Everything’s gone green

January 18, 2020

In the early years of my lecturing work at Victoria University, the bane of many days within studio was the ad nauseum appearance of precedent images of planted birch groves from European landscape projects. Now, I’m as fond of a good birch grove as much as the next person, but the casual manner with which imagery of a near-ubiquitous landscape architectural gesture from outside of our context was promulgated as meaningful design required a degree of patience.

In stark contrast with the aforementioned apppropriation of imagery (as an inadequate proxy for design thinking), the character of birch groves as viewed within the wild is a thing of wonder – especially when one enters via the full sequence that defines both their place within the wider landscape and the nature of their margins.

Birch woodlands are frequently associated with moors, where often-violent disturbance and the presence of high moisture levels favours the moor birch (Betula pendula) to the point that it forms pure stands within Buchenwald Grumsin (the subject of this journal article).

Having picked mushrooms (of the edible, rather than psychedelic, variety) in this forest whilst living in Germany in 2001, I was somewhat familiar with the general character of Grumsin (as well as its local significance). However, it was only after a good friend of mine, Dirk Springborn, sent me a book on the natural history of Der Grumsin that I realised that this forest contained many plant communities in which we have taken an interest in recent years.

With this in mind, following a business trip to the UK last September, I visited friends in Brandenburg and was fortunate to be shown around the central zone of Der Grumsin by an expert on the forest (thanks to Dirk’s organisation).

One of the most striking aspects of the forest was the presence of many plants that are integral to (and therefore notably familiar within) both productive and amenity horticulture in Europe – such as European beech (Fagus sylvatica), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus, pictured below left as a juvenile within moorland, as well as its trunk on the right), raspberries, blackberries and the European species of blueberry (Vaccinium sp.) shown above on the edge of a birch moor.

Beech forest (or ‘Buchenwald’ as it is known in German) is a major vegetation type within Europe, where extensive stands of mature forest of this nature are uncommon – with some of the best extant examples remaining within Poland (not far to the east of Brandenburg). As a result, Der Grumsin has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its status as one of Germany’s finest stands of beech forest (in addition to the diversity of habitats found within it).

As previously noted, certain species that have taken on cultural importance within Europe (and then exported to countries with a strong European influence, such as NZ) originate from landscapes such as these – a logical extension of the fact that people inevitably develop traditions around species that lie close at hand.

One prominent example of this is the presence of raspberries and blackberries as pioneer species along margins and within light gaps – as in the image below, of raspberries growing within a clearing opened up by a large beech tree that had recently split within a storm. The spines of these berries play an ecological role in excluding browsing animals, in order that the next phase within ecological succession can develop without being nibbled out of existence as young plants.

Another familiar character, with a less salubrious reputation than raspberries, is the wood sorrel (pictured below) – more commonly known to gardeners by the name of its genus, Oxalis. In recent years, wood sorrel (which has traditionally been used for its medicinal/herbal value within Europe) has found favour within prominent restaurants (notably Noma) – in stark contrast with its association as a garden weed in our part of the world.