Vienna’s botanical garden enacts the history of the Empire in the splendor of flowers

systgr_05_qu_grThe first thing you notice is the air. Softer somehow and faintly perfumed, it’s as though you’ve stepped into a different atmosphere, busy with scent. Then come the sights. A parched cluster of imperious cacti stand opposite a bright and dainty selection of alpine flora, their whites and blues lovingly transplanted from distant, snowy peaks. You know that what you’re seeing has no right to be in the midst of a bustling urban center like this; yet here, incredibly, it all is.

Few places in this city are as seductive as the University of Vienna’s Botanical Garden at the Belvedere. Whether you’re a scientist or a sun worshipper, a gardener or a gallery-goer, this oasis in the 3rd district manages to be so many things to so many people, offering up its charms for free all year round.

Founded by Empress Maria Theresa in 1754, the Botanical Garden initially covered an area of one hectare and was used to grow plants thought to have medicinal qualities. Today, those modest beginnings are dwarfed by an almost eight-hectare stretch running alongside the Belvedere from Rennweg to the Gürtel, containing some 11,500 different species.

Despite growing far beyond its original boundaries, the garden wears its history on its sleeve. The original grounds (a small section currently closed for inspections) lie just off the main entrance, standing at the foot of a gentle incline that rises in long, lush tranquility. From this base, numerous paths wind through displays as diverse as Chinese imports to native plants of the former Austro-­Hungarian Empire. The considered cultivation illustrates the evolution of the site through the centuries, from a limited provider of natural remedies to an extensive collection of varied plant life from all over the world.

“There are layers of time everywhere,” says Barbara Knickmann, the garden’s Collection Manager. “Throughout, you can see different coatings of thought and of how different plants were perceived to be related in the past.”

This is emphasized by a “systematic” layout covering about a third of the garden, and grouping plants according to their familial relation. The soft crunch of the gravel paths takes you meandering through a series of low-lying, carefully tended flowerbeds that form a chain of interconnected flora. Much of this section lacks the visual punch of other parts of the garden, but it appeals for other reasons. The immaculately maintained circular flowerbeds hearken back to the way the garden looked in Imperial times – a row of earthy portholes punched into deep-green turf still functioning as they were meant to then, drawing the eye to the single plant within. This echo of the garden’s former incarnations means the space can feel like a botanical palimpsest, retaining traces of its former life while thriving in a magnificent, fertile present.

bambus_04_qu_grGreener on both sides
There are some brilliant sights here. An enormous Rock’s Peony is currently in outrageous bloom a few feet from the aptly named Handkerchief Tree, positively festooned in the brilliant, pure white bracts surrounding its flowers. Waiting on higher ground is a majestic bamboo grove, which evolved from a solitary plant in 1894 into one of the largest of its sort in Central Europe today. To satisfy the understandable urge, bridges give the curious visitor the chance to wade inside without damaging new shoots.

The Botanical Garden is much more than it might appear: not only a venue for academic research and teaching, for conservation and public outreach, it also counts as one of the city’s most elegant and beguiling recreational spaces.

Readers lounge next to aromatic herb gardens, while joggers pass by dustings of technicolor corollas fluttering in the breeze.


University of Vienna’s Botanical Garden at the Belvedere

Main entrance Mechelgasse/Praetoriusgasse

Open daily, 10:00–18:00 (through Sept 30)