“Some things we won’t understand in our lifetime.”

GRÜNES BLUT meets with the nature expert, horticulturist and specialist author, Sven Nürnberger, in the Frankfurt Palmengarten before one of his talks on an icy Monday in the middle of March.

It was my lecturer, Ruthild, who first made me aware of Sven Nürnberger. She told me about this plant traveller who worked in the Frankfurt Palmengarten, and I immediately started imagining wild adventures in untouched nature and experiencing enlightening thoughts just like Alexander von Humboldt. Up to then, I had never met someone, who had ventured beyond the garden to find common and less common garden plants and plant families in their natural habitat. I was quite sure Sven had “green blood” in his veins.  After a preliminary talk and interview appointment, I became aware of his enormous enthusiasm for plants and their environment. Apart from his work in the Palmengarten, he has (only) two personal gardens as well as (only) one balcony full of plants where he can dedicate his time to a few carefully chosen individual plants.  He inherited his passion for plants from his parents, so he describes his travels as a fulfilment. The way he talks of these things reveals his deep admiration for nature’s resourcefulness. After many excursions into the Caribbean and to the Falkland Islands in 2007, he eventually fulfilled his dream – undertaking a three-week trip, with Prof. Dr Wolfram Kircher, Cristóbal Elgueta Marinovic and Klaus Oetjen, through the Mediterranean part of Chile and to the natural sites of various vegetation types in Patagonia.

Sven seems to view the world as a massive sorting tray in which he can sort his experiences. Every trip and each observation enables him to understand a bit more about nature and its contexts.

Read: 25 minutes

Interview: Sven Nürnberger, Anke Schmitz ∗ Text: Anke Schmitz ∗ Translation: Gisela Lindeque ∗ Fotos: Sven Nürnberger ∗ Titel: Klas Oetjen

GB: Sven, I would like to start off with what you do before your trips. How do you typically prepare yourself?

SN: I do a lot of intensive planning in the run-up to a trip. Ideally, I would have already been studying the flora region for several years and would have collected enough literature or at least I’d know where to get hold of specific books or information. For the trip to Chile and Argentina, I also connected with researchers, horticulturists and plant and habitat specialists. Basically, I try to align my travel destination with my available travel time and with the existing infrastructure. Initially, I make a wish list for all the areas put together – that which I feel would be floristically most rewarding. And then I find out what can be reached by which form of transport, or even by foot. I try to compile a trip well in advance by consulting topographic maps, hiking guides and descriptions on the internet.

In principle, I use every available opportunity to observe and consider everything I can concerning the flora and the gardens in that specific location.

GB: What do you search for specifically in literature?

SN: Essentially, I take a holistic approach. Depending on the area, I look for relevant botanical and horticultural content in scientific papers, reports, and lectures. Maps are also quite a valuable research tool. Geological maps and descriptions provide information about the rocks and soil we can expect to come accross. I find out more about the vegetation types by consulting topographic and distribution maps. Added to this, I try to find out as much as I can about the climate and how the seasonal rhythm of the vegetation responds. The next step then addresses the details. Where exactly can I find which plant communities and what are they composed of? How have the specific plant species adapted to develop and maintain themselves on the site? What different soil types will I find and why has this plant community developed there? I usually go through all these points with checklists, botanical travel reports and flora descriptions. I check online databases for the altitudinal distribution of particular taxa. This gives me a general idea, once I’m on a site, in which section of the landscape I should be able to find a particular plant group.

GB: So is each trip planned long in advance?

SN: There are also some spontaneous trips, for example the July 2014 excursion with professional colleagues to the Spanish Sierra Nevada. Thomas Eidmann had previously travelled extensively in the Sierra Nevada and had a lot of local knowledge, which meant he already knew where we could find what. He planned the trip for us and we flew off quickly for a 4-day excursion. When something like this comes up, you don’t always have enough time before your departure to intensively study the flora. So, I simply dove into the Spanish flora after the trip to fill in any knowledge gaps. You can do this before or after a trip, especially if you have an expert guide close at hand.

GB: Do these trips form part of your professional life or your personal passion?

SN: The two flow together perfectly. In principle, I use every available opportunity to observe and consider everything I can concerning the flora and the gardens in that specific location. In my profession conferences and the local excursions that sometimes accompany them mostly add to my further education. But in a personal sense, I also keep my eyes open as this compels me to experience the beauty of nature. And whenever I’m on holiday, I organise a few family forays or day walks.

National park Torres del Paine

GB: You said that you also establish contacts at each destination. How do you do this?

SN: Social networks make this easier… But I also directly contact institutions and plant specialists from the corresponding regions in advance, or I visit them spontaneously to discuss my requests. Then I often meet a few approachable people who usually refer me to further contacts. Photo documentation, for example the gallery of the Botanical Garden of Lautaret, provides detailed indications on how diverse plant communities are built up. I often ask colleagues from other botanical gardens to take a photo on the spot, or I read their books and publications. For example, in the book, “Steppes”, from the Botanical Garden in Denver, the four authors discuss the semi-arid regions of the world. Mike Kintgen, the curator of the Alpine collection in the botanical garden in Denver, intensively travelled the Patagonian Steppe in Argentina and describes this in the book. It became an important building block in planning for my December trip to Chile and Argentina. Flowers of the Patagonian mountains by Martin Sheader was another essential book.  And some of the old Palmengarten literature I also found valuable. Teams from the Palmengarten travelled to Chile and Argentina in the late 80s and early 90s, and I have kept the special issues about these trips in my private library as reference material since my early gardening years. The Senckenbergische Institut has been researching this region for many years as well, so it’s possible to stay informed with their up-to-date information.

GB: You had another connection to the Caribbean …

SN: Because of my family, I used to spend a lot of time on the island Hispaniola. We would have long holidays of about two or three months. We often visited our family in the Cordillera Central and I became fascinated by everything that grew there. Together with my friends and family, I kept expanding the radius of our excursions. I then started connecting with local botanists at the Jardin Botanico Nacional and the Instituto Loyola. I studied the yearbooks of the Botanical Garden and gradually familiarised myself with the Caribbean plant world.  My trips led me to a wide variety of mountain regions – cloud forests, cool pine forests, but also to cactus-rich dry areas. Eventually, of course, I got to know people, with whom I could exchange views and build friendships. And then there are always people interested in going there themselves so they would ask me for information. Now over the years, we have formed a network where we can help each other.

GB: Do you use only German literature or do you also fall back on English or Spanish literature?

I have a longing to be close to and connected with nature.

SN: I read a lot of English literature and now, for Latin America, I am fortunate that I’m able to read a lot of material in Spanish too.

GB: So, because of your research, you know what to expect on location later. Can I ask a somewhat heretical question: Why do you then still want to experience the whole thing first-hand?

SN: Because I have a longing to be close to and connected with nature. And it’s thrilling to see the different disciplines relating to a topic link on site.  To understand these necessary relationships is what motivates me. Why is a specific living organism in this region or in this ecosystem or why has it disappeared? Is it because something has changed? Today climate change plays an important role in the whole context. I’ve had this urge to understand ecological connections since my childhood when I was fascinated by minerals and fossils.

Calceolaria uniflora

GB: This issue of how everything is interconnected – geology, botany, climate, etc. – seems to be based on Humboldt’s worldview.  Am I right in guessing that to some extent your grappling with Alexander von Humboldt has shaped you and your view of nature?

SN: I must admit it, yes. In 1999, on the anniversary of the America trip that Humboldt and Bonplands undertook, I meticulously recorded all the films and reports that were broadcast.  We still had video recorders back then. And I also read a lot about Humboldt. This motivated me even more to idolise him. He truly inspired me – the way he saw nature. His quotations and aphorisms really spoke to me and so did his humanistic attitude. Mountains have always fascinated me and for Humboldt they were an important topic too. His descriptions of the Equatorial vegetation on different altitudes and up to the highest peaks and the analogy, where the growth form is in turn, with some regularity, structured and built up similarly northwards and southwards toward the poles. When you’ve travelled and observed a lot, and after you’ve been cultivating plants from different regions for some years, you always find these somewhat similar adaptations among the most diverse families. These principles, as well as trying to draw as many conclusions as possible in advance, are basically what I’ve learnt from Humboldt. When this knowledge is transferred to horticulture, you can more effectively explore the needs of a plant. And yet there are still times when after 20 years something suddenly just clicks and I understand much more afterwards. That’s what I enjoy about this green profession and plant cultivation. It’s an attitude of steadily approaching the optimum at an artificial site. Some things we won’t understand in our lifetime. We’ll need many more gardener-lives.

… often it’s the quiet moments when I stand in a completely isolated and silent area.

GB: Do you have a favourite Humboldt quote?

SN: It’s actually one by Bonpland, “I’ll go out of my mind if the miracles don’t stop soon”. It made a deep impression on me and I always feel this when I’m in certain regions. In the Dominican Republic at an altitude of about 1000 m there’s a relatively open area on the southern side of the Cordillera Central where the cloud forest stretches down to the ocean.  There you’ll suddenly find open mountain palm communities with Prestoea acuminata, and their slender trunks will be full of tiny orchids. The whole region is filled with an extraordinary aroma. Probably from the grasses or ferns, which have their own specific fragrance. And now and then you’ll see a hummingbird fly past… These are moments that I remember in detail. To stand in this environment and just feel everything, and to observe… That’s probably what Humboldt or Bonpland meant – having seen the fullness. It’s the fascination of the moment that overwhelms me.

GB: That sounds very contemplative…

SN: Well, I do exclaim loudly when I’m excited about discovering a particular plant or see something entirely new, something I can’t yet classify. But yes, often it’s the quiet moments when I stand in a completely isolated and silent area. And sometimes I hear a bird call – maybe a rare bird or just a regional one. These are beautiful moments for soul-searching and simply being – very good for me, I think. I always look for opportunities like these.

In the Cactus fever in Gobernador Costa.

GB: How you document your travels?

SN: On the one hand, I take photos of the plants and their habitats, and on the other hand I keep a travel diary to capture some of my observations.

GB: You’re also a technical author and you write articles about your travels. I read your article about your trip to the Falkland Islands in the Gartenpraxis and it had frequent references to the flora of Patagonia. Do you see the Patagonia trip almost as your “missing link”?

SN: Absolutely. In fact, I planned the Patagonia trip long ago. I started playing with the idea in the early 90s. Because of my work at the Palmengarten, and especially through Ursula McHardy‘s lectures, I really felt compelled to go there.  In 2007 I then travelled to the Falklands with Ursula McHardy for five weeks and had the opportunity to study the flora intensively. On the Falkland Islands the habitats are relatively small and interleaved like a mosaic. Yet they seem to get lost in the seemingly homogenous heaths and grasslands which somehow cause a constant shift in focus between the wide expanse and the detail. The different habitats are very close together, yet you don’t really perceive that in the vast areas. There are no forests on the Falklands, whereas in Patagonia these form an entirely different element. That’s why it was crucial for me to familiarise myself with the continental side. It’s much larger, has a very diverse and endemic flora and a much larger variety of vegetation types.

Sven Nürnberger with his camera on a plant hunt.

GB: Did you see everything you wanted to in the three weeks?

SN: At least partially, the region is just too diverse and complex! In the 90s I was particularly interested in the Valdivian Rainforest. But over the years I started having more of a desire to understand the total system. That’s why I undertook this extreme tour beginning at Santiago down in the lake district and then crossing over the Andes to Argentina through the Patagonian steppe, then returning to Chile and travelling from the Torres del Paine up to the Straits of Magellan. We all had to make some compromises, though. I would have liked to see Ushuaia and even Chiloé, but there just wasn’t enough time.  I can always plan this for later.

GB: So, are you planning to go back to Patagonia?

SN: Definitely!

GB: How many kilometres did you drive in those three weeks?

SN: More than 4000. In the three weeks we drove many detours, and through many side valleys off the main roads. And in some cases, we had to backtrack on the same road to return to the main route.

Some plants that might seem ordinary and long familiar to others, I have never seen in their natural habitat. That simply fascinates me.

GB: You’re obviously passionate about all of this. Do you have a list of plants that you still want to see in their natural habitat?

SN: I don’t really have an actual list. I have everything in my head. There are indeed still a few trips I would love to take. For example, Patagonia was a trip I considered absolutely necessary and one I had longed to do for a very long time. I would love to see the Table Mountains in Venezuela and Guyana. That would be a highlight! I also want to travel to Nepal and Bhutan. These are some of my goals.  In the tropics, I’d like to return to the Caribbean Islands or merely explore the whole Andes region. But I’m relatively sure that for the next few years, it will be Chile. I was also very fascinated by Argentina, though. As soon as I’ve established contacts and friendships in an area, some form of regularity starts developing – exchange and interaction around the topic and, of course, the option to fly there. But Europe would also interest me.

GB: Europe?

SN: Of course. There are so many areas that I’ve never been exposed to. There are so many valleys in the Alps alone. Some plants that might seem ordinary and long familiar to others, I have never seen in their natural habitat. That simply fascinates me. I don’t want to focus only on the scarcest and most exciting plant families, I’d like to understand everything.

GB: Yes. I’ve found that sometimes I’m used to a plant in its traditional context, but in its natural habitat it’s often placed differently or stands in a different context…

SN: Exactly! That’s how it works. On the Falkland Islands, for example, there’s a Cardamine species, a cress. Much like the classic C. hirsuta we weed out from our pots. But when I suddenly saw the very similar Cardamine glacialis at 400 or 500 meters popping through the quartz blocks every now and then as part of a scree slope plant community, I knew it belonged in this flora. I try to understand how it has adapted and what its strategy is. Things that might totally bore others I find truly interesting.

In the rental car in the Patagonian steppe.

GB: What if one of our readers now becomes inspired to become a natural scientist? What type of excursion or travel destination would you suggest to a beginner?

SN: That depends on which plant groups they’re interested in and how much effort they want to put in. Even a beach vacation can be stimulating when you take a good look at the coastal cliffs or at the variety of dune plants in the sand. I also like to find the connection between the natural habitats and the local gardens when I’m on holiday.

GB: Are there any guided group tours available for interested people.

SN: There are some outstanding tour operators. But it’s important to weigh up viewing as many habitats as possible against allowing for enough breaks and individual personal time.  There are some strenuous tours and then also some gentle, comfortable, expensive or inexpensive trips. The AGS (Alpine Garden Society) trips have some exciting destinations.

When something impressed me, I tried to transpose it onto my garden concepts.

GB: Would you describe yourself as a designer or instead as a natural scientist? Or don’t you want to restrict yourself to one?

SN: I believe the connection between the different disciplines, which has developed and strengthened through my experience, is crucial. It’s a process that keeps growing. I’m not a natural scientist, because I never formally studied that, but I’m a self-taught horticulturist with the spirit of a researcher. That would be a better definition. Even on short breaks during my apprenticeship I always used to look for opportunities to explore the plant world, for example on Fuerteventura. I wanted to know what grew there, so I researched it. Some things I already knew because of the Palmengarten. Those barren volcanic landscapes inspired me very much. In my sphere of work in Heidelberg and here in the Palmengarten, I often had the opportunity to experiment and to simulate specific landscapes and plant communities. When something impressed me, I tried to transpose it onto my garden concepts. What grabs my attention these days, is the occurrence of vegetation containing plant groups from different geographical regions.  It’s quite interesting to see this.

GB: We’ve talked about established plant communities that you’ve seen on your travels. The cultural landscape here in Central Europe is a bit different. Does that interest you?

SN: Yes, in principle it does. Certain cultural landscapes are indeed fascinating and can be very rich in species. If you consider, for example, the Lüneburg Heath or some of the extensively grazed steppe areas of Argentina, they deserve to be protected, of course, and they set an example of how one can find a compromise between the needs of nature and the demands of man. The same is true for orchid turfs that have been able to proliferate because the mountain farmers have always kept to mowing rhythms. What I find very detrimental, of course, is an intensive use of land without any regard for natural principles such as the rhythms of nature or the symbiotic communities. This form of agriculture has done so much damage that functioning habitats now almost seem like relics. Genetic exchange – which usually guarantees diversity and adaptability to new habitats – is no longer a given.

Nothofagus forests near Bariloche.

GB: That’s quite concerning

SN: The scale at which nature is overexploited and the associated worldwide climate and vegetation changes are devastating. I believe this is a significant problem, and yes, it often frustrates me. It’s important, though, not to start acting like a do-gooder in all of this, but to look at yourself critically, find solutions and start acting. The plane I take to go and admire my plants still needs kerosene and organic food is often still wrapped in tons of plastic, or it’s been transported from far away. You should always ask yourself what the impact and consequences are of everything you consume. Then you can decide what you want to limit and where you could perhaps try an entirely new approach. In many places the policies are outdated and slow to change. There are however some rays of hope. Chile, for example, is designating more national parks to protect and conserve important areas over the long term. Although I’m usually an optimistic person, I suspect that the familiar metaphor of the 11th hour no longer applies. But we might still have a tiny bit of time left for some changes. The human race can always find ways to replenish itself. Let’s hope the remaining organisms can start evolving again after people have disappeared, even if it takes 100 000 years. It would be so sad, though, if things no longer continued for us.

GB: Sven, thank you very much for this stimulating conversation!  I’m sure I’m not the only one overcome by wanderlust now…

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)