The search for national identity gained momentum, at least in Europe, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Germany this search also led to a closer look at nature. The goal was to find particular natural settings that could help to distinguish German nature and landscapes from the natural environments of other nations and thus be identified as “truly” Germanic. According to Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), a “nation is called a people because it is first of all through nature.” Ideologically this meant that a people then can be called a nation when it can be derived from nature.
Similarly, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) influenced later concepts of natural garden design. In his Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants (Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gewächse), published in 1806, Humboldt referred to “patriotic plant characters” (“vaterländische Pflanzengestalten”) and addressed the decisive impact exercised by the vegetation of a country on the development of individual cultures. According to Humboldt, “the knowledge of the natural character of different regions of the earth [is] most intimately connected with the history of the human race and with its culture.” “The character of a people, gloomy or happy mood of humankind,” According to Humbolt the outer appearance of plants, their physiognomy, gained considerable importance; he assumed that it could influence even the character of a people.
Eugene Gradmann wrote a book on Homeland Protection and Landscape Cultivation (Heimatschutz und Landschaftspf lege) in 1910. The idea of protecting native plants took on a nationalistic theme. Lange and Schultze-Naumburg emphasized the need for a garden to be rooted in a particular place and to demonstrate an understanding of the region in which it was set. Wilhelm Bolsche, also a founder member of Homeland Protect League, wrote a book with a title drawn from Goethe Die and Become! (1913) (Stirb und Werde!). He called private gardens to be treated as biospheres dedicated to the preservation of the native fauna and flora, so that they could be saved from extinction.
According to research done at Dumbarton Oaks, Willy Lange’s (1864– 1941) was professor of garden design in Berlin and one of the most significant garden theorists in early twentieth-century Germany. In his publications Lange claimed that “the German nature garden was the highest form of garden art and proof that Germany would be the cultural bearer of humankind in the field of garden art. In 1905 he stated: “The highest development of garden design is consequently based on the scientific Weltanschauung of our times and is reflected in the artistic nature garden.” Some years later he said about natural garden design: “History will call this new stage of garden style, which is firmly based on its precursors, the stage of the German garden style. Germany has chosen to lend its name to this style in the history of gardens and to become once again ‘an improver of the world”.
The Blood + Soil theory was that true Aryan race, the German/Nordic peasant races were ‘rooted in the soil’, superior and those foreign were inferior. Lange also wrote that the “highest form of garden culture was only attainable by the German/Nordic races”. Therefore only German plants should be used in gardens. Much like the Nazi’s believed that any nomadic or homeless race – Gypsies or Jews (the prime focus of the Holocaust) were inferior, plants from other countries should be rejected or destroyed.
Many “garden architects” as they were referred to, left Germany during the National Socialist reign. Alwin Seifert, a chief architect of the autobahn, (another postulated example of Germany’s superiority) banned all foreign plants from the planting of the autobahn.
In opposition to these precepts was Karl Foerster (1874-1970), German nurseryman, plant breeder and writer, who created his own garden in Potsdam-Bornim which dates back to 1912. Many are familiar with his name due to the popularity of Feather reed grass/ Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' (among 350 other species) which he introduced and named.
He promoted the design of artistic low-maintenance gardens by offering appropriate hardy plants. The garden is famous for its combination of architectural and naturalistic garden styles and its sunken garden. Foerster and his circle (landscape architect Herta Hammerbacher and Hermann Mattern with whom he founded a design studio in 1928) would embrace “world gardens” and even wrote a book on them.
During the Nazi era, Foerster took the risk and employed numerous Jewish friends in his operation and resisted the Nazi demand to primarily propagate and sell native German, pure plants. After the war, the soviet military administration puts claim on Foersters nursery, which was now managed under tight Soviet rule and remained the only perennial supplier for East Germany. Today the garden is managed by Foerster’s daughter Marianne Foerster and is part of the UNSECO World Heritage Site Potsdam-Sanssouci.
Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) one of the seminal figures in 20th century landscape design, was the child of a Brazilian mother (Burle) and a German-Jewish father (Marx). His mother fostered his passion for gardening and his father in design. His father had immigrated to Brazil around the turn of the century. Born in Sao Paolo, att the age of 19, (1928) Roberto moved to Berlin to study art while engrossing himself in the massive cultural revival of the Weimar Republic. (Burle-Marx left after a couple of years as the political climate had quickly changed, most obvious of which was the building anti-semitism). However, It was while studying painting in Germany during the Weimar Republic, as he would later tell it, that Burle Marx realized that the vegetation Brazilians then dismissed as "scrub and brush," preferring imported pine trees and gladioli for their gardens, was truly extraordinary. Visiting the Botanical Garden in Berlin, he was startled to find many Brazilian plants in the collection and quickly came to see the untapped artistic potential in their varied shapes, sizes and hues.
The irony here is that these native Brazilian plants were not as prized in Burle-Marx’s homeland of Brazil as they were in Germany. Yet the twist is that they were soon to disappear from the Botanical Gardens because at around this time the Nazi party was developing it’s “Blood + Soil” ideology. “Blut und Boden” ideology insisted on the close relationship between nature and the German people and with it, preached the crucial role of landscape in forming and preserving national culture. This included the banishment of all non-native plants and trees from the Fatherland (Germany).
Reich Minister of Food + Agriculture Richard Darre,
one of the leading proponents of "Blood + Soil."
Tried and convicted at the Nuremburg trials, he died of alcoholism.