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Czech Republic Oak Open Days

Twenty-six participants from ten countries arrived to take part in the European celebration of the IOS’s twenty-fifth birthday at Dušan Plaček’s Quercetum near Podĕbrady in the Czech Republic. The main event ran from early afternoon on July 21st to the afternoon of the 23rd, but some members arrived as early as the 19th, and by the evening of the 20th there was a quorum sufficient to dine together in the event hotel, Hotel Golfi, where we lodged. After our night’s stay we departed by bus the next morning to view the gardens within the grounds of Prague Castle, which offer superb and enticing views over the city. The next stop for the group was for lunch just outside the entrance to Průhonice Park, where excellent logistics by Dušan’s team ensured that the remaining participants were able to join us to complete our number for our first "official" visit of the event in the Park itself.

Twenty-six participants from ten countries plus local hosts at Plaček Quercetum

From the entrance, a modest garden leads into Průhonice Castle. After passing through an arch, we found ourselves on a terrace overlooking a steep-sided valley with a lake, beside which was a tree of enormous significance for Dušan and thus for oak collecting in the Czech Republic. Our mentor for the entire event, Ondřej Fous, described how this Quercus imbricaria showed Dušan that oaks have great diversity of leaf shape, and that a collection of oaks would be much more rewarding in terms of interest and variety than Fagus, Dušan’s original preference. We wandered along paths through forested hills and riverside meadows in this delightful landscape park before returning to the hotel, where during dinner we enjoyed a showing of Dan Keiser’s excellent collation of IOS events over the years, Quercophiles Abroad. After dinner, Allen Coombes, who had come all the way from Mexico to participate, made a presentation. 

View of the lake and Castle in Průhonice Park © Charles Snyers

The following day was our much-anticipated visit to Dušan’s Quercetum at Kanín. The property has had a checkered history, having been inherited by the daughter of a Czech Prime Minister between the wars, before being used during the Communist era to contain a range of aerials designed to block the signal of Radio Free Europe. Dušan acquired it in 1998, and work commenced both on the house and on returning some sort of order to the garden, including the removal of overgrown and dead trees.

The house at Plaček Quercetum in Kanin © Guy Sternberg

Winter cold limits the range of oaks that can be grown in the open ground: whilst mild winter lows are between -10 and -15 °C, -29 °C has been measured, and this spring there was frost in May, with two late frosts at a three week interval. However, a protected bed, a new “trench” area (to be covered in winter), and a large greenhouse extend the range of possibilities. Annual rainfall is a miserly 480 mm, but there is groundwater.

Many of Dušan’s trees come from expeditions he has sponsored, the first being to Turkey in 2008. Planting from this expedition has been carried out in closely planted groups of the same species from the same location, and thinning will be carried out as necessary – an interesting idea and one that remains close to nature. Josef Souček, who also accompanied us during the event, had recently made an expedition to China (2013).

Mass planting of Quercus variabilis in Plaček Quercetum

Of course Dušan had to have a Q. imbricaria, and paid a very significant sum of money for some large plants. However, the adage that one should plant young was clearly borne out, as young plants have already caught up these veterans. (For a detailed account of Plaček Quercetum, see International Oaks No. 26, pp. 77-88.)

Podĕbrady Castle is only a short walk from our hotel, so in the evening we arrived on foot at this suitably grand venue for the IOS’s superb “birthday party” dinner, where happily we could thank Dušan and his team Ondřej, Josef and logistical star Adéla Kratochvilová. Dušan’s sponsorship of all the transport and of the birthday celebration was more than generous.

Entrance to Podĕbrady Castle © Guy Sternberg

The next morning we returned to visit the woodland which surrounds Dušan’s Quercetum, a floodplain forest of Q. robur and home to much wildlife, with management to encourage two rare species of butterfly. Next was Žehuň Park, an interesting natural savanna on a bluff overlooking a river valley where Q. cerris, Q. petraea, Q. pubescens, and Q. robur grow in proximity, mixed with Crataegus. This was followed by lunch there in hunting lodge ambience (deer being much in evidence in the Park). The afternoon took us to the superb Kostelec Arboretum, whose Index Plantarum runs to 172 pages: sadly our visit was all too short; however the sorrow of our departure was mitigated by generous libations of Aronia wine and Sorbus domestica slivovitz.

Zdeněk Kiesenbauer and Dušan Plaček plant a Quercus pontica seedling presented by Dušan to Průhonice Dendrological Garden on the occasion of the IOS visit © Roderick Cameron

Thus ended the “official” Oak Open Days, to be followed by two “unofficial” days. Next morning we were at the Průhonice Dendrological Garden, where a discussion about weeding prompted a quote I can’t resist from Lloyd Kenyon: “How can you tell a weed from a rare plant? If you pull on them, the rare plant comes out easily.” The Garden combines research into and preservation of plants suitable for the region with educational and environmental awareness programs.

We then returned to Prague, where we visited the Palace Gardens: a steep and splendidly decorated series of Italianate terraces on the hillside just below the Castle.

IOS Co-Founder Guy Sternberg and Šternberk Castle © Shaun Haddock

Having shed yet more of the group, the next day we could fit into two cars to venture further afield, firstly to Šternberk Castle (Šternberk being the Czech rendering of Sternberg). Both the Castle and its contents are superb and of impeccable workmanship, it is truly a gem. And Guy Sternberg, for whom the day was originally planned, now has a trump card in his family history: the “stern” (star in German) allegedly derives from a proto-Sternberg who was one of the three Magi heralding the birth of Christ. Game, set, and match. But the day was not yet over by any means. We continued to the town of Kutná Hora, firstly to the Ossuary at the Cemetery Church of All Saints, where the bones of 40,000 dead are preserved, many of them victims of bubonic plague which decimated 14th century Europe. In the 16th century, someone became aware of the, ahem, decorative possibilities of the remnants, and their re-juxtaposing became something of a tradition, culminating in the present unique and extraordinary arrangement dating from 1870. After this astonishing experience, we spent the rest of the day touring both the town and its cathedrals, all of which are justifiably UNESCO World Heritage listed.

The Ossuary at the Cemetery Church of All Saints, Kutná Hora © Shaun Haddock

It is impossible in such a short report to do justice to the kaleidoscope of experiences which awaited us in the Czech Republic, but much fuller coverage will appear in due course in International Oaks,the IOS Journal.  

Žehuň Park © Roderick Cameron
Deer in Žehuň Park © Roderick Cameron
IOS President Charles Snyers with new cultivar Q. ×schuettei 'Silver Shadow', ready for planting in Plaček Quercetum to commemorate the silver (25th) anniversary of the Society
© Roderick Cameron
How many IOS members does it take to dig a hole? © Roderick Cameron
Dirk Benoit and Dušan plant the commemorative tree as Dan Keiser documents the event © Shaun Haddock
Twenty-fifth Anniversary Banquet at Podĕbrady Castle. As the evening was drawing to a close, Dušan offered to all participants a gift box containing two Bohemian-crystal tumblers with the IOS logo engraved in the base (below). © Christof Van Hulle
© Roderick Cameron