Listen to this article
If I had known more, I might not have been so surprised. Large-scale alpine gardens are about as unfashionable as any style in modern gardening. I am one of their greatest fans. I used to work in one. I am considering digging up my entire lawn and turning it into an alpinarium with rocks and curving paths. The last place I expected to find a good one was Wroclaw, in Poland. I hardly even managed to find Wroclaw, after mistaking it for Warsaw and buying a ticket for there instead. Eventually I found it and its rockery but only because of my basic principle in towns abroad. If in doubt, head for the botanic garden.
In Wroclaw the garden is the Ogrod Botaniczny, nearly 20 acres big on a leafy site beside the city’s central tramlines. The first impressions were predictable: lots of scarlet begonias, varieties of heuchera with gold-brown leaves, French marigolds in vivid colours and too many mini-dahlias with names such as Tiger’s Orange. In Britain most of these garish plants are outlawed. Some big pots with scented Daturas were more promising and throughout I began to notice how the black soil was carefully tended. In Wroclaw they still cut their irises back to little fans of leaves after flowering. So, I walked with more interest past some rare green trees above carpets of Vancouveria (Wankuweria, in Polish), past beds of thistly eryngiums and plenty of Evening Primrose. I enjoyed learning that a Polish Evening Primrose is a Wiesiolek.
Sunlight then broke through the grey sky and fell on groups of rodgersias, a big-leaved gunnera and plenty of hardy geraniums. In front was what I took to be a long lake, enlivened by two finely spraying fountains. It is really rather charming, I began to think, and, look, there is even a bridge that might have appealed to the painter Monet. I then looked up and beyond it and gazed in love and wonder. On the further bank, there was not just a little rockery, made from a few unwanted stones, but towering pinnacles of rock, surrounded with fallen stones and screes. There were outcrops and paths interrupted with natural slabs of stone. I could even see a Slavic pulsatilla with fluffy seed heads. On about three acres, the Poles of Wroclaw have an alpine garden that makes Kew’s look like a tame disgrace.
Our great authority on English rock gardens, Reginald Farrer, deplored the sort of rockery whose stones look as though they have been dropped at random by Satan. He called them a “Devil’s Lapful”. In Poland the Devil has been busily throwing stones. Parts of the Wroclaw alpinarium wondrously ignore all Farrer’s principles. They had thistly plants in a collapsed “lapful”. They had whole sections whose rocks looked as if they had landed at random from a drone. Not all the plants were true alpines. There was white-flowered Dictamnus, or Burning Bush, and an Aster called Chinski Lemon. However, there were also great mats of mountain gentians, fine hepaticas and a big prickly bush of Acantholimon, which I last saw in mountain gorges in Crete. Flowers of the woods and meadows of central Europe were well represented. The green labelling was superb and there was hardly a weed to be seen.
I was so quickly out of my depth. Dianthus, or pinks, are Gozdzik in Polish. Would you be able to identify a Gozdzik called furcatus tener or even an arpedianus? There were tight little aethionemas and excellent green labels for things such as Crocus scepusiensis of which I have never even heard. As I left, chastened and thrilled, I noticed that the beds opposite the alpinarium had an iris called Frisbee and another called Sass with Class.
I needed an expert, preferably with an interpreter. The following day I was treated to a personal interview with Jolanta Kozlowska-Kalis, the inspektor, no less, of the Wroclaw botanic garden for 28 years, from 1980 to 2008. An aspiring young Polish ancient historian interpreted and across words such as fiolek for “viola”, she and I communed for hours, knowing that, underneath, we loved the same thing.
In 1945 the botanic garden suffered serious war damage. The greenhouses were ruined and anti-aircraft guns took their place. When the Russians entered, nobody gave the place much of a future. From 1950 onwards, its communist controllers worked to rebuild it, reckoning, rightly, it was a major cultural asset. The trees I had admired were mostly installed under communist rule. Jolanta had been inspektor both under and after communism. As Wroclaw city is now short of funds, she cannot say that the post-communist years have been easier for her garden. She had up to 12 gardeners even behind the old Iron Curtain. She was also encouraged to plant in a big arboretum and secondary garden outside the city. The mastermind of the alpinarium was not a communist. He was HR Goeppert, a doctor and palaeobotanist in the 1860s. Somehow, I think his surprising garden belongs with cultural movements of the time in Poland, with one eye on surrounding German taste. “Where did he find all the rock?” I asked Jolanta. “In the mining area of Lower Silesia,” she replied and wrote down the place name. Here it is: Wolbrzyih. It is not the sort of place I will want to ring up for a truckload myself.
Out of her cupboard she produced a valued certificate. It declared that her arboretum had been certified by the American Day Lily society. In a happy flood of Polish she then asked me to give her best wishes to our own John Sales. For many years Sales was the famous gardens adviser to our National Trust. He had been on a visit to Wroclaw and she had been to England. Had she learnt anything from the English garden? “National collections,” she replied, to my surprise. She had returned home and set up a national collection of all the old Polish-bred varieties of Day Lily. It was not easy, she said. “In Poland we do not have your English grannies who have hung on to forgotten old plants. Poles like the latest varieties.” I thought of Iris Sass with Class.
“The alpinarium is not beside a lake,” she corrected me. “The water is part of the river Oder.” Classicists such as me only meet the Oder when we stray into the history of the first world war. We never expect to find it beside a rock garden. “We make our own labels and I chose the fountains,” she told me. She should be brought over to enliven the fountains round London’s Marble Arch with some fine spray.
In the Wroclaw garden the working hours are 7am to 3pm. There are some tiresome rats but no rampaging badgers. I could combine a job there with a second career but there are no gardening columns in the newspapers, not much gardening on television and the young Poles have little interest now in gardening. “They are all digital,” Jolanta told me, wistfully. I had always thought they liked growing raspberries and turning them into a lethal liqueur.
She produced two fine colour mementos of her miles of hemerocallis, marching across the landscape outside Wroclaw beneath the clouds of a red sunset. “You must come next time and see them,” she said. I certainly will. They are one of the less-famous sights of central Europe in the second week in July. I will also go back to the rocks, the pinnacles and the Gozdzik. It is so inspiring. Even if you cannot speak a word of Polish, you can still engage the heart through a shared love of flowers.
Letter in response to this article: