Before our group from Temple settled into Leipzig to study German in earnest, we spent a few days in Berlin to acclimate ourselves to the German environment and time zone. It seems our program leaders favor very aggressive tourism as a method to introduce the young’uns to a foreign culture. We walked and walked from one notable place to another, including the Reichstag (with complementary Dome), the Pergamum and Jewish museums, Kreuzberg (a quarter of the city that best described as hip), and a length of the Spree river, which runs through the middle of the city. Will I tell about them now? Ah, no. While the museums and city neighborhoods were marvelous and deserving of their own blog post, I have to say being constantly driven from one place to another has left me feeling rather passive regarding what to do with all this sensory input. Rather, what inspired me most to write was actually something nobody had planned to show: the remarkable presence of green everywhere in the city.
I’m not talking about use of the color green, or the desire to be environmentally friendly, although both are clearly evident everywhere in Germany. When I say green, I mean exactly as the Germans do when they say the translated word, das Grün—that is, that particular kingdom of nature characterized by leaves, flowers, and, yes, the color green. Plant life is present everywhere in the city of Berlin, much more so than in any American city I’ve seen. When I first flew in, the view from airplane first indicated just how much nature and the city intertwined. There were many enclosed complexes with large courtyard spaces, presumably residential buildings; these already differed from their American counterparts, which tend toward block shapes set in rows. Both within and without the complexes grew tall and leafy trees that brushed right up against the buildings, lined the streets and had little copse-complexes of their own, even in the middle of the city. From the airplane I wondered how the trees could grow so close to such tall buildings without interfering with the architecture. After all, my upbringing tells me that trees ought to be pruned when their branches approach walls and windows.
After landing in Berlin, I had a day to myself in which to wander around my bit of city, which included both the main train station, a hotel and hostel park, a shopping street, and a beautiful, little park full of walking paths, trees, and flowers. I’ve gathered some observations and hypotheses; perhaps you, dear reader, would like to review them? Humor me as I play at horticultural doctor and speculate about German tree-and-city engineering.
Along some main streets there were few trees, and the cobblestones were immaculately paved, but there were almost always green spaces visible from the road. In the alleys by my hostel the paving worked deliberately around the trees, and buildings often maintained stretches of soil, not with grass, but rather with hardy brush and low-growing plant life left, more or less, on its own to grow. I saw much that I recognized: trees of heaven (a notorious weed tree), holly with bunches of still-green berries, as well as blue cabbage (the flower), and dandelions (everyone’s favorite!). These are all also relatively common in temperate areas of the US. Why is there so much similarity between plant life in Long Island, where I live, and Berlin? It could be the similarly wet and temperate climate—but I wonder how many plants we consider normal in the US were originally stowaways on ships from Europe. There was, however, another very common plant that I couldn’t identify; perhaps it was a native German plant. When bruised, it bled orange milk! I have never seen that in a weed before.
But to get back to those trees… A large, leafy tree grew every 3 paces or so on the sidewalks. Those I saw were mostly lindens, although I saw one oak and a couple maples. Perhaps the prevalence of lindens in Berlin is what allows such close proximity between wood and concrete. Now, my descriptions may not representative of the species, but I observed that lindens exhibit a very erect growth habit, and seem to seldom branch from the ground or form thick lower branches or trunks. This prevents them from interfering with people’s passage on the sidewalks or with lower windows. Furthermore, while leafy, the trees have a rounded, narrow, tall shape. The branches droop instead of spreading, and so they mostly stop short of the neighboring walls. On the ground level, the lindens seem perfect for city dwelling, as the roots seems to stay well under the surface, even when standing alone in a square of soil. In stark contrast, one of the maples’ roots so completely filled its square that they had melded together into a lumpy layer of organic pavement. More roots, reaching out underneath the cobblestones, distorted the surrounding sidewalk.
Lindens seem a bit better behaved in comparison. Of course, as a variable, the influence of horticultural care shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps the lindens are simply very well pruned and parted and paved around! They don’t exhibit as many pruning scars as other trees I’ve seen on sidewalks, but perhaps they also heal very well.
But lindens are so popular in Berlin, that to imagine they are naturally regular and suited to urban growth makes sense. Why else would they be so beloved, that they line a major street named after them, Unter den Linden? That would be a pragmatic, quadratic, and good answer (one such as Germans love, I’m told). Of course, they are also beautiful in their own right, with silver color under the leaves, and attractive long sepals cupping their flowers. They also have popular folklore celebrating them (as in the story of William Tell, though that a tale from Switzerland). In any case, Berlin loves its linden trees, for whatever reason. Here, the lindens are the biggest visual indicator of how much Germans appreciate nature.
On an unrelated note, here is some graffiti found on a park bench. Some questions are pertinent across cultures, it seems!