August 29, 2011

The Botanical Frankenstein
A Guest Post by Niels K. Petersen

Guest Blogger Niels K. Petersen reports on a Frankenstein plant, and a botanical homage to Boris Karloff!

Vienna is associated with a great number of historical persons, scientists, artists and authors. I had, however, not expected to bump into Frankenstein and Boris Karloff in, of all places, a flower bed in the Viennese Botanical Gardens.

But to understand how the two of them, or rather their names, ended up in that place, we need to become acquainted with a gentleman called Nikolaus Thomas Host, who was born in Croatia 250 years ago, in 1761.

Host graduated in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1786, and six years later became the personal physician to Emperor Franz I. His passion, however, was botany, and he carried out botanical field work and published books on the subject until his death in 1834. Today he is primarily known for this work. In particular, the well-known genus of lily-like plants Hosta is named after him.

Another European student of medicine and natural philosophy, Mary Shelley’s fictional Victor Frankenstein studied at the university in Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Although he certainly didn’t specialize in botanics, we may imagine young Frankenstein walking around the botanical garden that had been founded in 1685 by Ingolstadt’s medical faculty to collect and grow plants for medicinal purposes.

The Botanical Gardens in Vienna weren’t founded until 1754, when the personal physician to Empress Maria Theresia, Gerard van Swieten, proposed the idea. Emperor Franz I also listened to his physician, when Host proposed that he should found a Garden of the Crownlands next to the Botanical Gardens. Nowadays, this garden has become a part of the Botanical Gardens which the tourist will find next to the Belvedere Palace.

To commemorate the 250th birthday of Host, the Botanical Gardens invited the artist and landscape designer, or so-called “avant-gardener”, Tony Heywood to celebrate Host with a horticultural installation called Hosta Superstar.

The central part of the installation is shaped as a star with blue edges of artifical material. A green house is placed at the edge of the star, and outside the star there are triangular flower beds. The flower beds contain plants that aren’t simply hosta (or hostaceae), but superhosta (superhostaceae): hybrids plants that are partly natural, and partly artificial. One of them is named after CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and combines a plant with an electrical device that is plugged into a socket!

Apparently, Tony Heywood wants the viewer not only to contemplate the legacy of Host, but also the dichotomies of nature versus artifice, chaos versus order, and art versus science. At the same time, the viewer is forced to consider the differences between the science of Host’s day and that of today.

So it is perhaps not a surprise that another of these hybrid plants is a Aspiratzihosta frankensteinia called Boris Karloff! This particular plant has natural stems and leaves, but plastic tubes protrude from it along with some kind of metallic circuit. The flowers, which are yellow, orange and lilac, are all artificial, probably made of plastic, but inside them are cacti, so the natural and the artificial blend to become a whole, we might say: ‘monster’ of a plant.

This way Heywood, the garden designer, has transcended the borders between nature and artifice, between life and death, and created a new species to bless him as its creator and source, to paraphrase Frankenstein. In terms of so many horror movies, he has probably meddled with things that man is perhaps meant to leave alone, but so has modern science at CERN or at labs, where scientists today can e.g. develop new crops. Where Host collected plants, the modern scientist alters and creates.

So if you happen to be in Vienna, stroll around the Botanical Gardens, take a look at the trees and flowers, and then visit the Superhosta installation to contemplate the border between the natural and the articifial, between science and art, and the development of science.

Niels K. Petersen hails from K√łge, Denmark. He holds a degree in physics, works in the field of meteorology and, in his spare time, traces the historical roots of the vampire on his superlative blog, Magia Posthuma.

University of Vienna Botanical Gardens (site in German)

Tony Heywood's Conceptual Gardens website.


Caftan Woman said...


Martin Powell said...

You post the coolest stuff.

Raoul Bukor said...

Great summary and reflection on the horticultural installation in Vienna's Botanical Garden!

Being one of the project responsibles I would like to add that this installation was developed in the Landscape Design course hold by Prof. Mario Terzic at Vienna's University of Applied Arts. In a close cooperation with "avantgardener" Tony Heywood (, a group of students conceived, developed and realised, together with the gardeners at the Botanical Garden, this great piece between science and art.