Sunday, March 29, 2009



On my recent short trip to Munich/Bavaria I took advantage of any time off to look again at the landscape I grew up with, but this time with my 'new' (botanically educated) eyes. This country of rolling hills and lakes, formed by the retrieving glaciers, is rich in history and cultivation of its fertile soils. 

'Our milk makes Bavaria strong!'

And yes - this is dairy country at it's best! One thing that I learned to truly appreciate only when i moved away is the Northern European law of the 'freedom to roam'.This also might explain why the people here go so often for 'walks' one could call this is a national pastime. 
But then there is also the pilgrimage, a extended version of the walk, usually directed towards a church housing some ancient reliquaries. These churches are often part of large monasteries, which commonly house breweries and inns. One of my favorite is 'Kloster Andechs', famous for it's dark beer and beer garden. One way to get there is a 21/2 hour walk through some of the most beautiful of Bavaria's landscapes.

Hedera helix

Hedera helix fruit

One thing I noticed more this time, probably because of the leaf less season, is the amount of ivy growing up trees. Ivy is a native here (in contrast to the US where it is considered an invasive) and has a strong tradition of symbolic and medicinal use, going all the way back to the Egyptians. It is strongly associated with the roman god of wine, Bacchus, and the Greeks wore ivy wraths around their heads believing it to wake 'bacchanal enthusiasm' and to cool their brains while drinking and eating until they passed out.... 
As to the ivy completely covering the trunks of so many trees, there is no evidence found to today that this is detrimental to the tree, as long as it does not shade out the host.

Corylus avellana, female flower

Corylus avellana, male catkin and female flower

Another plant that is visually dominant this time of the year is the common hazel, Corylus avellana, another native around here. The yellow catkins covering these shrubs early in the spring before the leaves come out, make this plant highly visible along the forest and field edges and also in parks and gardens. This is a very important food plant going all the way back to the Mesolithic age, when it was the dominating woody plant in the forests of central Europe.
Clematis vitalba

Also highly visible are the fluffy seed heads of Clematis vitalba, a native climber that covers deciduous trees and shrubs along the edges of woods, and is a nitrogen indicator. And in the right light it is absolutely gorgeous!

Eranthis hyemalis

I just learned Eranthis hyemalis to be native to southern Europe, but this little beauty has been cultivated here since the 16th century and is wildly naturalized. As it is one of the first flowers in the season it is important as first food to bees. All parts of these little tubers are highly poisonous, making the plant popular with murderers of the Greek mythology.

reflection in shallow pond

old infructescent of Carduus acanthoides

The walk to Andechs leads you through these wonderful light forests dominated by the European beech tree Fagus salvaticus. This is my favorite tree of them all, and I have to apologize for the lousy picture (please do not click on this one - it's embarrassing)

Another plant that has a lot of meaning to me is Hepatica nobilis, the common liverwort native to Europe. This beautiful little gem of the Ranunculaceae family typically grows in these beech forests, and has recently been renamed to Anemone hepatica, but I am not sure how accepted this new classification is.
As a little child I often went into the woods behind my parents house to collect small bouquets of this flower, gifting it to whoever I found worthy of it that particular day.
leaf of Hepatica nobilis

Hepatica nobilis flower

The name is easy to remember if you look at the leaf shape and color. The purple color of leaf, stem and flower is associated with the pigment Anthocyan, which is said to be able to convert light into heat, and such preventing the delicate little thing to die off in the frosts still occurring around this time of the year.

Salix capreamale catkins before release of pollen

And then there is  the 'Palmkatzerl' Salix caprea. The hairy little male flowers are very popular cuttings for vases, especially around Easter and Palm Sunday, alas the name, loosely translated as 'palm kittens'.

Part of the walk is along cultivated fields, still not tilled after last years harvest, and sometimes way to close to those fields that have freshly been fertilized with cow manure. But that's part of country life....

The rewards of the long walk (if it is not enough in itself) wait inside the large dining hall of the cloister. A shared mass (one liter) of the famous dark beer draft, now during lent with even more alcohol content, is almost a meal in itself and the hardy plate of pork roast with the finest crust (I suspect some more dark beer involved there) with a real pretzel (not to be confused with those preetzel-like things sold in Central Park), and a healthy portion of sauerkraut - this should illustrate what pilgrimage means to me.

The monastery sits absolutely picturesque on top of a large hill overlooking the 
lake Ammersee, and on our way down we caught the last of the late winter sun sinking into the lake behind the trees.

I felt we did properly pacify the winter gods, and honored the beginning of spring.