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Sources of Inspiration


Andriy Vlasenko, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, is a native of Kyiv in the seventh generation. He is particularly fond of trees that grow in Kyiv and he has discovered some that are hundreds of years old — alas not as many as there used to be.

One can speak of indigenes both in the sense of people and of trees. It seems that in megalopolises natives, both human and arboreal, are dying out and it becomes increasingly difficult to find them. The memory of the past begins to get covered with a crust of oblivion and indifference, and the trees hide their age behind the crust of their bark.


Ancient trees

The Kyiv of today is not the Kyiv I remember from my happy childhood. The American artist Rockwell Kent (1882–1971, American painter, printmaker, and illustrator; one of the foremost illustrators of the United States) who visited Kyiv long ago, wrote later that he had seen a lot of wonderful parks but he had never seen a park in which a whole city was situated. If he came to visit Kyiv now, he would be in for an unpleasant surprise.

No, I don’t mean to say that Kyiv has lost most of its parks, but it is not a park with a city in it any longer. The recent years have seen housing developments mushrooming all over town and destroying small public gardens and encroaching into big parks. Most of the vast green areas are now to be found in the outskirts but the monstrous and identical high-rises spring up there too.

In destroying trees and asphalting grass lawns, the Kyiv authorities are evidently oblivious of the fact that it takes a tree much longer to grow even to a medium height than it takes to build a skyscraper. They would not pay heed to what the great Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi said about it, even if they were aware of his advocacy for letting trees grow unhindered in towns.

Long before Kent, Nestor the Chronicler, who wrote his chronicles in the thirteenth century, said that the city of Kyiv had been “founded in the forest.” We don’t know for sure which trees predominated in that primordial forest but from what I know of the findings of paleobotany, I may venture a statement that most of the trees in that forest were oaks, hornbeams, and elms, pines, lindens and ash-trees. Later, these trees were joined by other species which had come from elsewhere.

I want to take you on a tour of Kyiv with me as a guide, looking for trees which are indigenous for the area where Kyiv is situated and which came to it from elsewhere in the past few hundred years. Some of the trees are the oldest Kyivans, they are worthy of respect and love. I am fond of coming up to such trees and of placing my ear next to their rough bark to listen to the whispers of their beating hearts.


The oldest

Among the old trees in Kyiv, the oaks are definitely the most ancient. Unfortunately, unlike it is done in many capitals — and not necessarily capitals — of foreign countries, the trees of venerable age are not marked in Kyiv with plaques or signs that say “A nature landmark” or something to that effect.

If an inventory of ancient oaks were taken, I’m sure Kyiv would claim a high place as to their number among the cities where oaks grow. In my young years, in my wanderings around Kyiv, I tried to count ancient oaks. I remember that when I was into the second hundred, I lost the count. My more recent attempt proved to be a bit more successful — but not because my memory or my counting abilities have improved — quite the other way round! — but because the number of such oaks in Kyiv has been considerably reduced. Many oaks have been killed by pests such as oak mot, probably even a greater number of them have been barbarously cut down. Such parks as Holosiyivsky and Politekhnichny, Zhukiv Ostriv and many streets as well have been particularly badly affected by a chopping-down campaign.

There were times though when oaks were planted rather than chopped down. In the seventeenth century the Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and in the eighteenth century the Metropolitan Rafayil Zaborovsky were among those who had a great many oaks planted in Kyiv. These religious leaders and patrons of art and architecture should be honored by being called, among other things, the first environment protectionists in Kyiv.

There is an oak in a small street between Kurenivka and Vitryani Hory, which is believed to be over seven hundred years old — that is, this oak is much older than the oak-planting efforts of Mohyla and Zaborovsky.

Other dendrologists are of the opinion though that it is some linden trees that are the oldest trees in Kyiv. One of such lindens grows at Starokyivska Hora near the spot at which the tenth-century Desyatynna Church used to stand.

On one hand, the available historical records inform us that the first linden tree in Kyiv was planted by Petro Mohyla in 1635 in commemoration of the rebuilding of the Desyatynna Church which had been destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. On the other hand, historical tradition connects the planting of lindens with Feodosiy Pechersky, one of the founders of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in the eleventh century.

Old drawings in which these lindens feature, show them as definitely very old, and if they are as old as we would like to believe they are, it is nothing short of a miracle that they have survived the many invasions, wars, revolutions and vandalism that have befallen Kyiv in its long and turbulent history.

The story of elms in Kyiv is a sad one. It was not long ago that hundreds of age-old elms could be seen in parks and on the forested slopes of the Kyiv hills facing the Dnipro. But pests, exhaust gases and the axes and saws of modern vandals have decimated the population of elms which used to add their magnificent colorful touch of dark purple to bright lemon to the autumnal palette. There stood at Volodymyrska Hirka a three-hundred year old elm which keeps being mentioned in the guide books but the elm there is no more. There are two ancient elms still to be seen in the Central Botanical Garden near the Ionivsky Monastery, and another one in the park of the Polytechnic.

Ash-trees which are of two species in Kyiv, have been more lucky. The oldest of them, which is almost three hundred years old, stands in the part of town known as Pechersk near the house of the former governor general; two more trees can be seen in Laboratorny Lane and in Smolenska Street. They come into leaf rather late but in the fall their autumnal gold is the brightest.


19th century

It was in the nineteenth century that a great many trees were planted in Kyiv. It was a sort of a tree-planting boom during which poplars, acacias and horse chestnut trees came to grace Kyiv streets and parks.

We accept them now as inalienable feature of the cityscape but they are not trees indigenous for Kyiv. Poplars of different species began to be planted in Kyiv in the 1830s and 1840s and soon they were all over town. The main reason for their growing popularity was their elegant, streamlined silhouette which looks like that of the cypress. The first poplar alley lined with poplars was laid out in Lypky, the aristocratic neighborhood of Kyiv (the word Lypky actually means “little lindens” and was given to the neighborhood half a century before poplars appeared in it).

Poplars can be seen in various parts of town, some of them are over 40 meters (120 feet) tall, and they seem to be doing fine.

The first horse chestnuts are believed to have been brought from Rumania about three hundred years ago by monks who planted them in their monasteries. The oldest horse chestnut tree which is three hundred and fifty years old, stands at the entrance to the Kytayivska pustyn’ Monastery (WU published an article about horse chestnut trees in its 2’09 issue). Not far from the Church of St Serafym Sarovsky of that monastery there stands a group of wonderful Japanese pagoda trees whose succulent blossoms attract swarms of honey bees which are buzzing so cheerfully around these trees in the spring.

Near another monastery, Vydubetsky, I discovered a mulberry tree which is probably one of those that were brought to Kyiv around five hundred years ago. It inspired many a poet. In general, I find that blossoming trees are very conducive to poetic inspiration. Even if you don’t write poems, the sight is very uplifting.

Many of the horse chestnuts in Kyiv have been affected by a blight which turns the leaves brown early in the summer and the trees shed these dead leaves long before the advent of autumn. Nothing seems to be done about it and it pains me to see horse chestnuts with wilted, brown leaves or denuded, among the summer greenery. I have not found a “scientific” answer to the question why these chestnuts are called “horse” but certain sections of their branches do seem to look like hooves.

I love the time when the candle-like blossoms on the mighty chestnuts enliven the monochromic greenery with their white and pink lights.

Probably the only rival of the horse chestnuts as far as the blossom displays are concerned are acacias. On the slopes of the Kyiv hills the blossoms of these trees look like the froth on the crests of the waves of greenery. The acacia has inspired many songs of the romance kind.

It is a very persevering plant and if it is not controlled it can oust all other trees in the places where it grows. Acacia trees came to Kyiv about two hundred years ago and one of the oldest trees can be seen at the Pokrovska Church on Vitryany Hory.


Exotic and inspiring

Kyiv was referred to by the faithful as “Second Jerusalem”; some writers referred to it in their writings as “The City”; poets likened Kyiv to “a green temple.” I am one of those who share this reverential attitude to Kyiv and it greatly upsets me to see so much damage that is being done to Kyiv’s historical cityscape and to its trees.

Trees and other plants in Kyiv are like murals and paintings that decorate a church. Every tree or a species of a certain tree add their touches to the general picture. Firs are among the trees that have a high decorative potential. The park of the Polytechnic is the place to go to see magnificent firs in their full arboreal grandeur.

Incidentally, there are a lot of arboreal treasures in that park. I don’t think that many Kyivans know that there grows in that park a hundred-and-ten year old gingko tree! It is one of the biggest gingko trees in Ukraine. Gingkos appeared on the planet Earth millions of years ago and the ancestors of today’s gingkos could have seen dinosaurs. During the construction of the Polytechnic buildings a great care was taken not to damage the gingko tree in the Polytechnic park.

It is also in the Polytechnic park that the oldest wing nut tree (tree of the genus Pterocarya) in Kyiv is to be found — the tree has curious green aments of enormous sizes which look about the same as “flowers” and as fruit. The park boasts several plants which are quite exotic not only for Kyiv but for Ukraine in general. One of the tallest beeches in Kyiv is also to be found near one of the buildings of the Polytechnic. Unfortunately, this beech is ailing and needs help.

In my walks round Kyiv I discovered several trees which are among very rare specimens in Kyiv or in Ukraine. In a garden near the building of the National Union of Writers of Ukraine in Pechersk I spotted five service trees which look quite healthy and fine and even produce fruit.

In addition to the Central Botanical Garden and the Zoo, plane trees can be seen in several other places in Kyiv. The biggest and oldest plane tree in Kyiv which now hides in the courtyard of the dormitory of the Institute of International Relations, was planted by Academician Kashchenko who was responsible for having a garden of exotic plants laid out in the 1870s. The plane tree is the only survival of that garden.

There used to be another old plane tree in Kyiv but now mere mortals cannot see it — it used to grow in the courtyard of the building of the Kyiv Council to which there is no free access. I am not sure the tree is still there — the Kyiv Council officials seem to be more interested in parking spaces than in trees.

There are about fifty trees in Kyiv that I know of, whose age varies from about one thousand years down to about 200 years. They vary in height, the tallest being about 40 meters tall, and in their girths, the biggest being about five meters (fifteen feet). Will the next generation or two see them still standing, or will this link with the past be broken too?


This linden tree is believed to have been planted by Feodosiy Pechersky, one of the founders of the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in the eleventh century; the tree features in drawings made by travelers in later centuries (Boplan, Westerfeld) and thus can be identified with Feodosiy’s tree.



This Judas tree (Cercis) which can be seen in the Central Botanical Garden, is believed to have originally come to Europe from North America; though it has nothing to do with the Biblical Judas, the legend attached to it persists - Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself on a Judas tree, and this tree that grows in the Central Botanical Garden keeps blushing with shame

This oak which is seen against the background of the Vydubetsky Monastery, could have been planted by one of the abbots of the monastery, Feodosiy Chernihivsky, in the 12th century.


This tree, known as Taras Shevchenko’s Oak, grows near Shevchenko’s house in Priortsi, Kyiv, but it is not the poet who planted it — the tree is believed to be over four hundred years old.


These trees, known as Italian poplars, have been photographed against the background of the sky rather than that of high-rises — such a background is a rare sight in Kyiv these days.


This black poplar’s girth of about 6 meters (18 feet) which makes it probably the biggest of its kind in Kyiv; it grows in the Hydropark recreation area in Kyiv, a short distance from the Bohoyavlenska (Epiphany) Chapel.


It is not a baobab in a dry season in an exotic country — it is one of the many beech-trees in the Holosiyiv Park in Kyiv in early spring.

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