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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEIRD MOSCOW




Buried behind eight lanes of traffic and the helicopter landing pad for the capital's largest emergency hospital, there lies a little piece of England. Elm trees, limes, willows, milky banks of cow parsley -- if it weren't for the bearded lady selling lottery tickets on the other side of the fence it could be a Sussex country garden.


What began as a physic garden, providing healing remedies for Peter the Great's army during the 18th century, had fallen into such disrepair that authorities closed it down in 1985. But with the help of two English landscape gardeners, the Moscow State University's botanical garden has opened its gates to the public once more.


Kim Wilkie, who has designed gardens in Italy, France, Britain, the United States and Lebanon, has grand plans for the tiny patch of green near Prospekt Mira metro station. When they started renovation work, they had to cart fifteen wheelbarrow-loads of glass shards to the dump.


But if the finances haven't run out by 2006, the garden's 300th anniversary, the battered greenhouses will be transformed into a glass pavilion, housing tropical cicadas, Chinese Livistona palms and rare orchids dating back to the beginning of the last century.


"At the front we plan to build a canal, which will catch the reflection of the glass house on its surface," said Harvey Stephens, head gardener since last September. In the winter, he said, the water will be heated, creating thick billows of steam through which visitors must navigate their way to the entrance.


But for now, Stephens faces more urgent requirements. Fifty of the trees in the garden are suffering from Dutch elm disease, some leaning so dangerously they could collapse at any moment. All the same, the city's woodland authorities have strict rules about cutting down trees -- anything with a trunk thicker than a knitting needle requires a certificate before it is felled.


Then there is the air and noise pollution from Prospekt Mira, which is destroying what Stephens calls the tree canopies. To combat the problem, they are going to build a high wall along the garden's northern boundary to block out at least some of the exhaust fumes.


The bricks have come from the old university building, where a team of volunteers spent weeks digging them out of the basement. "They cost us twice as much as new ones because of all the cleaning involved, but it will give the garden a more authentic feel," Stephens said.


Among the treasures at the garden are the city's oldest tree -- a gnarled white willow with a lopsided trunk. Now more than 300 years old, the tree was one of the few to survive Napoleon and his armies, who set the city on fire as they fled back to France in 1812.


Stephens doesn't find it weird to have an English garden blooming in the center of Moscow, or the fact that he and Wilkie are almost certainly the only British gardeners in Russia. "We are training the staff in Western methods, sowing standards and ideas," he said before picking up a spade and returning to his seed beds.