Berlin Plants

Berlin Plants give a heads up on some of the city’s urban foliage…

Image by Paul Sullivan

Visitors to Berlin are bound to discover the multifaceted nature of the city, which openly manifests itself in the architectural imprints of its recent divided history and the thriving nocturnal hipster scene.

Summer visitors might also be struck by the lushness of its green spaces and impressive tally of nearly half a million trees – not to mention the abundance of other plants and shrubs springing up in between buildings and sidewalks.

The numerous parks dotting the city often invite aesthetic contemplation of urban nature while also housing reminders of the Second World War in the form of memorials and bunker relics. In fact, the deep roots of many trees and plants in Berlin mingle with the tangible consequences of the violent tides of history: war rubble.

Large-scale manipulations of the landscape have steadily accompanied the city’s evolution, and the hilly parks in an otherwise flat Berlin are often nothing but giant, re-greened heaps of war rubble.

In addition to the many culinary uses of plants, the botanical world provides a unique and often overlooked lens through which to view our own history on both a local and global scale.

Home to well over a thousand different plant species, Berlin’s green spaces provide excellent grounds for the aspiring urban forager or amateur ethnobotanist to cover. In order to share our botanical adventures with others, last year we began writing a blog in which we detail our discoveries. Here are few excerpts from our favorite posts…

Where the wild hop grows (among the remnants of the Berlin Wall)

Common Hop. Image by Berlin Plants.

The still largely undeveloped no man’s land along the former Berlin wall provides a sanctuary for many wild plants that would otherwise be regimented to more formal landscape practices. These abandoned spaces serve an important function because their lack of landscape architecture helps disrupt the plant blindness often found in city dwellers.

The familiar patterns of trees lining a street one after the other, neatly trimmed bushes and meticulously mulched flower beds are non-existent in these spaces; here, plants can no longer be confined to our peripheral vision as mere ornaments but, rather, take on a central role of their own.

It is in one such space, known as the “Nasses Dreieck,” that we found – next to a pile of concrete remnants of the Berlin wall – a plant whose history is firmly intertwined with what the English-speaking world regards as a quintessentially German product: beer.

The rise of Common hop (Humulus lupulus) from botanical obscurity coincides with the success of the plant’s female flower cluster in keeping beer from spoiling. Using tea made from hops has been thought to have sedative powers since ancient times, but otherwise the plant seems to have had relatively little medicinal value compared with other plants.

Before the introduction of hops in the beer brewing process, an herbal concoction known as grut (or gruit) was responsible for preserving the precious liquid. The Common hop in its current societal incarnation dates from when it began being cultivated in Germany for brewing beer in the 11th century; after it became popular in beer brewing, the plant was eagerly examined for other possible uses and health benefits, and continues to be researched even today; for more about the medicinal value of hops, see this recent article from the American Botanical Council.

The unusual configuration of hops twisting around a birch tree next to the railroad tracks, the large remnants of the Berlin Wall stacked into a haphazard pile, and the old, half-way destroyed sofa sitting next to them, all disrupt our automatic mode of urban vision that traditionally assigns plants a passive, ornamental role….

Here, we can actively reflect on the role of urban nature and the history of botanical species. The only thing missing from this experience is a nice pint of beer!

The Lone Wolfberry: neglected shrub or longevity fruit from the East?

Wolfberry. Image by Berlin Plants.

On our blog we have already talked about the split personality of the European yew: lowly hedge yet powerful, magnificent tree.

Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum or the closely related Lycium chinense), is a hedge plant in Berlin whose double life illustrates the slow-shifting cultural landscape of food.

Although the Lycium barbarum is native to both Asia and southeastern Europe, it was first introduced into the UK in the 18th century by Archibald Campbell, an enthusiastic gardener and the 3rd Duke of Argyll (hence another common name for the plant is Duke of Argyll’s tea tree). From here on, the sprawling bush has grown wild in hedgerows or has been used sporadically around Europe as a wind barrier.

The characteristic flower betrays its membership in the infamous nightshade family, and the mature ovoid red berries suspiciously resemble the toxic Amara dulcis (Solanum dulcamara) fruits. This is most likely why the ripe berries were regarded as poisonous and wolfberry has primarily been valued for its menial hedging habits.

In Germany, the toxicity of the plant was investigated in the late 19th century in a doctoral dissertation published in Erlangen. The thesis claimed that Lycium spp. contains pupil-dilating substances, a hallmark of nightshade plants such as Belladonna (Atropa belladonna). As a result, wolfberry fruits were not considered edible until their recent introduction into health food markets as the much awaited panacea from the Far East: Goji berries.

Goji berries have a long, distinguished history in traditional Chinese medicine, from being used to improve vision, cure infertility and dry coughs, to even loftier claims of extending longevity. The berries are consumed in a variety of ways: eaten raw or consumed as fresh juice, wine or tea. The dried berries are often featured in soups.

When goji berries were “introduced” in Europe, they were accompanied by incredible medical claims of fighting cancer, and preventing premature aging and memory loss. Regardless of the validity of these medical claims, the berries are chock full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Such treasures come with a heavy price tag; you can expect to pay a minimum of 20 euros per kilogram of dried goji berries in most organic health food stores in Berlin.

Meanwhile, among German plant aficionados, an atmosphere of confusion ensues as many find it hard to believe that wolfberry, which is considered an invasive weed, is the source of goji berries. Well, dear reader, rest assured! You can gather goji berries all over Berlin, and they are not toxic (for a recent article on the pharmacology of goji berries see here). However, care must be taken not to mistake the plant for the toxic Amara dulcis. There is also a potential risk of drug interaction when consuming goji berries, in particular with blood thinners such as Warfarin.

We found wolfberry shrubs along the northern side of the S-Bahn ring, west of Schönhauser Alle. All the berries were already gone, and we were quite disappointed, thinking we would have to wait another year for the harvest.

On a whim, we decided to explore a bit further west in Wedding, looking for interesting plants and keeping our eyes open for goji berries as we walked along the small Panke River. Our optimism was handsomely rewarded by a bowl full of goji berries!

The raw berries are somewhat of an acquired taste, as the initial sweetness of the fruit is followed by a potent, lingering bitterness. It’s perhaps best therefore to dry any harvested berries (which should reduce the bitterness) and use them in soups and teas.

Turkish Hazel: a case of wasted cornucopia

Turkish Hazel. Image by Berlin Plants.

One day we were walking along Cantianstrasse in Prenzlauerberg when we suddenly noticed some strange-looking hazelnut husks on the ground. Sure enough, upon closer inspection the husks contained what appeared to be smallish hazelnuts.

Since no self-respecting forager could pass on this opportunity without letting his tastebuds settle the matter, we cracked open a few nuts and crunched them to oblivion. The taste was mild but distinctive enough to confirm our suspicions: we were eating hazelnuts.

We looked around and saw no shrubs or bushes, only a few tall trees whose canopies were difficult to observe in the dim evening light. After returning home, we did some research and ascertained the true identity of our suspect, the Turkish Hazel (Corylus colurna) tree.

Turkish Hazel is the largest species of hazel, reaching well over 20 meters with a stout, long trunk and branches that form a pyramidal shape. The nuts were introduced to Western Europe in the late 16th century from Constantinople.

In recent times it has gained popularity among landscape architects and city planners because it is highly resistant to disease and pests, and tolerant of urban environments. The very characteristics that make Turkish Hazel an excellent tree for urban environments also make it suitable for large scale grafting onto the smaller, yet more well-known Common Hazel (Corylus avellina).

Although Common Hazel has nuts that are slightly larger and have a stronger flavor, they also have a tendency to sucker and are susceptible to the disease known as Eastern Filbert Blight. Grafting the Common Hazel onto the Turkish Hazel eliminates these problems. Still, after snacking on Turkish Hazel nuts for a few days, we firmly believe they have culinary merit of their own.

We decided to look for more Turkish Hazel trees and were surprised to find them all over our area in Prenzlauerberg. The trees essentially line the southern side of Kopenhagenerstrasse, and are found in many nearby streets. The nuts are littering the sidewalks, and besides a few frustrated pigeons that keep picking up the nuts without being able to crack them, nobody is paying any attention to them.

As a matter of fact, we often witnessed large piles of husks and nuts that were swept in street corners destined for landfills. This kind of wastefulness is astonishing, given the supposed German penchant for frugality.

To remedy this, we harvested a good amount of the Turkish Hazelnuts we found and came up with an original recipe for Turkish Hazelnut Pesto!

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