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Gartnertausch - The Exchange Programme of Technical and Horticultural Staff of the Hamburg Botanical Garden

Volume 2 Number 4 - December 1994

Hans-Helmut Poppendiek, Yuri Smirnoff, Michael Avishai, Juan Gaviria

The exchange of horticultural staff between botanic gardens, especially between the industrialized and lesser-developed countries, has been promoted and been around for many years. It was one of the ideas proposed at the first International Botanic Gardens Plant Conservation Conference convened at Kew in 1975, and included in almost all resolutions of international conferences on botanic gardens ever since (e.g. Gran Canaria, 1985 and Frankfurt, 1987). However simple the idea may be, its actual realisation in the past met with many difficulties. It requires determined individuals, favourable financial conditions and an ability to coordinate the efforts on both sides. Often, uncertainties regarding the garden's policies and its role in relation to the institution with which it is affiliated, such as the university or municipality, hamper the implementation of such an idea.

At the Monks Wood Conference on the Ecology of Threatened Plants and Plant Communities convened in 1978 in England, Loki Schmidt met Dr Avishai, Director of Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and started to discuss cooperation between gardeners interested in conservation. Loki Schmidt, a teacher with a life-long interest in plants, and the wife of the former Federal Chancellor of Germany, was in a unique position to promote plant conservation on a large scale. She had initiated a variety of activities in nature conservation and environmental education. She had established the German Foundation for Conservation of Threatened Plants. However, she was not only a fund-raiser but the brains behind the Foundation and its prime publicity-maker. Concepts like "The Plant of the Year", the "Silver Plant" and especially her contacts with botanic gardens in the cities in which she lived, enabled her to develop an excellent understanding of the problems of plant conservation undertaken at these institutions. She was always ready to mobilize her contacts, to attend meetings and to help found societies of friends of the various gardens. She persistently helped co-ordinate the activities of many German organizations and gardens, and promoted the case of plant conservation by organizing symposia at Bonn (1981) and Braunschweig (1983). This put her in a unique position to promote the exchange of gardeners.

Her 1982 visit to the Jerusalem Botanical Garden was the starting point for the project. Jerusalem needed help in the establishment of a tropical plant collection in a specially constructed greenhouse of 550msq. Hamburg needed additional plants for its collection of Mediterranean and other warm temperature greenhouses and specialist collections. With the help of Friede Springer, wife of the late influential publisher Axel Springer, the "Hamburger Abendblatt" was mobilised. Publicity helped to gain public support and Mr Peter Eggers, Superintendant of tropical and sub-tropical plant collections at the Hamburg Botanical Garden was chosen. His task in Jerusalem was to help with the planning and actual planting of the Florence Dworsky Display Conservatory. He helped with the choice of suitable locally available material, and material made available for the planting of the Conservatory by the Hamburg Botanical Garden, and he travelled around Israel studying the native flora and collecting material for the Hamburg collections. This enabled him to get acquainted with the horticultural industry of Israel, which is highly developed in fruit, vegetables and flower production, but not in greenhouse display. With the first personal contacts established, a number of additional staff members were able to travel to each other's countries. Today, students from Hamburg University and gardeners from the botanic garden visit Israel routinely, or work as volunteers in Jerusalem or other places in Israel.

Beside the exchange of gardeners and the establishment of personal contacts, a most successful exchange of plant material was established. Plants of the Holy Land travelled to the Hamburg Botanical Garden, temperate Central European flora to Jerusalem and many other tropical and sub-tropical plants followed suit. Mutual help and assistance helped overcome the complicated bureaucracy of customs regulations, pest control and the purchase and transport of plants. Annuals, hardy herbaceous plants, Citrus plants, and a variety of bulbs found their way into the botanic gardens of both countries.

The exchange scheme of the Hamburg Botanical Garden sponsored also exchanges on a smaller scale, eg. with Brazil, England, France, Turkey and Zimbabwe. However, these were of limited success because it is not always easy to find the right partner for an exchange both on an institutional and personal basis. In contrast to academic staff where exchange of members is well established and an important element of national and international institutions, the exchange of horticultural or technical staff presents difficulties because of language barriers and participating intitutions are less willing to grant paid leave to technical staff members. However, Hamburg University and the Botanical Garden were flexible and generous and a number of guidelines have been developed that safeguard the implementation of the aims and the reporting procedure of the horticultural staff exchange. Most importantly the participation in joint field excursions and collecting trips has proven to be an important aspect bridging differences in mentality, tradition and approach.

In 1992, a similar partnership was developed between Hamburg and the Botanical Garden of the Russian Academy of Sciences at St Petersburg. In the autumn of 1992, Peter Eggers visited Russia and succeeded in establishing a formal agreement between the two botanic gardens. At the end of 1992, Juri Smirnoff, the director of the St Petersburg Botanical Garden, repaid the visit and came to Hamburg together with Dr Nicolai Arnautov, the curator of the subtropical collections and Ms Poteskashina. They were given a reception by Loki and Helmut Schmidt together with the speaker of the Hamburg parliament, Elisabeth Kiausch, the latter acting as a patron for the friendly alliance between the people and the cities of Hamburg and St Petersburg. Her office has given valuable assistance, and Ms Kiausch herself took the opportunity to visit the Botanical Garden of St Petersburg on her official visit to the city in January 1993, and to renew the contacts with its staff.

In 1993, four gardeners from St Petersburg visited Hamburg and worked there for periods of up to three months, while two gardeners from Hamburg have repaid the visit. In addition, there have been visits and joint excursions based on the Gartnertausch programme, but sponsored privately or by other agencies.

It may be appropriate here to say a word or two about the philosophy of the Gärtnertausch. While it is a truism that the competence and commitment of gardeners is crucial for the quality of every botanic garden, their income is comparatively low, and the way of giving incentive is to these people limited. This is where the Gartnertausch comes in, and this is also why its resources are restricted exclusively to the technical and horticultural staff of the garden. However, as was hoped from the beginning, the scientific connections between the respective gardens have grown too. From their mutual visits, scientists have benefitted from the network of goodwill which has arisen from the gardners exchange scheme, and private sponsorship has made their travel possible. For example, Gennadi Firsov, a research associate specialising in dendrology at St Petersburg, was able to come for a week in June to visit the gardens, nature reserves, research institutions and especially the nurseries around Hamburg.

The other speciality of the Gartnertausch scheme is that it starts from the bottom. There is no organisation behind it, and all its money comes from the private sources of Mrs Loki Schmidt or sponsors she has found. The budget is small, and usually only the travel expenses, a little pocket money, and the costs of transportation are paid for. The participants of the exchange programme stay with host families who have volunteered to house and feed the guests free of charge. Here especially the Bertram family at Hamburg must be mentioned who generously opened their house for Russian gardeners for nearly the whole of 1993.

For a long time, there has been the wish to extend the international connections of the Hamburg Botanical Garden with a garden in the tropics. The greenhouses contain large collections of tropical plants, the research of the Hamburg herbarium focusses on the neotropics, and the city of Hamburg has had strong historical links with Latin America. The contact with M‚rida in Venezuela was established by the superintendent of the tropical display house, Mr Bernd Lohse, who travelled to the county in 1988 in order to learn more about the plants which he is keeping. He made friends with the heads of the Centro Jard¡n Bot nico at the Universidad de Los Andes, Professors Mario Ricardi and Juan Gaviria, who are determined to create a botanic garden at M‚rida to make full use of its extraordinary natural situation. No less than 18 out of the 22 principal ecological formations of Venezuela are to be found within the limits of the comparatively small state of M‚rida, from lowland rainforest remnants and xerophytic scrub to elfin forests and paramos.

The Centro Jardín Botánico is an independent foundation based at the Universidad de Los Andes, and tries to combine research and university teaching with environmental education in order to make citizens and visitors of M‚rida aware of the richness of its natural resources and the need for its conservation. Still in its very beginning, it has already begun to collect plants from native habitats in order to cultivate, investigate and display them. Mr Lohse assisted with the organisation of the nursery and helped with training of the garden staff. With great satisfaction he realized, on a later visit, that the staff had developed the collections along his lines, and that the number of accessions had increased from 800 to over 2,500, all cultivated to an excellent standard.

In October 1993, Loki Schmidt was able to visit Venezuela herself, together with Dr Poppendieck from the Hamburg herbarium and two gardeners. An agreement between the two gardens was signed by the rector of the University, Dr Rodriguez Villenave. Mr Lohse and Mr Kl"tzl, the superintendent of orchids, were the first gardeners from Hamburg to benefit from this segment of the G"rtnertausch. Scientific contacts also have been established.

An important task for botanic gardens is the cultivation of rare and threatened plants. Even collector's groups like orchids, bromeliads or cacti, highly priced by North Americans and Europeans, often receive surprisingly little attention in their native countries, and efforts to conserve them in their natural habitat may be hampered by a lack of understanding. In Europe or North America, there may be a lack of understanding of both the horticultural requirements of these plants and the threat to their existence in the wild. Joint field excursions to their threatened habitats, and sharing the responsibility for their survival both in nature and in botanic gardens provides a common task for horticulturists of both parts of the world, with the "common collection" to be envisaged as a mutual goal.

Consider also the different background of the countries involved. Hamburg and St Petersburg are old gardens, situated in countries with a similar attitude towards botanic gardens, with a long tradition of trained gardeners. Jerusalem and M‚rida are young gardens, where the idea of the botanic garden still has to be developed or at least reinforced, situated in countries without a horticultural profession. To support the idea of the botanic garden as a hands-on experience from gardener to gardener must be rated among the most important achievements of the Gärnertausch.

The goals for the future are as follows:

  • to raise funds and to provide stability for the project, but to keep the flexibility which is one of the most important features
  • to continue to organize the G"rtnertausch as a reciprocal process of communication and learning
  • to strive towards the goal of the collection and shared responsibility for the survival of rare and threatened plants as an integral part of the international network of botanic gardens.

The expectations towards the exchange scheme has not only been fulfilled but surpassed. The G"rnertausch is emerging not only as a means to communicate technical and professional experience, but also as an informal though highly complex process of mutual learning and understanding.