Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden

With its 8 hectares, the Real Jardín Botánico is not the largest I’ve ever seen and strolled in, but it’s one of the most impressive. It contains a collection of over 5,000 species exhibited with scientific and aesthetic criteria in a series of terraces that go from the smallest (flower gardens and one of the most extensive rose garden in the world) to the largest trees such as plane trees, eucalyptus, pine, palm trees, cypresses. It also has a year-round garden with fruit and vegetables growing according to their season, as well as an impressive collection of bonsai, which was donated by the ex-president of Spain, D. Felipe Gonzalez, in 1996, and consists in the most important collection of Iberian species.

Originally, the garden was established near the banks of the Rio Manzanares by order of King Fernando IV in 1755. Twenty-six years later, in 1781, Carlos III ordered it to be moved to its current location on the Paseo del Prado (Prado Avenue); it has for neighbours the Prado itself and the royal park, el Retiro.

The garden was, at its starts, designed to nurture, study and preserve the different species that its scientists brought back from all corners of the globe. The work still continues today, although it suffered from a long period of neglect due to war and political unrest, but was rebuilt to its former glory in 1982. It has been officially declared a Historical Garden and inscribed into the Catalogue of Spanish Cultural Heritage.

If I’d had a wish, it would have been to visit this garden in the Spring, when the entire garden is bursting with flowers. Even now, with the trees showing signs that winter isn’t that far away, the garden is still beautiful and serene. The voices of the many tourists ambling around the various terraces are muted; here, you’re imbued with a reverence for the variety of nature and for the brave explorers who brought back seeds and seedlings for preservation.

The first terrace, nearest to the Paseo del Prado, is established like a romance-style garden, which has a variety of shrubs and small trees, protected by a wrought iron fence dating from 1786.

The second terrace is dedicated to ornamental, medicinal and aromatic plants arranged around fountains. You can still find, at this late date, the hardy dahlia in pinks and reds and purples and yellows, with all the colours in between. On the same level we found the fruit and vegetable gardens with carrot, lettuce, endive, squashes (including huge pumpkins), peppers and all sort of other vegetables that could feed a family at this time of year. The gardens here are watched over by a fantastic scarecrow.

The park is not only dedicated to beauty, style and research, but has continued its goal of educating people, especially school children, with a series of panels that explain the species, where they come from and what they are used for in their native land. It also has the oldest, living elm in the world, although it didn’t completely escape elm disease.

At the back of the garden, under the paseo that exhibits the bonsai, is the Villannueva Pavilion (seen above) fronted by a pond and one of the largest palm trees in Europe. As usual, the madrileňos love to mix art with nature: the pavilion is used for nature-related temporary exhibitions. The two artists showed currently both explored the continuity of plants and their ability to mix and grow in a milieu that is not necessarily theirs. With that same intent, panels point out the garden’s most emblematic trees, some of them having been planted in the 1800s. Additionally, as our own National Capital Arboretum does, every tree is labelled with its scientific and regular name. The garden also has a seed bank, an herbarium, and a library. It is a centre of research and public information as well as a delight to the eyes. For anyone who is a lover of nature but also has a curious — or even a scientific– mind, the Royal Botanical Garden is a delight.

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