Meise Botanical Garden
Photographs and text
by CrisTina Archinto
A part of the forest with a carpet of Allium ursinum
At the Meise Botanical Garden, also known as Jardin botanique Meise which is located about 10 km northwest of Brussels, Belgium, you walk, walk and walk again! It is currently the largest botanical garden in the world and at the end of the day you feel all those kilometers but they were worth it.
Its history is quite ancient, it begins in 1796 when the Austrian government decided to create a botanical garden at the castle of Bouchout, in Meise. The main focus of the garden was to grow medicinal and food plants. Over the following centuries, the botanical garden developed considerably, also thanks to the collaboration with the University of Louvain, until it became the National Botanical Garden of Belgium. Today it covers an area of 92 hectares and is home to over 18,000 plant species from all over the world, many of which are kept in the garden's greenhouses. In addition, the garden carries out important biodiversity research and conservation activities, working in collaboration with other botanical institutions around the world.
Rododendron Fortunei and Rododendron Gladis rose
Entering the forest, the first enchantment is in front of the vast collection of azaleas and rhododendrons located in the shade of centuries-old specimen trees. This collection has ancient origins and is one of the most important in Europe, including many rare and endangered species from all over the world. The first azalea was planted at the Botanical Garden in 1796, but the real expansion of the collection took place under the direction of Édouard Morren, from 1869 to 1892, who made many botanical expeditions to Asia, Africa and America, where he collected numerous azalea and rhododendron plants. In addition, Morren was a pioneer in the creation of azalea hybrids, achieving results that earned him numerous prizes at international botanical fairs. Today, this collection comprises more than 2,500 species and varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons. During flowering, which usually takes place between April and May, there is this explosion of colours in various shades of pink, red, purple and white. A true visual experience. the Botanical Garden also organised an annual azalea festival, during which guided tours, lectures and other activities focusing on azaleas and rhododendrons are organised.
Azaleas and rhododendrons
The scientific name of the genus of azaleas, Rhododendron, was given only in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who classified the plants in detail in his "Species Plantarum". The name "azalea" instead, derives from the Greek "azaleos", which means "dry", and refers to the ability of plants to tolerate dry soils.
Azaleas and rhododendrons, even if they are plants belonging to the same botanical family, that of the Ericaceae, have many differences between them such as flowering: azaleas have funnel-shaped flowers with five lobes, while rhododendrons have bell-shaped flowers with ten lobes. As for the leaves, those of azaleas are generally smaller and thinner than those of rhododendrons. Additionally, azalea leaves tend to be softer and lighter. Even the natural habitats are different: that of the azaleas are usually native to wooded areas of the temperate and subtropical regions of Asia, Europe and North America, while the rhododendrons are more common in the mountainous regions of East Asia, North America and Europe. The difference is also in the size; rhododendrons tend to be larger and slower growing than azaleas.
The winter greenhouse
The Meise Botanical Garden is also home to a large collection of trees from around the world, many of which are of significant rarity, beauty or cultural significance. Like the Giant Sequoia trees native to California which are among the largest trees in the world. Ginkgo biloba is an ancient tree that has been described as a living fossil and has a long history of medicinal use. The Atlas Cedar is a tree native to North Africa that is known for its resistance to drought and environmental degradation. And the Wollemi Pine a tree that was discovered only in 1994 and was believed to be extinct for over 90 million years.
The current greenhouse, also known as the "winter greenhouse", was built between 1952 and 1958. It was an innovative structure and had to replace the old greenhouse destroyed by the war, with a heating system based on geothermal energy and a natural ventilation system which allowed the humidity to be controlled inside the greenhouse. The winter greenhouse now houses a large collection of tropical and subtropical plants, including many rare and endangered species, including many species of Araceae, such as Colocasia gigantea. In addition to the winter greenhouse, the Meise Botanical Garden also houses other specialized greenhouses, including greenhouses for carnivorous plants, orchids and palms.
Walking through the vast garden you can also reach an artificial lake, an important breeding and rest area for numerous species of migratory birds such as the Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptica), originally from sub-Saharan Africa. This goose is a large bird, its wingspan is up to one and a half meters. They have a distinctive black head and neck, grayish-brown plumage on the body and a white tail and live happily in large groups often near fresh water like here, and are beautiful to look at.