Culture.pl interviewed Marcin Zych, a scientist at the Botanic Garden of the University of Warsaw. During our conversation, we got to discover the history, the science, and, of course, the plants.
Culture.pl: Is the University of Warsaw's Botanic Garden a special place to you because of its beauty or do you just see this garden as an ordinary workplace?
MZ: It’s both these things, actually. I've been working here for 20 years, so it’s a workplace. But a very special one. I think most of my friends and colleagues envy me because it’s really nice to work in such pleasant surroundings. Even though I work at the very heart of Warsaw, near the prime minister’s office and the Belvedere presidential palace, my workplace is full of trees, flowers, bees, and greenery. It’s much nicer to work in a botanical garden than in any other place, I'd say.
Culture: What are your most interesting specimens? Do you have any meat-eating plants, for instance?
MZ: The garden’s collection comprises over five thousand taxa. So it’s quite large, especially when taking into account that it’s confined to a relatively small area of about 5 hectares. I think everyone can find something suitable for themselves here. We’ve got greenhouses, we’ve got the nice park collection, I think we have most of the life forms and ecological forms that exist in plant life. We’ve got carnivorous plants, orchids, Polish plants, European plants, tropical plants… actually, any plant you could think of can probably be found in the garden.
Culture: There are ruins in the garden, what’s the story behind that?
MZ: The garden has a very long history. In three years' time we’ll celebrate our 200th anniversary, so it’s not only a place where you can find plants but also where you can encounter history. The garden was created as a part of the Royal Łazienki Park so we are at the very heart of history, Warsaw and Poland. The ruin you mentioned is the place that was meant to have been the Temple of Providence, which is currently being built in Warsaw’s district of Wilanów. In the 18th century, to commemorate the Constitution of 3rd May 1791, the king, nobility, and members of parliament planned to build a large cathedral in the garden. They eventually put a small monument here, which is now a little, ruin-like building, but luckily for the garden, the temple was never built here. We still have this monument though.
Culture: This brings us to the long history of the garden. What are the most interesting episodes of this history?
MZ: I think that the garden’s history reflects the history of Poland. The garden was first created in 1818 by one of the Russian Tsars who used to rule over a part of Poland. Around that time, the University of Warsaw was created. In the beginning the garden was much larger than it is today and covered an area of 22 hectares. After one of the risings against the Tsars the garden was made four times smaller. So we were once a large garden, now we are one of the smallest gardens in Poland. After Poland regained independence the garden thrived in the interwar period. Sadly, during World War II much of the garden’s collection was destroyed. So the history of the garden is strongly linked to the history of Poland.
Culture: There are laboratories in the buildings in the garden. What kind of work do you do in these labs?
MZ: The Botanic Garden is a part of the university and specifically a part of the Faculty of Biology. I myself am a professor working as a university teacher. But I also run scientific projects. Our scientific work mostly concerns plant reproduction…
Culture: The birds and the bees…
MZ: Yes, that’s true. It’s not only about bees though, but also about flies, butterflies, and so on. Together with my colleagues we actually work on the border between botany and zoology, although we are of course botanists and plant scientists. We are interested in the relations between plants and animals in floral ecology and floral biology. So that’s what we work on in these labs.
Culture: There are also greenhouses in the garden. Could you grow some vegetables or fruit for yourself in them?
MZ: We don’t do that… but we could, of course. Actually one of the greenhouses called the Arid Greenhouse is very old and was originally a pineapple house which produced crops for the king’s kitchen. Now we grow cacti and arid plants there. We have a tropical greenhouse, where we show our visitors orchids and epiphytic plants, and a very nice and modern palm house. There is also a collection of usable tropical plants, economic plants, so you can see papayas, coffee trees, and other plants that are grown as commercial crops in the tropics.
Culture: What kind of people visit the garden?
MZ: We know who the visitors are pretty well, because last year we did a sociological survey of that. It seems that we are visited mostly by 30-year-old women. In general it is mostly women who visit the garden. The ratio of male to female visitors is 4 to 6. Most of the visitors are between 25 and 45 years of age. There are also many visitors that are over 60 years old. Many children come here as well for classes in biology, botany, and other sciences. We run a lot of workshops for kids actually. Annually we have between 50 and 60 thousand visitors.
Culture: What kind of facilities do you have for foreigners?
MZ: We have a web page that’s available in English and hopefully we’ll have German and Russian versions of this page in the future. Most of our educational materials such as guidebooks and leaflets are available in English. Some leaflets are available in German. We try as much as possible to be friendly to foreigners.
Culture: What would you say is the best time of year to visit the garden?
MZ: It all depends on one’s likes and dislikes. I myself like spring the most. We’re talking in the end of May, when there’s a huge display of lilacs flowering in the garden and I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of the year. I love autumn as well. In mid-September and October, the leaves fall, there’s a lot of colours in the garden, it’s more quiet, more peaceful, there’s fewer people visiting and that’s when I tend to stroll in the garden.
Culture: The New York Botanical Garden recently organized an exhibition featuring a reconstruction of the garden of the famous painter Frida Kahlo; what special events or expositions does the University of Warsaw Botanic Garden organize?
MZ: First of all, we have special botanical and floral shows of course. They’re devoted to certain interesting types of plants, for instance, carnivorous plants, or orchids. We also have shows devoted to animals, we have a very nice autumn festival about bees, flowers and pollination. We host art exhibitions in the garden as well. Additionally there’s a blues concert every now and then. There’s a very enthusiastic group of musicians who occasionally perform this kind of music live in the garden. So if you happen to visit the garden there’s a chance that you’ll encounter a very nice concert.