Croatia’s botanical gardens and arboreta
Croatia has a rich legacy of botanical gardens and arboreta (collections of trees, shrubs, and other woody plants). While these romantic gardens were designed to be decorative, they were also for researching, cultivating, and protecting plants. Historically, the collection of exotic plants is linked to travel.
One of the earliest Croatian tree collections was the Trsteno Arboretum near Dubrovnik, a Renaissance garden created circa 1494. This was the Age of Discovery (between the 15th and 17th centuries) when European empires were looking for new lands and trade routes. Among the exotic goods brought home were plants from Africa, Australia, the Americas, or Asia.
In the Age of Enlightenment (late 18th/early 19th centuries), botanists and horticultural gardeners joined voyages of scientific exploration. They collected plants for the private estates of Europe’s wealthy, but also for public gardens such as Kew Gardens in England.
The flood of new plants changed gardens forever. A new era began of landscaping gardens with sweeping lawns, groups of trees, and informal flowerbeds (the “English park”). This was the opposite of the style fashionable until then: the French Baroque garden with its sculpted trees and bushes and geometric flowerbeds.
Owning a botanical park was prestigious during the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), when many of Croatia’s most beautiful private gardens, such as Park Angiolina in Opatija, were created.
A botanical garden is called botanički vrt and arboreta is called arboretum in Croatian. This post covers Croatia’s finest gardens and arboreta, including their locations, why they are special, and contact information.
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Arboretums and botanical gardens of Croatia
The Trsteno Arboretum, close to Dubrovnik, was originally a romantic Renaissance garden built between 1494 and 1502 by the local noble Gučetić-Gozze family as part of their summer residence. In 1492, before work began on the garden, a 15m aqueduct was built to bring water to the gardens. Exotic plants and seeds were brought to the family by ship captains.
Idyllically situated on a rocky outcrop between the village of Trsteno just north of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic, the arboretum looks over the Elafitski otoci (Elephiti islands). Today, it is famous for being one of the locations of the Game of Thrones TV series.
Covering 28 hectares, the arboretum includes: a Renaissance-Baroque garden and summer villa, a neo-Romantic park from the 19th/20th century, an ancient olive grove, landscaped areas of natural vegetation including a hrast medunac (downy oak) forest, alepski bor (Aleppo pine) and čempres (cypress).
Architectural elements include an ancient olive mill, the 17th-century St. Jerome chapel, the Belvedere Pavilion, and the iconic 17th-century fountain featuring Neptune with two nymphs guarding a typical Baroque grotto.
In 1962, the arboretum was declared a Monument of Garden Architecture. In 1967, it was declared a cultural monument and, in 2017, a Croatian cultural asset.
The 50-hectare Arboretum Lisičine is in the village of Lisičine in Papuk, the largest mountain in the Slavonia highlands in eastern Croatia. Founded in 1962, it is one of Croatia’s youngest but also richest arboreta. Trees and shrubs come from Europe, Asia, and North America.
The northern part has a 50-year-old natural beach forest. The 24 hectares in the south are divided into a horticultural section with ornamental trees and shrubs, a section with plants from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and a rich collection of conifers, including bor (pine), smreka (spruce), duglazija (duglazi), borovica (juniper), and tisa (yew).
The arboretum is close to the Papuk Nature Park, which is Croatia’s first UNESCO Global Geopark, an area recognized and protected as a geological heritage. It includes glaciers, ancient volcanoes, and the site of the ancient Pannonian Sea.
The arboretum was badly damaged in the 1991 War of Independence, with a loss of many species. There is an ongoing renovation project, including one funded by the EU and completed in March 2013, when the arboretum reopened to the public.
Today’s Arboretum Opeka was originally a park-like garden surrounding a manor built by Count Marko Bombelles in 1860 in the Vinica municipality of Varaždin County. Bombelles was responsible for the cultural and economic development of the region. He traveled a lot, bringing back exotic species from Japan, Tibet, China, and North America. He was able to cultivate these successfully because of the region’s special microclimate.
Bombelles’s garden was designed in the fashion of the day with a classic English park-like garden with sweeping lawns, groups of trees, informal paths, and a small lake surrounded by exotic plants. The upper part is a dense natural forest.
Today, it has more than 800 different species of trees, shrubs, climbing plants, and flowers. At 65 hectares, it is Croatia’s largest arboretum.
The estate remained in the hands of the Bombelles family until 1945, when it was taken over by the Yugoslav state. The grounds were declared a natural rarity in 1947.
Karlovac, a Renaissance city-fortress built in the shape of a star in 1579 by the Austrians, is known as a town within a park. The first park was laid out with the original city, and since then, great care has been taken to nurture the town’s parks, avenues, flowers, and lawns.
One of Karlovac’s most beautiful parks is the botanical Vrbanić garden, opened to the public in 1896 on the initiative of the Town Beautification Society. Situated between the Korana river and Karlovac old town, it is part of the town’s recreational area on the Korana’s left bank.
Typical for the time, the garden has an English-style informal park, a formal French ornamental garden, a grove of centuries-old smreka (spruces) and jela (firs), as well as ornamental elements such as sculptures. Peacocks roamed the gardens, and for a time, the gardens also contained a small zoo.
The Vrbanić garden is a favorite gathering place for locals.
Address: view map
A short walk away is the Arboretum of the Karlovac Forestry and Woodworking School. It covers 16 hectares and is the largest of Karlovac’s parks. The tree plantations and promenades are not only harmonious to walk through but also educational, with info tables about the different species. The arboretum includes a pharmaceutical garden with traditional medicinal plants.
The Zagreb Botanical Garden covers five hectares in the heart of Zagreb. It was founded in 1889 by the University of Zagreb’s Department of Botany and Physiology at Prirodoslovno matematički fakultet (PMF) for the research, cultivation, and protection of Croatian indigenous plants.
Most of the gardens are in the British landscape style with randomly planted groups of trees, bushes, and meandering paths. But there is also a French-influenced Baroque garden, with ornamental flower beds arranged symmetrically.
Later, two artificial small lakes, basins with a fountain, a gardener’s house, and an exhibition pavilion, the Red Pavilion, were added. All architectural structures are protected as part of the City’s conservation of cultural and natural heritage. In 1971, the garden was named a protected monument of garden architecture.
The Gardens are open from April to November and also during March and November if the weather permits. It is possible to book a guided tour, also in English.
In 1844, the wealthy Rijekan merchant and shipbuilder Ignio Ritter Scarpa, built a magnificent villa in Opatija, naming it after his wife Angiolina. Passionate about horticulture, he created one of the most beautiful gardens on the Adriatic coast.
As a merchant, Scarpa was able to acquire botanic specimens from China, South America, Australia. and Japan. One of those was the japanska kamelija (Japanese camellia), which became the symbol of Opatija. The Scarpas loved to entertain and hosted wealthy guests from throughout Europe.
In 1882, with tourism growing in Opatija, the Southern Railway Company bought Villa Angiolina, developing the grounds further. An ornamental French Baroque garden was added to the English landscape park. These contrasting styles – one formal, the other informal, are typically found together in botanical gardens of the 19th century.
The gardens’ landscaped path system joins the Lungomare, also built during this time. The Lungomare links Opatija with the historic harbor, Volosko. In 1958, both parks were declared monuments of garden architecture.
Angiolina Park has over 150 varieties of trees and shrubs. Footpaths are lined with trees such as the lovor (bay laurel), magnolija (magnolia), palma (palm), cedar, smreka (spruce), maslina (olive), or šumska datulja (Sylvester date palm). Trees are labeled with a map to find them.
There are works of art and sculpture throughout the parks. Exhibitions and cultural events are still held in the art pavilion Juraj Matija Sporer, built around 1900. The park also has an open-air theater.
The whole of Lokrum, a lush green fertile island a 10-minute boat ride from Dubrovnik, was transformed into a landscaped park in the 19th century, including olive groves, gardens, promenades, and a botanical garden. While it is a paradise, local legend has it that it is cursed.
Lokrum was settled by Benedictine monks around 915 AD. They built a monastery with beautiful gardens, cultivating large stretches of the island. Lokrum means sour fruit, indicating that citrus trees were most likely also grown there.
Only an olive grove remains from the monks’ labors. When they left their beloved island in 1798, they were said to have cursed the future owners. Certainly, the family was ill-fated. Read more about the Lokrum curse here.
The landscaping of the island began with Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg, the youngest brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, who bought the island in 1959. He built a summer villa in the southeast corner of the monastery courtyard, first renovating the original cloister garden and creating a magnificent landscaped garden in front of it. In just five years, he introduced over a hundred exotic species.
In the southeast part of the island, a network of trails was created through old bor (pine) trees, evergreen hrast (oaks), lovor (laurel) trees, and makija (macchia). This is a spacious, romantic park with secluded corners and stone benches. The entire island is connected with walks and paths, including three parallel paths through a thick structure of natural vegetation.
In 1959, a 2-hectare botanical garden was created in the abandoned monastery estate and planted with protected and endangered Dubrovnik species as well as exotic plants from other parts of the world. The island was declared a Special Reserve of Forest Vegetation in 1976.
The Kotišina botanical garden is on the coastal slopes of Biokovo, Croatia’s second-highest mountain range, above the village of Kotišina, and close to the popular resort Makarska. It is not a classic botanical garden but is integrated into the Biokovo Nature Park as a “walled part of nature” filled with well-labeled indigenous plants.
Kotišina was founded by Dr. Fra Jure Radić (1920-1990), a Franciscan priest and scholar, to study, monitor, and protect the flora of Biokovo.
Although relatively small (16.5 hectares), it has highly diverse habitats such as rock gardens, screes, precipitous rocks, arable land, and the Proslap canyon and waterfall, which only has water during heavy rains.
This garden is for nature enthusiasts. It is a steep climb to get there, but there are several hiking trails running through the garden, which include informative educational boards.
[Read: Via Adriatica Trail]
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Arboretum Trsteno by TZ Dubrovnik
Arboretum Lisičine by Slavonija i Podravina
Vrbanić Gardens by Visit Karlovac
Botanički vrt PMF
Angiolina Park by Parkovi Opatije
Kotišina botanical garden by PP Biokovo
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