Gardens in South America and Europe – comparison and historical background

Gardens in South America and Europe – comparison and historical background

Gardens are spaces created and designed by people in which plants play the leading role. Gardens have existed at least since antiquity (India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Roman Empire, etc.). The form a garden takes differs widely in the various cultures for reasons of climate, religion, political system, "fashion" and other factors. Think, for example, of the Renaissance and the later Baroque gardens: absolutist representation on a huge scale are in the foreground, the plants are not allowed to grow naturally, they are pruned meticulously and arranged to form a strictly ornamental pattern. Lawn areas are completely absent. In fact, there were even "example books" similar to wallpaper catalogues, which the ducal or royal patron could draw on for inspiration. The most famous example of such a Baroque garden was without doubt Louis XIV's at Versailles, which served as a model to many European dynastic houses.

Owing to their origins, these were also known as "French gardens", although they appeared all over Europe: from St. Petersburg to Sicily (villas of Bagheria near Palermo). From the second half of the 18th Century onwards, however, these were no longer "fashionable" (partly due to the French Revolution). A new "fashion" superseded the style: the "English landscape garden". Many of the Baroque gardens were re-modelled in accordance with the new principles, in sharp contrast to the strictly geometric "architectural gardens". Now, the emphasis had to be on "nature", although this was more artifice than real as they were based on a painstaking design concept - a "staged" setting far removed from nature's free reign, but much rather an artwork based on the aesthetics of idealised landscape painting. In Germany alone, there are, for example, more than 100 of these parks. The largest example of this type in Europe is the approximately 20,000-hectare Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic.

The design principles of the "English landscape garden" have frequently received acclaim to this day, even if a geometric stylistic idiom has at times regained popularity, for example in the 1920s.

A completely different development with regard to garden spaces was brought to Spain from the Oriental/Arabic region by the Moors. From around 710 A. D., Muslim armies conquered large areas of Spain, where they ruled for nearly 800 years. For religious and climatic reasons, the Oriental/Arabic concept of gardens is completely different to the "Western" one. Enclosed courtyards with fountains and geometric watercourses are the key elements here. The most significant examples of this can be found in Granada (Southern Spain) in the shape of the Generalife (meaning something akin to "the architect's garden) and the Alhambra from the 14th Century. Following the re-establishment of Christianity in 1492, however, significant elements of the Moorish gardens were maintained and have to this day left their stamp on the typical Spanish patio, the courtyard garden, often with a central fountain and luscious foliage, often grown in large pots.

This form of garden reached Latin America during colonialism and is today one of the most widespread on the continent, meaning that lawn areas are rare. Let us for a moment neglect what is probably the longest dark chapter in European history: the conquest, domination, enslavement and exploitation of Latin America, as a result of which only few of the countless indigenous tribes from the pre-Columbian period have survived, who are still increasingly threatened and victims of globalisation...

As an example, let us take a closer look at Colombia, at the far north-west of the South American continent. Although it only occupies 6% of South America, it covers an area nearly as large as Germany, France and Italy combined, but only has around 48 million inhabitants, who are concentrated in the Andes region owing to the more temperate climate there. The plains or "llanos" in the east account for more than half of the country's area, but are home to only 3% of the population. Owing to Colombia's varied topography (permanently snow-capped peaks with altitudes up to 5,750 m) every conceivable climate zone is present in the country, including areas with an annual precipitation of 16,000 mm as well as deserts. In total, Colombia boasts some 50,000 plant species, including around 3,5000 orchids (Germany, in comparison, has a total of about 4,100 plant species). For the "European garden enthusiast" the country is fascinating on account of its plant diversity alone, but it is also frustrating because you recognise only very few varieties and have never even heard of the families of most of them. Even in the greengrocers, you only recognise half of the produce on offer at best, or have you ever heard of lulo, guanabana, curuba or yacon in Europe?

Prof. Karl E. Schönthaler
VIKING garden expert