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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Green Winter Wonderland

The group ducks and pushes blindly through the dense, green undergrowth. Woody branches whack back into their eyes, and orchids tickle their noses as deep puddles soak their winter boots.

A few hacks from a gleaming sharp machete would be helpful on the tour, but then the docents and caretakers at the Botanical Garden might not appreciate the unprofessional trimming of the hairy fronds of their rare Mexican Blue Palm.

When the darkness and cold of winter hits, houseplants here shrivel and die like Napoleon's retreating army.

But the need for a machete at the Botanical Garden at this time of year shows that with a little work -- and some planning -- houseplants can thrive even in Moscow.

John Wendle / MT
The Botanical Garden has thousands of species from various climates around the world -- a collection that will be expanded with the opening of a new greenhouse.
On a basic level, "The four most important things for a plant to grow are light, proper temperature, moist air and proper watering," said Dr. Alexander Demidov, director of the Botanical Garden.

Pyotr Lapshin, the head of the Moscow Club of Houseplant Growers, comes at the issue from a much more pragmatic angle.

"In Moscow, the spectrum of plants that are suitable as houseplants is determined by two factors: which plants can be purchased in the stores and which plants survive under normal conditions."

However, the care and selection of houseplants, as it turns out, is a little more complicated than that.

"Russians don't only drink vodka, and plants don't only need water," said Tamara Belousova, a botanist specializing in tropical and subtropical plants at the Botanical Garden.

Belousova gave an erudite explanation of care and selection as she led a tour through the Botanical Garden's old, 5,000-square-meter greenhouse, smoking pink-tinted Virginia Slims cigarettes and stubbing them out in various flower pots along the way.

John Wendle / MT
Tropical plants are one option for hot Moscow apartments.
"In Soviet times, people would put their houseplants next to the wall radiator and they would grow really big. But they would be splotchy and straggly. There used to be no information on how to take care of them, but now there is a lot of information," said Belousova, as the tour pushed its way through a green, algae-covered glass door into the orchid room.

The Botanical Garden boasts more than 800 species of tropical orchids, ranging from citrus-scented plants with small, delicate flowers to robust two-meter tall varieties to aerial species growing on the bark of trees -- all taken care of by a woman who looms out of nowhere from a seemingly impenetrable wall of dark green leaves and mist.

"The only plants that are good for Russia are tropical plants," said Belousova, counterintuitively.

She claims that because Russian apartments are kept Africa-hot in winter, they are the perfect environment for everything from cacti to orchids. Regarding light, while it might seem that tropical plants need lots of the stuff, little actually reaches the jungle floor -- so it should not be a problem in light-starved Moscow. The only challenge is keeping the humidity up around the plants.

Successful, popular and common houseplants grown in the Moscow region:
Rose mallow
Dragon tree
Echinopsis cacti
Ripsalis cacti
Nephrolepis ferns
Asplenium ferns
Trachycarpus palms
Date palms
Herda ivy
Ficus benjamina
Ficus elastica
Pyotr Lapshin, head of the Moscow Club of Houseplant Growers
If a humidifier is impractical for your winter garden, Belousova suggests placing a wet rag on the radiator or a bowl of water on the windowsill near the plants to get moisture into the air.

But if neither of these is an option, Lapshin, the head of the houseplant club, recommends cacti and succulents, or plants from arid climates that retain water, such as aloe. In Moscow's hot, dry apartments, succulents and cacti are ideal.

Both Belousova and Lapshin said cacti have always been popular in Russia -- the Moscow Cactus Club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003 -- and thus many varieties are easily obtained.

The Botanical Garden has around 3,300 species of cacti, including the ubercool Martian-like Living Rock cacti and a 200-year-old Agave cactus, the pride of Vladimir Ponkin, the cactus section's caretaker.

"Cacti don't require a lot of care and are small. There's even enough room for them in a Khrushchev-era apartment," Belousova said.

"Of course," she said, "not everyone is living in khrushchyovki these days."

And what do those not living in small apartments purchase to decorate their new flats and houses?

"The 'New Russians' prefer exotic species such as agaves, crotons, ficus, palms and nolinas," said Maria Kuznetsova, the editor of Tsvety magazine.

"When buying these plants, people usually consult interior decorators, who usually don't understand the properties of the plants they are picking and don't know how to take care of them," she said.

"When the plant loses its attractiveness, they simply throw it out and buy a new one," said Kuznetsova.

Botanical Garden
Getting there: From Metro Vladykino -- take bus No. 24, 76 or 85. Bus stop is left from the metro exit. Stop is Gostinitsa Ostankino, the third from the metro on official public transport. Cross the street, through the gate slightly down the street to the right. The big white building is the place to start tours.
Cost: 50 rubles for adults, discounts for students and children. For guided tours and excursions: 495-619-5368.