I was taught that when you start doing something, it should be done properly, on time and seen through to the end.
Mgr. Magdaléna Chytrá
Head of the Botanical Garden Department, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University (PřF MU)
Botanical Garden of the PřF MU
Magdaléna Chytrá graduated from the Secondary Agricultural School, majoring in horticulture with a specialisation in floriculture-horticulture. In 1995, she completed a Master’s degree in systematic biology and ecology at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University (PřF MU), specialising in systematic botany and geobotany. She has worked at the botanical garden of PřF MU since 1989, first as a gardener and then as a botany specialist, and became head of the botanical garden in 2015. Magdaléna is a member of the Czech Botanical Society, the Czech Society for Ecology and the Czech Horticultural Association, and is also the secretary of the Association of Friends of the botanical garden, which she founded in 1996. Between 2005 and 2017, she served as the Vice President of the Union of Botanical Gardens of the Czech Republic. As part of her work at the botanical garden, Magdaléna prepares exhibitions, leads excursions and organises the Night of Scientists, garden parties and other popularisation activities.
Photo: Helena Brunnerová
What kind of career did you want when as a child and when you went to high school?
I didn’t have any rosy ideas of a career. I don’t even remember that I wanted to be anything specific; except in my early school years when I wanted to be a teacher, because my first-grade teacher was, and still is, a great woman.
My parents were badly treated for their political beliefs. My father had studied journalism, but he was fired from his newspaper’s editorial office in the early 1970s for writing an interview with Archbishop Tomášek. After that he became a labourer for about twelve years, then he did a variety of other jobs, including unloading wagons, being a lifeguard, doing typewriter repairs and waiting in various Prague pubs and bars of poor reputation. It was not until the mid-1980s that the communists allowed him to work at promoting the Řempo company. Those times were bad, everything was grey, we had nothing and the outlook was bad. I will never forget that the communists destroyed the best years of his life; he was a great optimist, he loved life and wanted to prove a lot. Despite everything, my father lived by the same pattern; whatever he did he liked. He did his best in all his professions, especially as a waiter. He could have “served the King of England”.
My mother fared no better. She studied sociology, but after 1968 she gave up her party ID, because of which she broke up forever with her beloved father, who was passionate about communism. In the early 1980s, after maternity leave for my siblings, she made a living first as a cleaner and then as an accountant and planner for the state-owned company Klenoty.
Half of my parents’ classmates from the faculty were in the same situation, while others chose a career path in the communist media. The community of Prague intellectuals was colourful and the parties were wild. Some drank out of grief while others drank because they were ashamed of themselves. I remember my mother and I always had to move the old piano back from the living room into the children’s room again the morning after these parties. Nevertheless, our parents were able to get us into a better primary school where languages were taught (Russian and German) and the atmosphere was more acceptable and our classmates had good manners.
Why did you decide to study at the Mělník horticultural school after primary school?
I had already chosen my secondary school with the knowledge that there was no prospect of going on to university, but I had to learn some to do something. While most of my classmates went to Prague grammar schools, I commuted daily to the horticultural school in Mělník. The decline in teaching huge. My classmates were used to getting bad grades and didn’t care; in the first half of the year, seven of them had ‘fives’, and at the end four of them failed completely. I also thought I wouldn’t survive. My German, acquired in primary school, began to be wasted. Out of boredom, I entered all the school competitions and as many extracurricular activities as I could. All through secondary school I was looking forward to going to a university and kept hoping that I would be accepted as this might get me among people who could help me get somewhere. However, it was not so easy as the level of subjects required for the university entrance exams was poor at the horticultural school. In mathematics, we ended up with equations of two unknowns, in chemistry we boiled fruit and titrated wine, and in biology we learned about sowing procedures. If you wanted to go to college, you had to teach yourself.
How did your relationship with gardens and horticulture start?
Today, I would no longer say that the gardening school was completely useless, even though the professional field of gardening literally ceased to exist after 1989 and there was no use for what we learned. We had some very distinctive teachers who were also real professionals in their field. I must at least mention Václav Hurych, who was a gardener and landscape architect. As students, we admired him and we really wanted to learn his subject well. School excursions, part-time jobs and internships were also excellent as the teachers taught us to drink wine, even though we were still under age! In the third year, we visited sites all over South Moravia. Twice I got a month-long internship at the East German Rose Nurseries near Erfurt. I was finally able to dust off my German by translating for the whole trip and got to know all about German precision.
At the beginning of my studies I didn’t specialise much, I could probably have gone on to do anything. In another life, I would most liked to have been a jazz singer, or perhaps I would have bought, renovated and sold old Art Nouveau apartment buildings. But I’ve always been taught that when you start doing something, it should be done properly, on time and seen through to the end. It makes no sense to keep beating on about the past, running from one topic to another and always regretting your decisions. When something doesn’t work out, get up from the dust and aim further and higher. It was unthinkable for me that I would not finish school on time, postpone or interrupt something, change fields or to speculate on whether I should stay in school longer because the state pays my taxes and insurance and provides cheaper transport for me. My parents, and then my husband, fed me and I felt a responsibility to them. At the same time, I wanted to be independent and self-sufficient as soon as possible, so I stayed with horticulture and botany.
When did you first visit the botanical garden at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science?
I enrolled at the PřF MU (then UJEP) after I graduated in June 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution. People may find it hard to understand today, but then one could only apply for one school and one field. General, systematic and molecular biology could only be studied in Prague, general and molecular biology in Olomouc and general and systematic biology in Brno. In addition, there were so-called benchmarks that dictated whether students from other regions could be admitted. Based on this, there was a better chance that I would get into university in Brno rather than Prague. It was still not certain, however, because I failed in chemistry. My dream seemed to fall apart. But because I have the same nature as my father, pitfalls don’t knock me down straight away. There was an opportunity to sign on for additional studies, which I succeeded in doing. That was the first time I visited the botanical garden. My father came with me that time and our then boss (and great person) Ing. Jiří Nohel always remembers that. Later, he told me “you went in there as if it were all yours”. And since then, it has been “all mine” 😊.
In 1989, you started working as a gardener in the botanical garden. What are your first experiences here?
Meeting my new gardening colleagues was not easy. First, I had to learn to drink Turkish coffee, it was impossible to work there without it. Fortunately, they didn’t force me to smoke. We had a dressing room in the basement by the old greenhouses; the ceilings were supported by logs and I had to use a mouldy shower common to all. I mainly worked in the greenhouses with Maruška Kahovcova (now Ing. Maria Tupa), who later became our boss, my good friend and “half-mother”. We went to the theatre, cinema and culture events together and talked a lot about books. At that time, we still wrote letters. I still have a box of letter paper that Maruška gave me one Christmas. It was difficult for me as a “Pražačka” to adapt to the language spoken by the gardeners. They were not complete hantec (speakers of Brno dialect), but a lot of words, and especially the accent, were different. In addition, everyone immediately knew that I was from somewhere else. I had to explain over and over again, and the expressions most people made, even among my classmates, when they found out where I was from was upsetting. It looked as if they had immediately started thinking about what they had said to me before I had admitted that I was from Prague. It looked as if they were thinking “why didn’t you say it right at the beginning – what a cheat”. All I could do was prove by my actions that I was worthy of them. But the first year I cried many times.
Between 1990 and 1995, you studied botany at the Faculty of Science. What motivated you to continue your studies?
The additional studies that I started after my first failure in the entrance exams meant that I could attend lectures and exercises in three selected subjects each semester, and take credits and exams with the full-time first-year students. Two other students went on the additional study course with me, and one of them is now an excellent anthropologist. I chose all the chemistry courses (organic, inorganic and analytics) and basic lectures in zoology and botany. That’s how I learned the chemistry for the next admission round, and after a year they finally accepted me. In addition, they recognised everything I had done in the regular first year course, so I actually divided the first year into two years. That’s how I caught up after the inadequate teaching from secondary school. The only thing that was a big problem for me was the maths test. However, with the help of a friend of my classmate who studied at Brno Technical University, I managed to pass it after a week’s hard revision. To this day, I am grateful to him for that, but the nightmare of a maths exam still haunts me today.
At the same time, I was working as a gardener in the botanical garden. The money was also useful. At the time, I lived alone in a sublease in Jundrov and then in Černovice. My salary was 950 CZK net, the rent was 350 CZK, I saved about 100 CZK for commuting to Prague every 14 days and the rest was just enough for food. In the Autumn, I was able to buy a coat and boots from my salary and I was really proud of myself. And that’s when the Velvet Revolution happened.
How do you remember about that time?
I was now a full-time student, and finally there were great people at the Department of Botany, teachers and classmates across the years who all knew each other and formed a community. It was an amazing time for us. Euphoria, boundless happiness and joy, we were young and could study freely. People who had been fired by the communists, such as Professor Vicherek, and later Associate Professor Řehořek, returned to the faculty. We went into the field, into the wider world, nothing was impossible, bureaucracy was almost non-existent. I always knew that after my studies I would to return to the botanical garden as a professional, and that once there I would apply everything I had learnt from horticulture and botany, which was a great combination of study courses for working in a botanical garden. I benefit from it to this day.
After graduating, you became a specialist at the botanical garden and were put in charge of the outdoor collections. What was this new experience like?
I took over the collections after a long-term employee, Dr. Unar, retired. I must admit that I knew almost nothing after school; it took years of practice before one felt that one could answer most of the questions that visitors ask, just to know the collections, the arrangement of the flower beds, what to plant and when to do the annual garden maintenance. There were very few nameplates in the garden because there was a perception that they ruined the look of the garden plots. Maruška wrote the name tags by hand on plastic boards. Myself, Maruška and the boss had access to one computer which used the old T602 line program. The atmosphere in the botanical gardens was generally very hostile to visitors. There was a belief then that it was better if no one entered the gardens, then no one would want anything or steal anything. After thirty years, it can still be like that in some places. I wanted to change that.
How did the garden begin to change?
It was a time of great change and in a short time we were able to do quite a lot. Especially in 1995, when building started on the new greenhouses. In 1996, I founded the Association of Friends of the Botanical Garden, an association that is still active today. The main reason for this was that the city had threatened to get rid of the botanical garden so that the Konečného náměstí metro station could be constructed. We needed public support. Fortunately, construction was cancelled in the end.
Our botanical garden was a founding member of the Union of Botanical Gardens of the Czech Republic in 2005 and, from its inception until 2018, you were the Vice-President of the Union. What is the mission of the union?
The botanical gardens have been cooperating in an organised manner since the 1960s as part of the Botanical Gardens Advisory Board. Our then boss, Inspector Láník, was a very active and social person, so he became very involved. Later, his followers took over. The last Botanical Gardens Newsletter was published in 1997 and I was its editor for two years. Then the Advisory Board, as a body of the Ministry of Culture, and later the Ministry of the Environment, ceased to exist, after which each worked separately to improve the condition of their gardens, which required a lot of work. After a few years, however, there was a need once again for intensive cooperation. The Union of Botanical Gardens is a professional organisation which, as an association, is independent of the state. We started meeting with colleagues; there had been personnel changes in many gardens and we got to know each other. Every year we organised general meetings, seminars and botanical meetings at a different garden, which were also attended by the gardeners. My position as Vice President mainly meant I had to do a lot of organisational work. Now, I have temporarily left the position in the Union as when I started my new position as head of the botanical garden, my predecessor, Ing. Tupé, had just retired, so I had to do everything completely on my own; it was very time consuming and it just became too much for me. Now our workforce has stabilised and I have new colleagues, I am going to return to more active work in the Union, even though I have never stopped talking. It’s a pattern for me; throw it out the door and go back through the window 😊.
What are the goals of the Union of Botanical Gardens of the Czech Republic?
The Union’s first objective was to bring these gardens to the attention of the general public and those in charge of decisions regarding money. We wanted botanical gardens to be recognised as institutions enshrined in the legislation, which clearly explains their objectives, rights and duties. We tried to enforce at least some mention in law, or to obtain a specific law regarding botanical gardens, similar to that for zoological gardens. In that case, however, the law was a requirement of the EU, so a new law had to be created for gardens. So far, we have not succeeded in enforcing anything. My opinion on this has changed over the years and today I am less in favour of a potential law on botanical gardens; however, many botanical gardens are still convinced of its benefits, mainly in the hope that the relevant ministries would have to provide subsidies that the botanical gardens could then apply for. At present, there is no such thing and no subsidies are announced for botanical gardens. The main problem is that botanical gardens have lots of different founders. Some are private, while others are urban gardens or belong to different bodies, such as regions, ministries, universities or scientific institutes. No particular body or ministry wants to have anything to do with us as a disparate group. However, I am not a supporter of subsidies; in my opinion, subsidies distort everything, as has been shown in many fields throughout Europe. Today, there are too many laws and bureaucracies; it’s why I changed my mind about the law on botanical gardens, I don’t want it anymore.
Thanks to support from the Erasmus program, the garden staff took a sightseeing tour of the botanical gardens of Germany, Italy, Austria and Hungary. Where did you go and what was most inspiring for you?
I have been on all these trips, both because I organised them and because I acted as an interpreter for my colleagues. These trips are irreplaceable for us. Of course, we saw the best gardens in Germany, which is in a completely different league than elsewhere. Italy has the oldest gardens and it really feels like history is breathing on you. Austria was a bit disappointing, but then there were the alpine gardens. The Hungarians are poor and you can see this in their gardens. Throughout history, their intelligentsia has continuously emigrated to the west, which has greatly affected the gardens; there is no continuity, but great efforts are being made. Personally, I have travelled to many gardens around the world during our family vacations - I don’t even need a trip via Erasmus. For gardeners, however, this is usually the only way they can see the world and gain professional experience. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, my fellow gardeners are no longer allowed to apply for trips through Erasmus. I hope that the opinion of the faculty management will soon change and that we will all be able to go on visits together once again. We have yet to visit Poland or Slovakia. And then we start again; Germany is huge country and we also have new colleagues that have not seen yet these gardens.
Since 2015, you have been the Director of the botanical garden. What have been your main goals in terms of garden development?
Myself and my former boss, Ing. Tupou, were a great team; we organised a lot of events and contacts with exhibitors…we could rely on each other…we were interchangeable…we both knew most of each other’s jobs. Also, our fellow gardeners have been employed here for a long time, so I always say that the garden would continue functioning without supervision for at least two years and no one would notice. That’s a great thing to know. Nevertheless, it was a lot of stress and a lot of work for me at the beginning, not to mention conflicts with the former secretary. My goal was to provide better communication with the public, better promotions, more events, increased attendance and expansion of cultural activities. We wanted to organise exhibitions and events with ecological themes, to educate people, and to keep doing it whenever possible.
And what is the goal of the garden from a professional point-of-view?
As regards ‘expertise’, our long-term goal is the gradual exchange of species now present for those with a known locality of origin, which are far more valuable in terms of plant collections and science than species of unknown origin. However, this is a very long-term goal. We are presently cooperating in the Union of Botanical Gardens’ gene pool section, which seeks to grow endangered species ex situ. For example, we are now really interested in growing one of the smallest species of water lily.
The garden has a permanent exhibition and is now very active in organising exhibitions and events for the public. How many people pass through the garden each year?
The garden is open to the public free-of-charge every day, except for a few days over Christmas. We estimate that the garden is visited by about 30,000 people a year. The greenhouses are also open to the public; however, as there is a charge for entrance, we know that exactly 15,000 people visit them every year. This includes exhibitions and guided school excursions with a professional guide.
What do people most appreciate about the garden?
When my father and I went to the zoo, when I was a child, I always looked forward to the same bears in the exact same enclosure, I knew that there would be a whale skeleton in the Great Hall and that there would be human skulls in the hallway (which my brother was afraid of). Then suddenly there was a red panda in the bear enclosure, and that disappointed me. When we want to change some of the larger and more permanent exhibits in the garden, I try to slow down a bit. Our visitors don’t see our exhibits every day like we do, and so don’t get bored with them. They want to see “Viktoria” (the Amazon water lily Victoria amazonica) in pool in the first greenhouse, tree ferns in the second and the same group of large spherical cacti in the cactus house. The garden also features a Frog Fountain that is more than 70-years-old. Changes must be non-violent and well thought out. The most problematic issue is the felling of trees; we must always be able to defend this.
The garden has a long tradition of organising school excursions, with over 68,000 pupils and students having attended professional excursions since they started. What do they like most in the garden, and what do you try to pass on to them during the excursions?
We provide our own guides, mostly university students or myself, and we also have a program for infant schools. We don’t want to hire external students or just let someone learn about the garden from a leaflet, like in a castle. Our excursions are specialised, adapted to the specific school class, the age of the pupils and the teacher’s requirements. Practically all grammar school students in Brno will go on at least one excursion to the botanical garden for their studies. However, our scope extends beyond Brno; we have catered to students from Bratislava, throughout the South Moravian region, part of Olomouc, Zlín to Nové Město na Moravě, Třebíč and Jihlava. One is always pleased to see students connect with biology, chemistry, geography and other disciplines, and to finally understand why they learned all this at school. Even more miraculous are the small children who devour every word, jump into your speech, report, want to communicate, and usually already know a lot. The worst thing is to get seventh grade students on the excursion. They don’t know what to do with themselves, with their puberty, they laugh at everything for no reason, you can’t say the word ‘bird’ or other words with double meanings or that they will collapse in convulsions. It is very difficult to keep their attention…I have infinite respect for their teachers. On the other hand, students from good secondary schools are a joy. Their teachers are often our graduates. I have to tame myself so that I don’t keep them there for too long and don’t give them too much information at once. For all our visitors, we have worksheets designed by students at the Faculty of Education, MU; and for young children, colouring books with fruits and tree seeds, which were designed by a student from the Brno-Řečkovice Grammar School as part of their SOČ project.
Do you see any gender issues in the field of botanical garden management?
This question is probably not for me; I really don’t understand it very well. In my opinion, it is an artificial concept and I personally do not know any woman who would be in any serious trouble because of such issues. So, I will answer very personally, and perhaps not entirely to the point. It was essential for me to have children in early adulthood, to raise them well and to have time for them as long as they need it. To be available to my children in the case of illness and not to rely on strangers or grandparents to care for them, even if their occasional help was very kind. Myself, my husband and his father wanted to do it ourselves. We had adapted our lives to the city centre, where everything was close, including the children’s school and clubs and our work. When they called me from school that my son was not well, I threw away the hoe or the mouse and was there in ten minutes. From the second grade onwards, the children managed to walk everywhere alone. A professional career has never come first for me. I am glad that my husband (Editor’s note: Prof. RNDr. Milan Chytrý, Ph.D., Director of the Department of Botany and Zoology, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University) has made a great career and put everything into it. He’s very good at it. I don’t mind looking after the rest of the family. I’m no less important just because I shop, cook, clean, wash, iron, clean shoes, take care of the garden, sort the rubbish, pick herbs, look out for the relative’s birthdays and keep in touch with the whole family, take the car for its service or call in the handyman. I am practical, I like a range of activities and quick results from work. I get no salary for it and I spend money on it, mainly earned by my husband. I value myself the most for how great our sons are today. Everywhere else we are all (men and women) replaceable, but not for our children.
How do you personally perceive parental and professional roles in men and women?
The division of roles between men and women is, in my opinion, a natural thing to some extent, and I cannot imagine what could change that. While a man is making his most important career moves during the first 15 years of his children’s lives, a woman takes care of the children. A man shows his children that it is normal to work, to be responsible, make money and support the family. After those 15 years, a woman can never catch up with what she missed in her profession. However, she can still work at her profession while caring for children over 3-4 years of age, for up to eight hours a day. That’s not enough. For example, a man works on his career and earn money 10 to 12 hours a day for years without interruption. At the age of 15, children still need their mother very much…just to come home at four in the afternoon, do something around the house and not bother them, make sure the fridge is full, just so that they know she is still looking out for them, that their mum will always be there for them. A mother must know everything she needs to know about her children, inform the father, and then be able to kick them out of the house at the age of twenty. Once children can walk the streets alone and ride the tram, a woman can start working to improve her position at work. Previously, for a female university educated student, this was around the age of 35-40. leaving 25-30 years before retirement. It’s still a long time to have good times working in the field. And we can be much more human and empathetic to people than men, we can be good team members, we can be kind and cheerful, reliable, accurate, punctual and sensitive - simply priceless. We can wear skirts, jewellery, makeup, perfume, paint long nails and brush our hair. So, I recommend to female students what I was told at home: to get married in college so that you don’t stay a spinster, to have children after high school out of great love, live in a rented apartment with old furniture and not to wait for a house, a car and a trip around the world first. When the children are older, the trips are great.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin Roche.