Flora of Budapest; Spring along the Danube

By Andy McIndoe

I’ve just spent a few days in the wonderful city of Budapest, Hungary; my first visit. This very welcoming city on the banks of the Danube has friendly people, magnificent architecture, hearty food, vibrant bars and steaming thermal baths.  What I wasn’t expecting were the amount of trees and flowers that make this such a green city. There seems to be a haze of delicate spring green foliage everywhere; a wonderful foil for the stone of the buildings. At some point soon I’ll blog about the trees and the street-scape: impressive and progressive. The cherries were nearing the end of their flowering period but still made a wonderful display where they lined streets by the castle in Buda.

I was amazed by the amount of healthy horse chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum. These were in full bloom and certainly they make a spectacular display. New specimens were being planted in many areas of the city: I assume that the pests and diseases that have affected them so badly elsewhere are not a problem here. In Budapest their great presence is a reminder of just what superb and spectacular trees these really are.

The paulownias were less happy in some places, their overwintering buds clearly hit by frost. Where branches were sheltered from the weather by neighbouring walls, the foxglove-like spikes of pale lilac-blue stood on bare branches. These are the most curious trees; somewhat surreal and candelabra-like in winter and early spring, becoming tropical as the large leaves unfurl later in the season.

In the run up to Easter the Spring Fair and sunshine meant plenty of street life: feasting and merry making and bustling markets. Flowers bloomed on cue. The Hungarians certainly love their pansies and they seem to thrive in the climate: high light levels, and I imagine fairly dry air, means the flowers are prolific and fairly perfect. The fragrance was wonderful in the warm sunshine and the colours dazzling.

By the banks of the Danube and in the parks quince, Cydonia oblonga, was covered with pale pink blossoms set against silver-green leaves. These grow as bushes and I wonder if they produce fruit? I love their subtle colouring and their delicacy. The flowers look almost too fragile, but here the spring climate is milder than I expected.

Occasionally the fresh spring green of the tree canopy is interrupted by bright purple pink. Cercis siliquastrum, the Judas tree, is covered in brilliant pea-like flowers carried on the dark branches. In many cases the dark reddish pods of last season persist. The brilliant flowers attract black bees with iridescent blue wings; there are plenty of other nectar rich flowers around but they prefer the cercis.

Lilacs are also in bloom. I assume they are forms of Syringa vulgaris, but their leaves are smaller. They appear in many places but are particularly abundant on the walk up the hill to the Citadel. Many ramblers carry the scented flowerheads and their delicate fragrance fills the air. Throughout the city flower shops have baskets of lilac on display.

I was also excited to see someone carrying a bunch of lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majalis. This is traditional in France on 1st May, but it’s an early spring and clearly the “Muguet” as they are known are blooming early here. I soon discovered that the bunch of fragrant porcelain blooms I had spotted were not a rarity. Bowls of bunches of muguet, surrounded by bright green leaves, were offered in every flower shop. The irresistible fragrance is one to pause and enjoy.

Many flower shops and stalls had colourful displays and offered appealing decorations and well-presented containers of muscari, bellis, violas and other quaint blooms. However I found one truly outstanding shop where everything was exquisitely displayed and beautifully executed. Delicate rings of pussy willow, lavender, boxwood and “imortellen” and baskets of delicate marguerite daisies offered lasting decorations alongside perfect cut flowers. A basket of pink daisies on a pine seat outside set the tone of a beautifully understated display inside the shop.

Every so often you come across a square with a garden; a place for children to play and locals to enjoy the sunshine. These green spaces were often coloured with flowers. Beds of tulips under planted with more pansies displayed a great standard of gardening in city landscaping. The natural lines of shrubs were preserved; no pruning by chainsaw, well tended trees and no piles of leaf litter left from last autumn. The whole city has a feeling of care for the environment and values the importance of trees flowers and plants in the urban landscape.

Andy McIndoe

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