Since 1997, motto and part of the Palmengarten’s emblem has been “Plants, Life, Culture” – this points to the uniqueness of these gardens and their function for the community. Since the onset of this educational, social, and cultural institution in the center of Frankfurt has been a haven for plants from all around the world to be discovered and admired. Additionally, the Palmengarten offers regular music performances and concerts, provides an opportunity to enjoy a diverse program of social entertainment, and serves as an oasis in the middle of town to regenerate and relax.
The Palmengarten has gone through the most diverse developments within the 150 years of its history. HistoryIt has been variously expanded and modernized, its botanical highlights and historic collections of palms, orchids, and camellias have been carefully attended to and propagated. Frankfurt‘s Hortus Palmarum thus remains unique in its structure as a communal park, educational institution, and facility for manifold cultural activities and performances. Now its displays and collections amount to more than 13,000 subtropical and tropical species, cultivated in theme gardens and arranged according to vegetation types in greenhouses and grounds. Today, the requirements, expectations, and demands facing us as a public scientific institution are certainly quite different from those prevailing in the early days of the founder Heinrich Siesmayer and his immediate successors.
Facing the current budget restrictions, the Palmengarten must constantly reevaluate its specific tasks in order to preserve its historic heritage and yet provide an attractive concept for the present and future. As other institutions, the Palmengarten can only accomplish all these tasks and maintain its attractiveness by relying on the generous support of friends, supporters, and sponsors. Our aim has been to guarantee this by establishing reliable networks and cooperations, successfully so far. For decades the Palmengarten has been a member of the German Association of Botanical Gardens, as well as a part of the global cooperative network „Botanic Gardens Conservation International“ (BGCI). Other national and international memberships include the Gesellschaft der Rosenfreunde, Orchideengesellschaft, and Bambusgesellschaft.
The Palmengarten is part of the regional network ”BioFrankfurt”. The association of the Palmengarten with the Frankfurt Zoo and Senckenberg Museum aims to help manage and conserve the globe’s biodiversity. Aside from cultivating and propagating its current collections, the Palmengarten maintains participates in the global seed exchange program with botanical gardens, and specializes in particular ex situ key collections as, e.g., notocacti, Weltwitschia mirabilis, and bromeliads.
The „Grüne Schule Palmengarten“, has been variously appraised as a pioneer educational facility for students and teachers and serves as a model for many other botanical gardens. In 2009, the innovative „Kinder im Garten“ project was established in conjunction with Frankfurt’s Community Childcare Institutions, providing an educational platform for our youngest to stimulate their interest in the natural world and plants, in particular.
The recent merging of the Botanical Garden of the University of Frankfurt with the Palmengarten under the auspices of the City of Frankfurt represents a far-reaching decision which will create new challenges and new opportunities. The Botanical Garden, next to the Palmengarten, had been associated with the Goethe University since 1914, and its existence was in jeopardy – the City of Frankfurt luckily stepped in and saved this precious scientific institution. Together the two institutions, with their total 18,000 plant species, will coexist under one administrative directory, thus forming a synergistically more powerful and attractive haven for plants. The establishment of the foundation „Stiftung Palmengarten und Botanischer Garten“ will provide ongoing support in all aspects of the institutions’ operations. Additional donations and estates will help to finance new projects in the future.
Without the Prussians, Frankfurt most likely would never have had its Palmengarten. Its foundation in 1868 ows itself to a predicament – and a daring citizens initiative. The Duke Adolph of Nassau was in a financial tie. His castle gardens in Wiesbaden-Biebrich comprised 200 exotic plants. In the course of annexation of the duchy along with the city of Frankfurt by Prussia in 1866, the botanically inclined duke was forced to sell his famous “Biebricher Winter Gardens” and asked Heinrich Siesmayer (1817–1900) for assistance.
Siesmayer was a renowned horticulturist who had, among others, conceptionalized the Bad Nauheim Kurpark. The duke’s collection seemed to allow him to implement a long-held dream: similar to Brussels and London, Siesmayer intended to create a “Southern Palace” in Frankfurt – an exotic garden with social events. What he needed was supporters and money. Both were eventually supplied by a handful of honorable citizens and businessmen, among them Leopold Sonnemann, banker and founder of the former “Frankfurter Zeitung”. In May of 1868 a committee was formed to purchase the “Biebricher Wintergärten”. The issued stock shares were so popular that very shortly after their emission the valuable plant collection could be acquired from Adolph of Nassau for 60,000 Rhein-Gulders.
The City of Frankfurt made available a slot of some 18 acres along the rural Bockenheimer Straße to the joint-stock company as an hereditary tenancy. The greenhouses were erected in 1869 and the first flower show took place in 1870. The official inauguration of the magnificent gardens with Palmenhaus and adjoining building for socio-cultural events was celebrated on March 16, 1871 in the presence of the Prussian Crown Prince. And three years later it was the Emperor Wilhelm I himself to honor the splendid Frankfurt Palmengarten by a personal visit. Its exotic plants as well as concerts and balls soon made the Palmengarten a highly attractive center of social life in the city.
The era of initiation ended in 1886 with the retirement of Heinrich Siesmayer as honorary director. His successor August Siebert (1854–1923), a renowned horticultural expert in respected social standing, was able to expand and improve the gardens considerabley within the four decades of his leadership. Among others he established new greenhouses and a rosary, introduced electricity, and published a first printed guidebook. In times of distress during World War I, the greenhouses and grounds served as vegetable plots to supply military hospitals. As part of the meanwhile highly prestigious Westend, the gardens managed to be maintained during the war, while the following economic crisis required major readjustments.
The Palmengarten under the Auspices of the city
Expenses began to exceeded the joint-stock company's capacity and thus the City of Frankfurt, having previously already invested greatly, now stepped in an assumed responsibility for the Palmengarten in 1931. The joint-stock company was transformed into the charitable society „Friends of the Palmengarten“ , which continues to support the communal garden in many respects to the present day.
Following Otto Krauss (1865–1935), who had assumed the position of Director upon Siebert's death, the City appointed Max Bromme (1878–1974) as Head of the Hortus Palmarum. Having served as the community’s Director of Horticultural Services he had previously doubled the number of public parks and playgrounds. Bromme modernized the garden and reshaped Blütengalerie and Heather Garden, and also initiated the “Roses and Illumination” festival, which remains popular to the present day. His plan to fuse the Palmengarten with the Grüneburgpark into a monumental arboretum was halted, among others, by the outbreak of World War II. Again, the splendid flower gardens were rededicated to growing potatoes and cabbage for survival. In 1944, Frankfurt was largely destroyed, and the Palmengarten was not spared: the western section of the “Gesellschaftshaus” (building for socio-cultural events) and the music pavillion were consumed by flames, and all glasshouses were shattered from detonations.
Fortunately, reconstruction assumed quickly. The occupying American forces used the “Gesellschaftshaus” and park as a military „Recreation Center“ , and in the process rebuilt and repaired all structural damage to the park’s and city’s advantage. Only in 1953 did the Americans return the gardens to the City of Frankfurt. From 1945, Fritz Encke (1904–2000) had served as Director. Enke was an experienced and passionate administrator and had previously served as the City’s Garden Inspector. The Palmengarten was reopened and flourished. In 1963, one million visitors were counted in one single year alone, reflecting its enormous and growing popularity among Frankfurt’s citizens.
Besides being involved with the reconstruction of the greenhouses and other facilities, Encke also implemented various technical and horticultural innovations. Together with the famous German trombone player Albert Mangelsdorff, he and Werner Wunderlich initiated the popular „Jazz im Palmengarten“, program in 1959 in order to also attract young people to the Westend park with its long musical tradition. In fact, this is the oldest ongoing Open-Air-series in Germany and possibly even world-wide. Encke’s continuous efforts were able to elevate the public park to become veritable botanical gardens, among others by expanding the plant collection and by participating in a lively seed exchange with other gardens in the world. Upon his retirement in 1968, Encke had transformed the Palmengarten into one of the most renowned international botanical institutions.
Thorough renovations before budget restrictions
At the time of the Palmengarten's centennial celebration in 1969, the directory had already been transferred to the renowned professional botanist Gustav Schoser who began a major reshaping of the Palmengarten. One major advantage for Schoser was the ready availability of communal funds for this purpose at this time, so that ambitious projects could be planned and realized. Frankfurt was vigorously attempting to improve it’s global appearance as a leading metropolitan center of commerce and culture. During this period, Schoser implemented the construction of the modern lobby with greenhouse at Siesmayerstraße, which now became the home of the newly founded Grüne Schule, Germany’s first educational facility of the sort in a botanical garden.Two additional botanists were employed as scientific curators of the plant collection. Further important innovations included the construction of the Subantarctic House, the reconstruction of the concert stage, as well as new facilities for technical operations and nursery. The rose garden rose garden.
The modern Tropicarium with its ten different tropical climatic-vegetational zones is the culminating achievement of Gustav Schoser. In order to attain the property it was necessary to relocate an established tennis club – thus expanding the total area of the Palmengarten to nearly 55 acres. Major highly acclaimed events during his time were the 8th World Orchid Conference, a World Cactus Show, and several international conferences for rose and succulent specialists.
At the time when Isolde Hagemann assumed office as Director in 1993 the Palmengarten’s budget had already started to become restricted and it became necessary to look for support beyond. For greater visibility the Hortus Palmarum launched a campaign with temporary exhibits and presentations outside of Germany, at Frankfurt Airport, and in hotels and department stores. Various supportive institutions and sponsors provided funds in order to help organize exciting exhibitions. Hagemann also successfully acquired funds from sponsors for the initiative “Rettet das Palmenhaus” (Rescue the Palmenhaus). The distinguished members of the committee were able to establish a solid foundation for this project. Isolde Hagemann resigned from her position in 1996.
Heading into the 21st Century
Matthias Jenny, Hagemann’s deputy and Head of the Science Department, initially assumed the official duties on a provisional basis before being appointed the garden’s director in January 1998. The successful fundraising campaign, which culminated in the festive reopening of the restored Palm House in 1999, became a symbol for his work and the future of the Green Oasis: When municipal budgets are tight, it is essential to recruit third-party funding for all projects and to establish stable networks to this effect.
One example of Jenny’s intensive efforts is the Palmengarten and Botanical Garden Foundation. Establishing this foundation not only ensured the long-term preservation of both gardens; it also provided an opportunity to finance new projects with the foundation’s funds – such as the construction of the Flower and Butterfly House. Donations and sponsorship money helped establish the Goethe Garden and modernize playgrounds, among other projects, and sponsoring funds also provided the start-up financing for the “Children in the Garden” project, begun in 2009 in collaboration with the Frankfurt Childcare Center (KiTa).
Since 2003, the children’s music theater “Papageno,” which was first hosted in the Palmengarten in 1998, has established its own, frequently visited stage. Gastronomic offers range from a children’s kiosk to the Café Siesmayer with its outdoor terrace and the Villa Leonardi.
The continued need for restoration measures poses the greatest challenge in a living garden world. Supported by donations, the Rose Garden was reestablished in 2007, and the galleries at the Palm House received a new glass enclosure in 2009. To minimize the running costs, the energy concept is regularly updated according to the latest ecological state-of-the-art. The restoration of the Society House turned out to be a mammoth undertaking: The 35-million-Euro project, based on plans by David Chipperfield, is the largest construction project since Schoser’s time. Not only did the façade, which had been covered up in 1929 in the “New Objectivity” style and was changed once again at a later date, receive a complete facelift; in addition, the magnificent ballroom with its skylight, historical structures and wall paintings was restored to its original splendor. New banquet and business lounges were added, and all staircases and technical installations were modernized. The Society House’s grand reopening was celebrated with a gala event in 2012.
The event program, which from the beginning included regularly recurring plant exhibitions, lectures, festivals, and concerts, was vastly expanded in the late 20th century. Once or twice a year there are cultural-historical, botanical exhibitions, e.g., featuring the flora of China, plants used for dyeing, cacao or citrus plants. Art shows, readings, book premieres, and guided discovery tours round out the agenda. In addition to jazz and classical performances, the musical offerings include a cooperation with the College for Music and Performing Arts as well as with the art house “Mousonturm” and “Blues in the Palmengarten.”
In the midst of change
Dr. Katja Heubach has served as director of the Palmengarten since September 2018. One of her first projects was a survey among visitors to find out who visits the Palmengarten today, and why. Finding peace and relaxation, taking advantage of educational opportunities – these were the points named most frequently by the respondents as the main motivation for a visit. The questions also targeted the visitors’ wishes – which topics and needs should the Palmengarten (increasingly) address in the future? Where might there be undiscovered treasures in the 150-year-old garden paradise? After all, the garden is also subject to the changing times and must continuously adapt – of course, without losing its original character. It is therefore particularly important to keep an eye on ecological and social change. One of Katja Heubach’s explicit goals is to maintain a balance between historical responsibility and current needs in this process.
Katja Heubach pays special attention to reinforcing scientific projects: Together with various cooperation partners, the gardeners and botanists of the Palmengarten and the Botanical Garden observe phenological changes in plants or investigate the appreciation of insects and the contribution of cities to the conservation of insects, using the example of the city of Frankfurt am Main. Citizen scientists can also participate: They are invited to take part in the joint project of the Palmengarten, the Botanical Garden, and the Science Garden of the Goethe University on the citizen science platform iNaturalist.
Digitization is also a major topic that the Palmengarten is currently addressing. How can digital applications be used to whet visitors’ appetites for the garden and communicate content? Since 2021, visitors have been able to use the Palmengarten app to be guided through the garden by their smartphone. Various new educational offerings of the Green School are also supported by digital tools.
Another concern is to become more barrier-free and inclusive in the future. Visitors with disabilities should also be able to experience and enjoy the Palmengarten and the Botanical Garden. The aim is both barrier-free access and barrier-free communication. For example, the Senckenberg Medicinal Plant Garden in the Botanical Garden has already been redesigned so that blind and visually impaired people can explore it with the help of a floor guidance system and visual-tactile boards. The summer succulent garden behind the Tropicarium was given a new routing system in the spring 2021, enabling people with mobility impairments to walk or drive up the formerly steep hill in a relaxed manner.
In terms of content, various garden projects revolve around the Palmengarten’s first ever guiding theme, defined in 2019 and publicly proclaimed in 2021: “Flower and Pollinator Ecology.” The centerpiece and starting point of the guiding theme is the new Flower and Butterfly House, which will open in 2021. In one part of the greenhouse, which measures around 800 square meters, colorful tropical butterflies flutter around to delight young and old visitors alike. You can even watch owl butterflies, monarchs, and morphos as they hatch in a pupation box.
The exotic butterflies thus simultaneously serve as friendly ambassadors for the topic of pollination. This makes for a smooth transition to the associated exhibition “Dusted Off! – Of Flowers and Their Visitors” in the neighboring cold house, which takes a close look at the vast world of insects. It shows their diversity and their splendor of forms and colors, thereby inspiring fascination for these animals that colonize almost every habitat on our planet and are of enormous benefit to us humans.
The exhibition also tells us about the current threats to insects and how we can counteract them. The Flower and Butterfly House thus becomes a starting point for explorations in the Palmengarten and Botanical Garden to observe insects, to obtain specific ideas for the creation of insect-friendly beds, or even for nesting aids. A special icon referring to the exhibition “Dusted Off! – Of Flowers and their Visitors points the way through the gardens.