‘The Garden must be open’: difficult choices for the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden

For the 150 years of its existence the St Petersburg University Botanical Garden endured several re-configurations and the loss of valuable collections. It was also used for car servicing, as a vegetable garden, and as a chemical waste dump. Here is the story of how the garden developed and what needs to be done for its development.

Creation: a garden for laboratory work

The founder of the Botanical Gardens at the University was an outstanding scientist, Andrey Beketov. He headed the Department of Botany from 1861 to 1896, and spent many years fighting for his idea. At first he had to convince the Council of the University, and then find a plot for the garden and the means to implement the project. For months the Council opposed ‘the waste of money, as there was the Apothecary Garden which could be used for University purposes’, but finally they conceded.

‘The Council consented to Beketov’s idea because every university city except St Petersburg had its own botanical gardens. Beketov made it clear that teaching botany is only possible if the botanical garden is located close to the University; reasoning that travelling, listening to lectures on other subjects, and doing laboratory work, are too time-consuming,’ recalled Maria Beketova, daughter of Andrey Beketov, and aunt of the Russian poet Alexander Blok.

Having agreed with the scientist’s arguments, the University Council approved the construction of the garden on 31 August 1864. The next stage was to allocate a plot of land. In those years the courtyard of the University was much smaller and was used for service buildings (wood sheds, carriages, laundries, stables). A significant part of the present grounds belonged to the First Cadet Corps (then - Pavlovsk school) or was privately owned. It took about three years to find a site, during which time the garden project was modified several times followed by budget changes. One of the options for the greenhouses was the space under the arches of the inner gallery of the Twelve Collegia building. However, it was quickly rejected by Beketov.

In 1867 Andrey Nikolayevich managed to persuade the administration to transfer part of the territory of the Cadet Corps to the University. This could probably be explained by his longstanding acquaintance with the Minister of War Dmitry Milyutin. The Minister agreed to pass on about two tithes of land behind the parade-ground to the University, an area of more than two hectares. This included the building of the Jeu de Paume and residential buildings, which are now the area of the pool and the administrative building of the University. About three hectares of land (the plot of land from the Cadet Corps and a hectare from the University courtyard) were allotted to the garden with greenhouses, a botanical workshop, and a gardener's apartment.

The project was redesigned to incorporate the new site. It consisted of a garden, a conservatory and two buildings (now the Department of Botany and Genetics). Initially the buildings were planned to be partially wooden, but the city authorities did not approve this and they had to be redesigned in stone. In addition, the allotted area for the garden was below the average level of the University courtyard and quite damp, which prompted the idea of a pond. All this led to an increase in the cost of the works for which the funding was insufficient. The sums allocated by the government were at times intentionally reduced. At other times, they mysteriously failed to reach the University or came in smaller amounts. Nevertheless, the University managed to raise the necessary amount through its own and public funds. This included donations from Beketov and his colleague, a graduate of a master's programme from St Petersburg University, an outstanding botanist and mykologist Mikhail Voronin. The project began in August 1867.

Prosperity: first thousand plants and 'Scripta Botanica'

The initial configuration of the garden was different: there were no buildings of the Institutes of Chemistry and Physics, and the garden came much closer to the Twelve Collegia building. From the premises of the Department of Genetics it was possible to access the garden path – there was not yet a road. Neither the Seed Orchard nor the Grand Palm Orangery, nor the observatory building existed yet – the western border of the garden ran almost immediately behind the first greenhouse and was just a blank grey fence.

In 1869, the garden received the first thousand species of plants, the Botanical workshop was moved to a new building, and the first open-air plantings and a pond were created. A year later, the installation of water heating in the greenhouse was finally completed. According to university reports, it already contained about three thousand plants.

‘The garden is surrounded by a stone wall on three sides. It can be accessed from the University courtyard, from the far end adjacent to the Stock Exchange. It is divided into two equal parts. In the middle there is a Botanical House with classrooms, professors' offices and a gardener's apartment. It is adjoined by a glasshouse. On the left side of the garden there is a real garden with various trees, paths, a hill, a pond, and beautiful flower beds. In the other part of the garden there was a now neglected field with many plots with plants of all sorts of species which students studied. My father was the director of the garden, although without any salary, but as some compensation he could use plants from the greenhouses and flowers from the garden.’

Maria Beketova (1925)

The heyday of the garden was a short period from the 1870s to the 1920s. After completing the construction of the garden and reforming the department, Andrey Beketov started publishing the first botanical journal in Russia, 'Scripta Botanica'. He worked with his colleague Khristofor Gobi, an outstanding botanist and curator of the Botanical Office of St Petersburg University. This was the first journal in Russian to publish pioneering research results, including the research conducted in the University Garden. Although the journal's publications were in Russian, they were all accompanied by abstracts in a foreign language.

'The journal was considered an outstanding event in the development of Russian culture. It not only made the Botanical Garden of St Petersburg University famous beyond our country, but also played a significant role in enriching the University library. Publications were received by the library not only on botany, but also on other branches of knowledge sent in exchange for editions of 'Scripta Botanica',' recollected Dmitrii Zalesskii, director of the Garden from 1946 to 1981, and son of one of the disciples of Beketov and Gobi.

During its heyday, the department bore the name 'Botanical Institute of St Petersburg Imperial University'. Andrey Beketov was elected Dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics (1867-1876), which at the time was part of the Natural Sciences Department, and then Rector of the University (1876-1883). As Dean and Rector, Beketov did not leave the Department of Botany which he headed until 1896, when he was forced to retire due to serious illness and paralysis.

The beginning of the end: five employees and sale of aquariums

Claims for the Garden’s territory began almost immediately after its creation. One of the first areas to be 'cut down' was the northern part (to the right of the glasshouse). According to the memoirs of Maria Beketova, the garden lost some of its land in 1894 in order to build the Institute of Chemistry (St Petersburg University Institute of Chemistry) and a residential building for its employees. She recollects that poplars dating back to the time of Peter the Great grew there: ‘When Sasha was born (poet Alexander Blok - grandson of Andrey Beketov and a nephew of Maria Beketova -  born in 1880 - Ed.), the garden was still in good condition and preserved the magnificent sedges from the time of Peter the Great. They were destroyed during the construction of the chemical palace...'.

Then in different years the garden lost territory to the Physics Institute, the Department of Biophysics, the Vivarium, and the Administrative Building. Also, the garden had to give room to allow roads along the buildings that were erected around it. According to Dmitrii Zalesskii, it lost about half of its original territory. 'It's true that the garden acquired a small area of about 0.5 hectares, which was first used for storing firewood, but eventually turned into a dump. It could hardly compensate for what was lost,' wrote Zalesskii.

The Garden began to decay after the deaths of Khristofor Gobi in 1919 and Rudolf Niman, who had been in charge of the Garden since 1893, in 1920. The First World War and the revolution only hastened the process.

‘From what I remember, it was a difficult period in the life of the Garden, as funds for its maintenance were very scarce. The staff consisted of five people, and income had been earned through the construction and sale of aquariums with plants and fish.’

Dmitrii Zalesskii

War: a fragile stoker and evacuation of plants

The most terrible and serious damage the Garden suffered was during the Great Patriotic War. Before the war, there were about 900 species of plants in the Botanical Garden greenhouse. The first bomb hit the Garden as early as September 1941. Both the plants and the glazing of the glasshouse were damaged. In order to maintain its operation, the greenhouses had to be heated, which was also increasingly difficult.

'Dear mother, a delicate little woman, worked as a stoker at the University Botanical Garden glasshouse. In winter in freezing cold, exhausted by hunger and sickness, the woman would rake out and carry buckets of frozen coal up a steep iron staircase to the boiler room, which heated the greenhouses. It was necessary to keep the temperature up in order to preserve the rarest plants. Just think of how many of these buckets of coal had to be dragged...’ Valentina Mariasina wrote in her memoirs. She was the daughter of Feodora Malyshchik a Botanical Garden’s employee.

After it became impossible to repair the glazing of the glasshouse, the plants were moved to the nearest hospitals. They were located opposite the main building of the University in the buildings of the Faculty of History of Leningrad State University and Ott Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 'Most of the plants were placed in the former. They were standing along bright wide corridors. When the wounded were coming in, especially during the break of the Siege of Leningrad and the attacks on the frontlines, the plants standing here were repeatedly moved, sometimes to adverse environments, as a result of which they died,’ recalled Dmitrii Zalesskii.

The plants were subsequently handled and cared for by Feodora Malyshchik, an employee of the Botanical Garden.

‘When there remained nothing with which to repair the glasshouse (its windows being shattered by shell splinters), when there was no more coal, my mother carried hundreds of pots and boxes with the most valuable plants, palms and flowers to the military hospital in the building of the Faculty of History. After a night shift, mother felt it was her duty to go to the hospital, go around all the wards and corridors where flowers stood on the windows, and water them.’

Valentina Mariasina (daughter of Feodora Malyshchik)

Despite the care of the staff, most plants died during the siege. But some, including the legendary palms, were more fortunate. 'During one of the visits to the hospital by the commander of the Leningrad Front General of the Army (later Marshal) Leonid Govorov noticed the large palms standing there. Sometime later, with the permission of the University, at his request, six palm trees were moved to the Leningrad Front Headquarters, where they stood until the end of the war and, thus, were silent witnesses of all decisions on the attacks at the Leningrad Front. They were returned to the Botanical Garden in 1945,' wrote Dmitrii Zalesskii.

The University continued its work in besieged Leningrad. Even after the evacuation of students and most of the teachers, there were still staff who continued working in the Botanical Garden. During the years of the siege it was used as a vegetable garden: vegetables were sent to the University canteens. Liudmila Shmatok, Deputy Director of the Botanical Garden in those years, recalled: 'In order to provide the canteens of Leningrad State University with vegetables, we worked hard and a meagre part of the harvest was given to the University staff. In the spring-summer period almost all University employees (all in all 105 people according to the lists) came to work'.

In the university garden, the staff grew turnips, cabbage, beetroot. Sofia Gutsevich, Senior Research Associate of the Department of Botany, remained in the city during the siege. She conducted experiments on the cultivation of mushrooms and published a brochure 'Palatable Wild-Growing Grasses' in 1942. The publication informed the population of Leningrad region about local edible plants.

Renaissance: new greenhouses and foreign exchange

In 1946, Dmitrii Zalesskii was appointed to the post of Director of the Botanical Garden of Leningrad University. His life was inextricably linked with the Garden: his father was a famous palaeobotanist, a disciple of Beketov and Gobi. Dmitrii Zalesskii learnt from another prominent botanist and academician Vladimir Komarov, President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1936-1945 and Head of the Department from 1918 to 1937.

Dmitrii Zalesskii kept memories of the Garden in its heyday: as a child, he would come here for a walk with his father, a botanist. 'My best memory is that of the left half of the garden with a pond in the centre. This part of the garden was in very good condition. I also remember very well a small area with several trees and a big flowerbed in the middle where the greenhouse plants were brought out for summer. It was located between the main university courtyard and the Botanical Office building, and was separated from the courtyard by a small metal fence. Now there is an electrical substation and a stone barn which do not add any grace to this place,' wrote Zalesskii in 1982.

After the war, there was almost nothing left of the former beauty of the Garden. Dmitrii Zalesskii, in his memoirs tells about the grim landscape he saw in 1946: 'I thought of the grotto behind the pond, the granite stones lying on top of the hill next to it... Neither the grotto nor the stones were there in 1946... The territory of the Botanical Garden was neglected; the greenhouse was half destroyed... In some places, slit trenches were dug for shelter in case of shelling and bombardment. There was no wooden fence; garbage was dumped in the Botanical Garden... The Botanical Garden did not escape the war and its hardships. It lost a lot of its live collections and lost its reputation; it ceased to be a scientific and educational institution of the University'.

In the first three years of his work, Dmitrii Zalesskii undertook to restore the territory of the Garden, repair the glasshouse and register the collections. Out of 140 species of trees and shrubs existing in the garden before the war, 85 remained. Dmitrii Mikhailovich set up a small nursery to grow new plants. It later hosted the white robinea, a unique plant for our latitudes.

Dmitrii Zalesskii recalls that in 1947: ‘In the evenings, on a handcart, I would carry flagstones, which were removed from the university arches for asphalting. With these I paved the floors in the greenhouse and used the broken flags to edge the paths. The garden area was cleared of debris. Every employee gave some time every day to do this work. It required 80 trucks to remove the garbage. Greenhouses on the sides of the glasshouse were demolished and new ones were built instead,'

The director made an attempt to restore the decor of the Garden, which he remembered from pre-war years – the grotto and the Alpine hill. 'With my childhood memories in mind, in the evenings and on Sundays, when I was alone, I excavated on the site of a previously existing grotto. During the excavations, I discovered two large granite rectangular stones, which seemed to have collapsed on the grotto's vault. I did not have enough strength to remove them, so, digging out a special lodge, I moved one of them with a jack and wooden skids, and the other one I managed to push aside so that it did not interfere with further excavations. As a result, I managed to excavate the remnants of the grotto, sorting out all the debris and stacking it aside, and find the basement. The following year, from the pieces and old bricks, collected in different places, I laid out the vault, turfed inside and out, similar to the grotto I remember from childhood,' wrote Dmitrii Zalesskii.

The efforts of the director and the staff during the three post-war years significantly expanded the Garden's collection. The greenhouse stock included more than 800 species of plants, and there were over 2000 species and varieties outdoors. The garden began to exchange seeds and plants with colleagues in the other regions of the USSR and even abroad, including the USA and India. By 1955, the greenhouse already held 1450 species of plants, with almost 4000 species growing outside. The collection was rapidly expanding, but it became increasingly difficult to accommodate and systematise it. Besides, a considerable part of the garden territory had to be allocated for ornamental flowering plants: by 1955 they accounted for about 3000 of all the outdoor species. As Dmitrii Zalesskii and the current director of the Garden Aleksandr Khalling recall in their memoirs: in those years the Garden was seen not as a scientific and educational institution, but rather as a place where you could cultivate flowers for the needs of the University and the city. Instead of scientific research, the staff had to engage in growing seedlings for flower beds and selling seeds.

‘This plot behind the Palm Glasshouse used to be a big flower bed, and there were some seedbeds,’ recalls the current director of the Botanical Garden Aleksandr Khalling. ‘It was extremely awkward to approach them. When I first came to the Garden, I found various flowers and ornamental plants. They were hardly suitable for a university garden, or necessary for educational purposes. Plants were grown for sale, as well as seeds. Flowers and ornamental plants were planted to meet city needs and what remained was sold. When I came to work here, the kiosk was still operational; it closed only in 1975’.

In his memoirs, Zalesskii mentioned that while attempts to revive the Garden were quite successful, they were often driven only by the enthusiasm of its employees. They encountered constantly resistance from the University administration or reluctance of colleagues from other fields of science. Dmitrii Zalesskii wrote about numerous plans to: build an electric power substation; house security dogs; breed rabbits in the vivarium (later removed from the premises, but all the waste was left behind); or lay out engineering systems for the cyclotron through the newly built garden paths.

In the 1960s, Zalesskii managed to build a new administrative building and the Seed Greenhouse in the Garden. By 1974 the Grand Palm Glasshouse was completed. Zalesskii recalls in his memoirs: how difficult it was to accomplish the construction of all these buildings; how long it took to convince the administration to develop and modify the projects; and how they would look for contractors or pay them extra from their own salaries.

For example, in the 1960s, when the physicists were rebuilding the observatory located in the garden, Zalesskii managed to negotiate the construction of the seed greenhouse directly with them. The head of the time service laboratory, Aleksandr Shiriaev, agreed to allot a small plot of land for the greenhouse on condition that the employees of the garden would dig out the trench themselves. However, there were not enough people in the garden to do such work. It all happened by chance: Zalesskii complained about his problems to a postgraduate student from China, and in a couple of days the student came back with about 200 of his compatriots, who dug a 50 cubic metre trench for the seed greenhouse for free.

Another period of decay: ever fewer enthusiasts

By 1970, the collections of plants in the greenhouse included more than 2000 species, with more than 6000 species and varieties grown in the outdoors. 'We undertook the reorganisation of the local flora section, selecting only rare and endangered plant species, because with our limited area and its saturation with plantings we did not have the opportunity to do more,' recalled Dmitrii Zalesskii.

Much of the work in the Garden, including heavy physical labour, was done by Zalesskii himself. As a result, during the construction of the Grand Palm Glasshouse in the early 1970s he had a heart attack. According to the director of the Garden, this prevented the proper completion of the project.

'Urgently, without any proper consultation with me, my duties were assigned to a person who was completely unsuitable for the job. He was indeed very agile (quite a fussy man) and regularly visited me at my request and kept me informed of progress. I tried to communicate through him to a new master at the construction site who had replaced his deceased predecessor, what should be paid attention to and what should be done first, and asked my assignee to monitor developments. As it turned out later, this man turned out to be unscrupulous and deceived me: he had never entered into the details of the construction, only looked at the site from afar and relied on the information of the foreman. Moreover, he abused his new position in order to go to work as little as possible, and was concerned only with his own affairs. When, after almost three months of absence, I visited the Garden and climbed the scaffolding of the construction site, I found that much had been done not only contrary to my instructions, but also contrary to the drawings of the project and that it was no longer possible to fix. Now, while using the gardens, we have felt the consequences of these errors and suffer from them,' wrote Dmitrii Zalesskii.

After long treatment, the director returned to the garden and discovered the loss of many plants, including some valuable ones. 'When I checked the condition of our plants in the greenhouse, many could not be found, having died. Some of these were plants that took about 15-20 years to grow, many of them were unique and their recovery was impossible, at least in the coming years. During my absence, more than 200 species of plants, often represented by 1–5 specimens, were completely lost. In other words, at least 400 plants were lost,' recalled Dmitrii Zalesskii.

After his illness Dmitrii Zalesskii was unable to fully perform his duties, and retired in 1981. He later recalled that, while still a director, he began to feel the uselessness of his work: the garden received little funds, there was a shortage of staff, even despite the large number of full time positions. Nobody wanted to go to work in the garden for a small salary, there were fewer and fewer enthusiasts.

'We need people who are qualified and love their job. There aren't really any! Can the Botanical Garden and its collections be maintained to a high standard? It remains a Botanical Garden as long as its collections are maintained at a high level, otherwise it is just a warehouse for plants that are slowly dying out. With all this, as long as the Botanic Garden still exists, I have to take on a completely impossible job that excludes any scientific research entirely... Much remains unfinished, but I did everything I could... I have to watch the daily destruction of what took so many years of hard work to restore. I'd rather not witness it. Let people believe it has always been like this...' Dmitrii Zalesskii said in 1982.

Roaring 90s: selling worms, car park and bottles of acid

With the collapse of the USSR, the Botanical Garden began to decay even faster. The staff was reduced several times; funding was almost non-existent – it was barely enough to pay the few remaining employees. During the difficult 1990s, the University administration tried to optimise the territory of the Garden with disastrous consequences. Neglecting the specifics and needs of the plants, the administration extended the outdoor heating line and started cultivating worms for sale in the greenhouses off the books.

At the end of the 1990s, the courtyard of the Faculty of Philology was used as a garage. In order to clean it up, it was decided to move the University's car park to the territory of the Garden. In its southwest corner (near the administrative building) a garage for 10 cars was erected. The garage did not function for long, but left its mark on the life of the Garden. Not far from the collection of local flora (now almost completely lost) they washed cars, drained used oil, and emptied garbage in the neighbouring flower beds.

In fact, it was not only the garage workers who used the Garden as a junkyard. Since chemical waste disposal was rather expensive, workers in the nearby laboratories frequently dumped waste in the Garden.

'There, do you see those mounds?' asks Aleksandr Khalling, the current director of the Botanical Garden who took up his position in 2018. 'All this is debris from the demolished garages that were here. The car park didn't last long, but it left a very large layer of garbage, about 80 centimetres deep. During the years of perestroika, when there were shortages, garbage was often dumped in the Garden. It was overgrown, and all over the Garden, in different corners, if you dig it up, you can find heaps of rubbish. Look, the ground level is high there, and lower here? The place that is high is garbage. In the 1990s, and in the beginning of the 2000s, all of the garbage was brought here.'

In the summer of 2019, during one of the ‘subbotniks’, students found large bottles of acid which had been buried for several years. The findings were quickly disposed of. However, the director does not know how many more such 'surprises' from the 1990s are hiding under the ground.

Out of the six famous palm trees which endured the siege, only two survived perestroika in the 1990s.

Altogether, there are three pre-war plants - two palm trees and an Australian sago palm.

In the beginning of the 2000s, during repairs to the old ‘Beketov’ greenhouses, glass was replaced with polycarbonate in order to keep the costs down. Aleksandr Khalling specifically points out that this material should not be used for a greenhouse. ‘The wooden frames used to be glazed with glass. Times changed, the Garden funds were cut, wood decayed and glass shattered. So, the glasshouse was covered with double-glazed cellular polycarbonate that doesn’t let the cold in — the air circulates between the layers, just like in a double-glazed insulated window. Of course, it's warm and doesn't let the heat out, but this leads to another problem: less light permeates the polycarbonate, and in winter snow stays on the roof. The snow falls and doesn't melt. When snow falls on glass, the glass is heated from below and the snow melts and slides away immediately’, explains Aleksandr Khalling.

Our days: cedars, bananas, eucalyptus and agave

In old photographs, you can see that the trees grew only in the low and marshy southern part of the garden with the pond. The northern part (between the greenhouses and the Institute of Chemistry) was free from trees and exposed to light. This made it possible to use the plot for educational plantings: before the revolution and for some time after the war the plot contained a systematic collection of plants used by students in their studies. 'We called it the 'graveyard' as the seedbeds were bordered by concrete kerbstones. However, there were some trees, and with time they grew ever higher. The plot became shaded. Besides, it's very dry. That's why everything stopped growing here; the site was abandoned, and after several years there was nothing left. The collections of perennial plants need constant attention. They are the first to die,' says Aleksandr Khalling.

During the long years of neglect, the Garden became haphazardly overgrown with wild trees which threatened its development by shading the greenhouse plants. Therefore, these trees need to be cut down. ‘For example, the fir-tree near the glasshouse – it should be removed though it is a very good tree. It’s not allowed to grow anything near a greenhouse due to the lack of light and sun which are necessary for the plants in a greenhouse. The Botanical Garden is a collection, but from time to time you can find mature trees that are not necessary or are not part of any collection. When it happens, there might be problems with removing them as the Garden has a special conservation status and it is necessary to get permission. It is the city, of course, that has control over everything, but when it concerns collections grown for scientific and educational purposes, the question of what plants to leave and what plants to cut down should be resolved by the Garden authorities. For example, poplar... Why should we keep this poplar if it grows all over the city? Besides, it overshadows the plants in the Garden,’ says Aleksandr Khalling.

Felling is also necessary for diseased and old trees that might pose a threat to people. ‘By the pond there was a huge willow spared for many years. About ten years ago, it was blown down by the wind, and only last year, we managed to remove the tree stump and wood fragments from the water. The willow was affected by fungus – inside it was completely rotten, alive only at the edges. It was a giant century-old tree, but in this condition it could not be kept,’ says the director of the Garden.

Wood chip from fallen trees is used for covering the ground – this is good for plants. The first thing to do is to improve the area to the left of the old greenhouse: now it hosts the only outdoor collection of coniferous plants in the Garden. 'In 2019, a lot of unnecessary trees were cut down, stumps were shredded and the ground was covered with chips. That's what old trees are used for in modern gardens – to cover the ground with chips or crushed bark. This is a proven practice all over the world. Underneath the layer of chips they use non-woven materials, so-called geotextiles. This prevents weeds and water evaporation. We have already covered the entire coniferous plant area,’ explains the director of the Botanical Garden.

He reminds that the University Botanical Garden is primarily a collection for educational purposes, not a bed of flowers ‘for beauty’. In order to accommodate all the collections, it is necessary to reorganise the available space. ‘Plants are growing, they need to be constantly pruned. In our country, people do not like plants to be cut – everyone feels sorry for them, associating them with living beings. However, the main tool of any gardener is a saw and an axe. If you don't cut some plants down immediately, they will outgrow and crowd out other species,' said Aleksandr Khalling.

The garden currently occupies an area of 2.6 hectares. About half of the area is greenhouses, the other half is outdoor plants. Glasshouses hold 3300 plants, with about 1300 species growing in the open air. The garden has several collections, including conifers, aquatic plants, cactuses and succulents, as well as tropical and subtropical plants from all over the world. However, it lacks the most important thing: a systematic collection, the basis for the educational process, and a collection of local flora. It turned out that cedars, bananas, papaya, coffee and mulberry, eucalyptus and agave, Manchurian walnut and Amur cork tree grow in the garden. However, the flora of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region is not fully represented.

The greatest treasure of the garden is the white robinia planted by Dmitrii Zalesskii in the 1940s. Today there are three such trees in the Botanical Garden. 'In north-west Russia, in this very place, in this part of the city, there is a special warm microclimate and good drainage. Many southern plants grow in our garden, which will never grow outside in the city, especially in the Leningrad region. This is one of the warmest places, protected from moisture and wind, so in St Petersburg it is the only place to see 15–17 metre high white robinia. I believe that the white robinia should become a symbol of our Garden,' says Aleksandt Khalling.

Aleksandr Khalling believes that for its successful development the garden needs enthusiastic staff and sufficient funding. At the same time, the director emphasises that for the garden to live, it is necessary to make it accessible and attractive to visitors.

'Any garden is a public place. It must be open to everyone. This is how gardens all over the world are organised. I've been to English, Australian and other gardens in different countries many times. Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Kew Gardens, Melbourne, Sydney that have everything, everything's been written and worked out over the centuries. The final sketch design for the reconstruction of the Botanical Garden of St Petersburg University took into account all the global achievements in this field – both in terms of scientific and educational goals, and in terms of accessibility for people, logistics, and design. Certainly, there can be small areas which are closed for a time – for example, nurseries where young plants grow. Everything else, however, has to be shown to the public. The garden has to be open,' says the director of the Botanical Garden.