not an idyllic meditation on the joys of gardening; rather, it is a psychological comedy in which Čapek fights the “tyranny” of watering hoses, scorching sun, the “animosity and callousness” of soil, and the “dense embroidery” of plant lice. And, oh yes, there are visitors to his garden who think that a prized campanula is a radish.
My introduction to Karel Čapek was through Norman Singer of Massachusetts, a NARGS past president, who sent me a copy of the book in the early 1990s, inscribing it “One of my favorite books.” Subsequently, at NARGS meetings I learned of modern Czech gardeners through Andrew Osyany of Ontario, whose Karmic Exotix list was for a number of years the North American distributor of seeds collected by several Czech plantsmen. At the time, the high alpine locales of seed listed in the catalog were truly “exotix” to me, a neophyte rock gardener: the Caucasus, the Altai, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia. Through NARGS lecture programs and study weekends I soon met Josef Halda and Vojtech Holubec, two renowned Czech plant hunters and seed collectors who are frequent speakers at rock gardening groups in North America.
In January 1997 Vojtech visited North Carolina on a NARGS speaker’s tour. A friend and I took him to several local areas to see native plants in the Wake County Piedmont. We kept up correspondence off and on through the years, and I relied on him for information when I became interested in modern-day plant hunters and seed collectors, including the Czechs. From that interest, Vojtech introduced me to a fellow alpine garden enthusiast, Josef Jurásek; both of them now operate alpine and rock garden seed businesses in Prague.
This past spring, Vojtech invited me to speak at a meeting of the Rock Garden Club of Prague (RGCP) and to attend its alpine plant show. I jumped at the opportunity. My visit coincided with Prague Spring, a citywide international music festival celebrating the season, and commemorating in its name the first, suppressed attempt of the Czechs to overthrow the former communist regime. On the trip I met three Czech NARGS members whose gardens I visited, along with Vojtech’s.
Rock Garden Club of Prague
The Rock Garden Club of Prague (Klub Skalnickaru Praha, Ceska Republika) was founded in 1970. It has a membership of some 800 locals and about 60 foreign members. The club manages an annual seed exchange and publishes a quarterly bulletin, Skalnicky (Rock Garden Plants). Its members organize short weekend trips to local gardens and longer trips to the Caucasus and other alpine areas in Asia and Europe. Several of the members operate seed businesses and nurseries, often exhibiting and selling plants at three alpine plant shows that the club annually organizes, two in the spring and one in the fall. The best is the Main Spring Show, held in May and lasting for three weeks. I attended the 36th annual show, held this year from 4 to 21 May, and saw an exhibition of at least a thousand alpines. Judging by the members I met, they are passionate growers who are experienced and skilled in cultivating alpine plants.
The spring show is held on the parish grounds of a Roman Catholic church, St. John on the Rock. The churchyard is rented by the RGCP for its plant sales and is the site of a large permanent collection of rock and alpine plantings maintained by club members. The church, a Bohemian Baroque building dating from 1730, is on a busy corner on Karlovo Namesti (Charles Square) next door to Faust House, a part of the Faculty of Medicine of the sprawling Medical Center of Charles University (founded in 1348). The sixteenth-century alchemist and astrologer Dr. Johann Faustus lived there for a while, and legend has it that he was carried off to hell by the Devil through a hole in the roof of Faust House. With that juxtaposition of the profane and sacred in mind, I walked very carefully under the heavy stone archway into the churchyard, where I immediately noticed the quietness; the enclosure muffled the sound of streetcars and hospital ambulances a few yards away.
At the club’s sales and display area, I was met by Alena Linzmajer, who was overseeing the sales, greeting visitors, and assisting in vendor stock replacement. The flyer for the show listed 49 vendors this year. In the sales area you can find a wide assortment of alpine plants as well as dwarf trees and shrubs. Some of the best plants were gentians, rhododendrons, irises, daphnes, fritillaries, and numerous species of saxifrages and androsaces. There were at least a dozen forms of Lewisia and an equal number of Phlox, Penstemon, and Trillium. Alphabetically, you could view and purchase anything from Abies koreana ‘Blauer Eskimo’ to Wulfeniana amherstiana. If your pocketbook and U.S. customs were not such a barrier, you could completely stock a new rock garden from purchases at the show.
Alena directed me to the display garden area of Saint John on the Rock, which is about an acre (0.4 hectare). The plantings are generally arranged by geographic region (Europe, the Americas, the Mediterranean, Asia, and South Africa). RGCP members have spread plants among crevices and around small and large boulders, with the rock types varying by region. During my visit I saw several species of Phlox, Cytisus decumbens, Rhodohypoxis, Lewisia, and Campanula. A natural-looking pond and a small bridge have been built in one area. Rhododendrons, daphnes, and small maples spread nearby under a large oak. Scattered among the rocks are Bergenia, Epimedium, Leontopodium, Aquilegia, Clematis, and various genera of orchids. There were also plantings of Genista, Trollius, Tiarella, Dicentra, Alyssum, and Fothergilla. In a sunny area the RGCP has planted large troughs with Echinocactus and other cacti.
The display area of the church is open to the public only during the three plant shows, but it is maintained year round by club members. Because the churchyard is in a busy part of Prague, the RGCP recruits new members at each of its shows. Employees at the nearby medical center wander into the grounds during their lunch breaks.
Vojtech Holubec’s Garden
Vojtech Holubec is an agronomist with the Czech Gene Bank, testing plantings of varieties of wheat and other cereal crops. He was one of the youngest members of the Rock Garden Club of Prague, joining at age 16. Vojtech also began corresponding with Norman Singer and NARGS at that time.
He gardens on 800 square meters (0.2 acre) in the Suchdol section of Prague, across the river from downtown. His walled garden is filled with large boulders that had to be lifted by crane (the neighbors wondered what was happening). The limestone from the Czech Karst (sea sediments from the Devonian Period) is advantageously arrayed to display plants from various geographic regions: North America, Caucasus, Europe (Alps, the Balkan Peninsula, Slovakia, Pyrenees) Turkey, and Central Asia (Tien Shan, Altai, Far East, and the Himalaya).
There are mounds of scree, tufa, and flat stones standing upright, all with alpine and rock garden “jewels” tucked among them, most of the plants grown from seed. Vojtech estimates he has about 4,500 plants. Behind the house he has a large collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, various clematis, aroids poking through the ground, asarums, and several dwarf Pinus mugo. One of the knockouts is a handsome, vigorous white form of Gentiana clusii. On the south side of the house, he has a greenhouse with a plunge sand bed crammed with plants, some rooting and others waiting to be potted or transplanted. The walkway to his house is lined with large troughs, many containing dwarf conifers and witches’ brooms, a vast collection totaling 800 or more plants amassed by his son David, now 20. David, a member of the Czech Conifer Society, has traveled outside the Czech Republic looking for fine conifer specimens and brooms, which he trades with other society members or plants in the family garden. In the front of the house old, bleached-out tree stumps have been placed, enhancing the feeling of a high-altitude landscape.
On my visit to his garden, Vojtech pointed out damage from a late frost two weeks earlier. Still, many plants had begun leafing out without injury. There was a very dwarf Tilia cordata(linden tree), two forms of horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum ‘Cristata’ and ‘Laciniata’), Beesia calthifolia, and beautiful red-flowering Magnolia ‘Susan’ and a pink Magnolia ‘Koern’. I was particularly pleased to be shown Erythronium umbilicatum, obtained in Raleigh during Vojtech’s trip to speak to our chapter in 1997, and Trillium pusillium subsp. alabamiense, a species Vojtech obtained from a NARGS member in Delaware. Vojtech raises many plants from seeds collected by himself and other members of the club or obtained by mail. Among his favorite plants tucked about the garden are Convolvulus, Callianthemum (Ranunculaceae), Saxifraga, Daphne, and Gentiana. He finds that seeds collected in Turkey and the Caucasus grow best for him.
Vojtech’s current writing project is a book with Pavel Krivka titled The Caucasus and Its Flowers (2005), a large-format, hardcover book in English. It will be available from the NARGS Book Service, or directly from Vojtech (see address below) for 83 euros or equivalent in U.S. dollars. NARGS recently granted funds supporting its publication.
Charles University Botanical Garden
The current Charles University Botanical Garden was founded in 1898 (some references say 1845) and consists of 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres) There was an older university garden begun in 1775 in Prague, but it was repeatedly damaged by floods over the years and was ultimately relocated to its present site at Na Slupi Street near Charles Square. The botanical garden has the feel of a public park (admission is free) with numerous benches, quiet shady places, and several levels of winding paths, a few of which unexpectedly dead-end. Lilacs, rhododendrons, and azaleas were at their peak of spring bloom when I visited. There are several greenhouses for the protection and display of tender tropical plants, including an extensive collection of cacti, succulents, and aquatic plants, and large old cycads. The bulk of the outdoor collection focuses on trees and flora of central Europe; there is also a small limestone rock garden on a hillside. In addition, there are several mature tree species from North America and large rhododendrons from Asia situated about the garden.
Lining a sidewalk in large wooden barrels were five Phoenix canariensis, the Canary Islands date palm, recently removed from greenhouses to spend the summer out of doors. A herbarium, adjacent to the botanical garden, was founded in 1775 at the Department of Botany; it houses 2.2 million specimens (access by permission).
My main purpose in visiting the garden was to see Ginkgo biloba ‘Praga’ (also called ‘Prague’ and ‘Pragense’), a male weeping form that is somewhat dwarf (12 feet/3.6 meters high). It did not disappoint me; Vojtech and Josef Jurásek had taken me to see it three years earlier during a cold December afternoon, when its stocky trunk and pendulous limbs, devoid of leaves, looked like metal sculpture in the waning light. It maintains a sentinel position at the entrance to the Botany Department.
Alena and Zdenek Linzmajer’s Garden
Alena and Zdenek Linzmajer garden on a somewhat dry, clay hillside that faces south with an open, sunny aspect. Their plot was originally rented some 50 years ago by Zdenek’s father and a local gardening club. There are other gardens in this collective on adjacent neighboring plots separated by wire fences, where people grow fruits, vegetables, and cut flowers. Originally in an isolated, wooded part of Prague, the collective is now bordered by the busy D-1 highway leading to Brno and by apartments and office buildings. Still, it is a surprisingly peaceful oasis. The site gives the Linzmajers additional space away from their home to grow and test new rock garden plants, one of their passions. They have a well and a shed in which they store fruit from their fruit trees, gardening equipment, and fertilizers.
Alena and Zdenek told me the area of the garden is 580 sq meters (0.14 acre), but it seems much larger than that. It is clear they have spent many hours here setting up and maintaining a very fine rock garden. Except for the paths, there was hardly a square inch of space not covered with plants, the majority of which were in bloom. They have placed Daphne cneorum, D. cneorum ‘Pygmea’, and Daphne arbuscula among the rocks along with several species of Campanula and Gentiana. Here and there I saw delospermas, phloxes, Paeonia tenuifolia, Alyssum, and Helianthemum hybrids. They pointed out Aster coloradoensis, Acantholimon armenum (from Turkey), Fibigia triquetra (Brassicaceae), Leontopodium nivale, the blue-flowered Polygala calcarea and the purple-and-yellow P. vayredae, the latter from the Pyrenees.
RGCP Meeting and Lecture
Vojtech had invited me to speak at a meeting of the RGCP. The club meets on Novotneho Lavce Street in the building of the Czech Technological and Scientific Society, adjacent to the historic Charles Bridge. My talk on modern-day plant hunters was translated into Czech by Antonin (Tony) Svehla, a NARGS member from McLean, Virginia, who by coincidence was visiting Prague with his wife, Jana Svehlova.
After my lecture, we adjourned downstairs to a restaurant with RGCP members, and Josef Jurásek, famous for his love of beer, led a toast with a round of Platan (named for a plane tree located near the brewery in the town of Protivin) and then Pilsner Urquell (from the town of Pilsen). Over dinner, I was introduced to Milan Halada, another NARGS and RGCP member. He told me about his garden and invited me to visit, even though the sun was already low in the sky.
Milan Halada’s Garden
The last-minute invitation to Milan’s garden was an unexpected pleasure. Milan sped across town, taking Josef Jurásek, Tony Svehla, and me over the Palackého Bridge to a rural sector outside Prague called Hlubocepy. Here he guided around a special garden built inside a former quarry. The house and garden created by Milan’s father are surrounded on three sides with limestone walls at least 25 feet (7.6 meters) high. The quarry appears to be an exposed uplift of limestone, as the driveway entrance to the garden is uphill for a short distance. Some of the largest rocks are lichen-encrusted and others show beautiful striations, a result of geological compression, folding, and slanting.
Milan has found interesting ways to display plants around this uniquely situated garden. Walking about, it’s hard to tell which rock Milan put there or rearranged himself, and which ones were the result of quarrying operations before Milan’s father took over the space.
He has gentians, pulsatillas, phloxes, maples, daphnes, and saxifrages. One plant demanding attention in the fading light was the striking violet-colored Iris ruthenica, a species that ranges from eastern Europe to the Korean peninsula. There were numerous conifers around the garden, including cultivars of Pinus mugo and Juniperus communis.
Milan’s enthusiasm for alpine plants has created a sand bed nursery or “growing-up” area, with hundreds of pots of germinating seedlings and first-year plants crammed against the north wall of the quarry. The only drawback to this delightful visit was the interruption from noisy airplanes (Milan’s house is in the flight pattern of the Prague airport), reminding me that I would be returning to North Carolina the next morning.
As it was getting dark, Josef Jurásek urged me to abandon Milan and Tony, who were now looking at plants with a flashlight, and walk a quarter-mile with him to a rural roadside pub for one last round of Czech beer. Presently we were joined by Milan and Tony; the local clientele became amused at these strangers talking animatedly and enthusiastically about rock garden plants.
Back Home to North Carolina
As I was being driven to Prague’s Ruzyne Airport by Vojtech, I saw Vysehrad Cemetery in the distance. Karel Čapek and his wife, the actress Olga Scheinpflugova, are buried there on a hill overlooking the Vltava River (widely known by its German name, the Moldau), which flows through Prague. The cemetery contains the remains of many other people famous in Czech arts and sciences. Unlike other gravecaps in Vysehrad that are of stone or cement, the Capeks’ is made of soil, with a flower vase and a watering saucer for birds.
Vojtech told me about a pink-flowering saxifrage that honors the writer: Saxifraga x megaseaeflora ´Karel Čapek´. When I returned home, I searched the Internet and found that Arrowhead Alpines in Fowlerville, Michigan lists it. The catalog says it is an early bloomer, starting in January in the alpine house.
On the flight back to North Carolina, I read what Vojtech had written in 1992 in his book Skalyky a Jejich Stavba (Rock Gardens and Their Construction): “Tired of the pace of today’s civilization, we are turning to Nature in all its forms, often without realizing it. The cultivation of alpine plants is one of these returns.”
Capek expands on Vojtech’s theme with a wink, I believe, by writing that “the cultivator of a rock garden is not only a gardener, but a collector as well, and that puts him among the serious maniacs.”
Bobby J. Ward lives and gardens in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is the immediate past president of NARGS and the author of The Plant Hunter’s Garden: The New Explorers and Their Discoveries (Timber Press, 2004) and A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature (Timber Press, 1999 and 2005).
Membership address: Rock Garden Club of Prague, Marikova 5, 162 00 Prague 6, Petriny, Czech Republic. Annual dues 25 euros or equivalent in U.S. dollars.
Sources of Seed:
Josef J. Halda, Box 110, 501 01 Hdradec Kralove 2, Czech Republic.
Vojtech Holubec, Wild Collected Seeds, Sidlistni 210, 165 00 Prague 6, Czech Republic. www. Delonix.cz/Gb/seminum. Php.
Josef Jurásek, Wild Seeds of Exquisite Alpines, P.O. Box 251, 152 00 Prague 5, Czech Republic. www.jurasekalpines.com.
Vladislav Piatek, Zahumenni 2129, 708 00 Ostrava Poruba, Czech Republic, www.worldseeds.cz
Euroseeds, Mojmìr Pavelka, Box 95, 741 01 Novy Jicin, Czech Republic
Arrowhead Alpines, P.O. Box 857, Fowlerville, MI 48836. www.arrowhead-alpines.com
[This article appeared in the North American Rock Garden Society’s “Rock Garden Quarterly,” Fall 2005, Volume 63, number 4]