Wild side of Prague revealed by authors

Photo: Radek Mikuláš

With the tourist season in full swing, Prague is swarming with visitors admiring its historical sights and monuments. But the city has more to offer than just its culture and history. The Academia publishing house recently released a rather unusual guidebook of the capital. Entitled Divoká příroda Prahy or the Wild Nature of Prague, it offers a completely different perspective on the city, as seen through the eyes of two passionate naturalists.

Radek Mikuláš,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
When I met with one of the guidebook's authors, Radek Mikuláš, I first asked him to define the term wild nature:

“It is nature that develops spontaneously, without human interference. It can be found in the mountains, rocks, but it can also be found in the city, and it is much more common than we think.”

You are a geologist by profession. What led you to write this unusual guide?

“During my geological research and during my walks through Prague, I found a lot of plants and fascinating pieces of nature and I just wanted to understand them better.

“So I asked my colleague botanists if there were any books about the topic but they told me that there was nothing like that. There are essays and scientific papers but nothing for the common people who live in this nature.

“So I approached the renowned botanist Jiří Sádlo. He didn’t want to do it, but he contacted me with Jan Albert Šturma, as a possible co-author. Albert wasn’t willing to write the book on his own so I finally agreed to learn something more about plants in the city and contribute to the book.

“I am also the author of all the photos and my colleague Albert Šturma is the author of the perfect drawings.”

What is the main purpose of the book?

Photo: Academia
“To give the people who notice the nature in the city an explanation about what they see. Whether there are some rare species, what continents they came from, whether they spread on train tracks, which is a common way of plant spreading.

“So the aim is to explain and to show nature to people who don’t pay that much attention to it.”

At the beginning of your book there is a map with the most interesting points worth seeing, which are then described in greater detail in the individual chapters. How did you classify the wild nature in Prague?

“There are some fifty places on the map that are briefly described and then we chose some twenty places that we describe in greater detail, in a sort of personal talk, through personal experience.

“The classification is given by the order of the chapters. Each chapter describes one particular setting, such as the Prague underground with its canals, artificial caves or old mines, which still exist in the city and some of them are inhabited by bats.

“And at the end of the book you can find about fifty different vegetation types, such as savannah growth with bush grass, calamagrostis epigejos and rhus typhina, which create the base of the growth.

And there are also other examples. On the edges of pavements you can find common purslane, also known as pigweed, which is edible. I didn’t try it myself, but my colleague did and he survived.

“During my geological research and during my walks through Prague, I found a lot of plants and fascinating pieces of nature and I just wanted to understand them better.”

It is good to know... in times of hunger.

“Yes, it is a big benefit of the book. It may be useful after the future collapses.”

The first chapter of your book is called Wandering through Prague’s Primeval Forests. Are there really remains of primeval forests in the Czech capital?

“Well, there are no primeval forests in the real sense of the word, but there is something which could be called primary forest. Primeval forests are understood to continue from medieval or older times of human history. They should be untouched by human activity or management.

“But in Prague some forests developed spontaneously on the ruins of the city, in places where human intentions were lost, in abandoned parks or garden, there are many possibilities. And these places were once again covered by vegetation from zero and the vegetation then developed into forest growth. So this is the primeval forest of Prague.”

One of Prague’s forests that you mention is Milíčovský Háj, but that has a slightly different history. If I am not mistaken, it was artificially made when they were building one of Prague’s biggest housing estates – Jižní Město. They brought mounds of ground dug out at the construction site and planted a forest there.

Photo: Radek Mikuláš
“Yes, that's pretty much what happened. In the beginning of the 1990s the authorities decided to make so-called forestry restorations. In practice it meant that each bush or tree which was considered superfluous in garden centres across the country was planted out on the dump in thousands of seedlings.

“So you can find rare, nice and expensive varieties alongside the most common species that come from the surrounding nature. The surprising thing is that they all survived and they are flourishing.

“It’s a miracle because if you wanted to make such a great collection in your own garden, it would be quite difficult to keep all of the species alive.”

How is it possible?

“That’s a good question and a difficult one to answer. Probably the combinations are so unusual in comparison with normal nature that there is not enough competition between the various species.”

There is also a chapter entitled Prague as Salt Lake City. What part of Prague reminded you of that place?

“Ten years ago I visited the great Salt Lake in Utah. And a few years later I found the water reservoir in Prague Hostivař, which is several kilometres long, and it was emptied and desiccated. And on the bottom there were cracks in the mud and thin salt crusts. So that’s for the similarity with the Great Salt Lake.

“The koan is a description of emotions which a perceptive person can have face to face with bushes or plants of the city.”

“There was a strange mixture of plants with salt-preferring species. We also found carcasses of large fish, Asian Grass Carp, about one metre long, and we also found shells of a tropical Red-eared turtle, which doesn't normally appear in the nature in the Czech Republic.

“Probably some aquarists were unhappy because these animals eat a lot and grow a lot as well, so they probably gave them freedom in the reservoir.”

And they can actually survive there...

“They survive there for many years, and according to the latest information, they are even able to breed there, which might be a great danger for local fish, because they eat fish eggs and small fish, so we will see.”

In your guidebook, you also mention places that are right in the centre of Prague, such as Uhelný trh and Karlovo náměstí. What kind of imprints of wild nature can be found there?

“This is chiefly my colleague's field. Albert considers the paving of Uhelný trh square, which is in the historic city centre, to be continuously vegetated with disturbances of course, for hundreds of years. Plants resistant to trampling, such as thyme leaves and sandwort, can survive. There is a market, so there has always been a source of nutrients for plants and a lot of people as well.

Photo: Radek Mikuláš
At the end of your book there are several supplements, and one of them is a chapter called Prague Nature as Seen from Trams. What is your favourite tram line in this respect?

“Probably number 17. It is a tram line that goes from the southern part of Prague, through Modřany, than it crosses the city centre and ends at Ládví, which is the northern margin of Prague.

“These parts, like former fields in Modřany or lime stone quarries at Braník are the places I know from my childhood. Then the tram crosses the centre, goes along the river bank of Vltava.

“Finally, in the north part of the city, the tram climbs up the steep slopes with remnants of an eighty year-old housing colony in Kobylisy and Trója. So it is not only botanical remnants but also social remnants.”

What I like about your book is that besides giving very detailed description of various untamed places in Prague, it is also very poetic. The individual chapters are divided by short koans, short texts used in Zen practice. Who is the author of the koans?

“The koans were written by Albert Šturma before we started to work on the guidebook. It was one of the texts he gave me to incorporate into the material we had.

“The koan as a whole is not a description of botany. It is a description of emotions which a perceptive person can have face to face with bushes or plants of the city. So finally I divided the koan into a dozen shorter texts that separate the main chapters in the guide.”

Photo: Radek Mikuláš
As you point out at the beginning of your book, wilderness is something that keeps changing. So I wonder if all the places that you describe in your book still exist.

“Well, some places we describe have already disappeared. An old factory in Štěrboholy district was pulled down and replaced by new houses and the water reservoir with turtles was filled again. But on the other hand, as quickly as the wild nature disappears, it reappears in new places again.”