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Day 19: Botanical Garden in Krakow

The title: Day 19: botanical Garden)

“You brought me flowers?”

Oliwia handed me a bouquet of fresh flowers. “Yes. For your birthday. That I missed.” She explained that this was a Polish tradition, to gift flowers for a birthday.

I met Oliwia last year when I volunteered in the Free Shop. This was our first visit this year.

I missed her birthday, too, which was several weeks before mine. I thought that maybe I should give my new bouquet back to her as a gift for her missed birthday, but I liked the flowers too much and didn’t want to share them.

We hugged hello and paid our entrance to the Botanical Gardens on her university campus, Ogród Botaniczny - Uniwersytet Jagielloński.

I carried the flowers in one hand, trying not to jostle them. It was a large bouquet. Heavy. She wrapped the ends in a baggie filled with water.

“So the flowers don’t get thirsty.” She said.

Carrying a bouquet of flowers into a botanical garden is like bringing your own koala bear to the zoo. “I swear, it’s my koala. I never leave home without her.”

I went back and forth between wanting to tell the people around me that my flowers were from a shop down the street and wanting to tell the people around me that I picked the flowers in this very greenhouse.

Probably a good thing that I don’t speak Polish.

A woman holding flowers in the greenhouse.
(The author, Holly Winter Huppert, holding her birthday flowers.)

Oliwia was the perfect guide on this 90-degree day, taking me from the sunny outer gardens to the hotter-and-humid-er glassed enclosures.

Rather than complaining that my bouquet was wilting, I paid close attention to the flowers planted in carefully designed plots around me. So beautiful. Such variety. Greens. Colors. And the one thing I couldn’t figure out: no brown spots.

I became slightly obsessed finding proof that their plants were like my plants at home.

You know what I am talking about. Plants ask for water and then when you give them water they change their minds, like a cranky toddler, and insist that they didn’t really want that kind of water and turn brown and yellow out of spite.

I could not find any proof, and I promise you I tried, that the plants in the greenhouses and gardens were overwatered or underwatered. Each leaf seemed the perfect shade, each flower miraculously shaped, each plant nodule as you would expect a plant nodule to show up.

Yes, the lack of brown spots and yellowing leaves was suspicious, but don’t worry, it didn’t ruin my visit.

Red plants in a greenhouse.
(Plants in the greenhouse.)

The most memorable plant was in a greenhouse bog. It was a large flat leaf that floated on the water and looked like a serving tray. The label with the name of the plant showed a photo of a seven-year-old girl sitting inside one of these serving trays while it floated on the water—I think in the botanical garden’s own bog.

At home I translated the label and found that a Czech botanist, T. Haenke named the plant after Queen Elizabeth: Victoria Santa Cruz (Family: Nymphaeaceae – you’re welcome). It’s unclear if he floated his daughter on the plant in the Amazon when he discovered if or if the Botanic Gardens in Krakow thought up the idea themselves.

How could I use this plant in my kindergarten classroom? Would it be a punishment to float students, or a reward? Or, wait. Maybe it would be for me, that I might float around a bog while I ate my lunch. I wonder if the facilities department in my school district would let me build a bog in one corner of the room.

Could I just sneak it in without asking and call it science?

Large, flat plants in a bog.
(These plants, native to the Amazon region, look like serving trays. Noted: Party idea...)

After we explored the greenhouses, we set off on the winding trails around the property. This botanic garden is in the city, only a twenty-five-minute walk from the Old Town, but it had forests and ancient gardens that were connected by looping trails and appeared to go on forever.

How did they build a garden bigger than 15 football fields in the city, you ask?

An orange bee on a yellow flower.
(A butterfly finds a flower in the garden.)

Don’t know. But since it is 240 years old, it is possible that the gardens and botanical research center came before the modern city, in a chicken-or-the-egg fashion.

But I’m just making that up.

(Unrelated question: What do Polish people buy the Botanical Garden for its birthday? Cut flowers?)

There was a statue of a man. I asked Oliwia who it was. She went up to the statue and studied the weathered inscription. Then studied it some more.

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”


Three panes of a woman trying to read an inscription.
(Oliwia trying to read the weathered inscription.)

And I found that to be a most satisfying answer for most things in the botanical garden.

What kind of plant is that? Don’t know. How about that plant over there? Don’t know. If I had a bog at home, would my serving tray plants have brown spots on them? Don’t know.


(Looking from the gardens towards the greenhouses.)

I was busy thinking about all of the things I didn’t know when Oliwia asked if I was ready for a cold drink at the café.

Fantastic idea.

I asked the flowers if they would like a drink at the café.

They answered, “Don’t know,” which fit the tone of the day.

I choose a lemonade, since I am constantly on the lookout for the best lemonades on earth. Oliwia ordered a coffee.

When the waitress delivered our drinks, without a hint of apology, Oliwia asked if we might have a water for my flowers, too.

Now this is an interesting question to ponder at a botanical garden. If you brought your own flowers, would they help you water them? Would they complain that you might have brought insects or bugs in with your flowers and demand you leave before you had time to drink your lemonade? Would they flat out refuse, for reasons of disinterest in flowers that weren’t a part of their prized collections?

The waitress nodded in agreement and left us. When she returned, she had a large vase of water that she set in front of a chair across the table from me, as if the restaurant was expecting customers who needed to water their personal bouquets.

Oliwia wasn't surprised; I thought it was a water miracle.

I asked the flowers again, “Would you like a drink of water?”

This time they said yes.

I dutifully carried the dripping bouquet back to Old Town where Oliwia and I settled on a step to the side of the Jazz Festival stage. Several saxophones serenaded us while the rest of the band played along.

I held the flowers carefully but found that I couldn’t take photos and hold the flowers at the same time.

Oliwia took over flower duty and after a few minutes she tired of her task and lay the bouquet at my feet, which I hoped was not a sign of doom.

The band played on.

We were ready to find ice cream but put it off. One more song. One more song.

That’s when you know the jazz is good when the ice cream gets put on hold.

California, Haley and Boyd were across the crowd; it made sense that we would get our ice cream before we found our friends.

On the way to find our treat, a bee buzzed by and noticed the fragrant flowers in my hand. It (gender neutral bee – see how on par I am?) dived into a flower in my bouquet and disappeared inside.

It was at once amazing and alarming. Yay, the bee can collect pollen. Boo, is he going to get mad at me for wiggling his flower. Would he think the movement was the wind, or would he know, deep down in it’s little bee mind, that a person was carrying cut flowers, thus diminishing his habitat?

I stood still and let the bee frolic and crawl around. Does this mean that I can add the title ‘Beekeeper’ to my resume?

He buzzed out of one flower and dove into another.

I know, kind of cool, expect that maybe he would threaten my life and, hello?, he was delaying my ice cream.

I waited, patiently for several more moments, and then when he buzzed out of a flower, I whipped the bouquet behind my back in the fashion of Now-You-See-It-Now-You-Don’t, thus messing with his next deep dive.

It worked. The bee moved on. We got our ice cream.

Friends at the jazz festival.
(Hanging out at the Jazz festival: From L to R: Oliwia, Boyd, Haley, California)

When we found our friends, I asked California if she could hold the bouquet so I could finish my dessert.

“Of course.” She said, fully understanding Polish ways. “Then everyone will think it’s my birthday, too.”

(A bee dove into my bouquet. I think this might be a sign of good luck.)




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