The Seleger Moor, situated between Hausen am Albis and Rifferswil in the Säuliamt region of Kanton Zurich, is a unique park. Its protagonists, the flowering Rhododendrons and Azaleas, bathe the place in an intoxicating sea of colour between the beginning of April and the end of May, causing the visitor for a brief moment to forget the rest of his world. In 1953 the visionary landscape architect, Robert Seleger (d. 2000), discovered the Rifferswil Moor to be an ideal location for the cultivation and propagation of Rhododendrons. What began as a modest garden, has over the last decades become an internationally renowned park with Rhododendrons, a considerable fern collection, and many other unusual species of plants.
With the exception of the Alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), which also belongs to this important family of plants, the majority of Rhododendrons on display in the Seleger Moor originate from East Asia and North America. Robert Seleger brought back many plants from his travels in these lands, and crossed them in his park with already known varieties to create plants more resistant to cold.
Having been brought up in Hausen am Albis with this moor on my doorstep, I spent a lot of time as a child both in the Seleger Moor and also on the “old moor” (Chrutzelen: the “old” part of the Rifferswil Moor). These were the two places where I learnt the ABC, so to speak, of our indigenous animal and plant world. From the Seleger Moor it was mostly the exotic species whose visual aesthetic I assimilated, and from the “old moor” particularly the indigenous flora and fauna of this authentic raised bog. It was always an adventure for me as a child to roam the park and nature reserve, occasionally catching frogs, newts and lizards for the various biotopes in our garden at home. This was of course forbidden, but my bad conscience, only slowly developing, was swept away every time by a sudden hunter-gatherer urge, which I never succeeded in suppressing in any way.
The Seleger Moor is part of a raised bog, which spreads with interruptions over the entire plateau between the three villages of Hausen am Albis, Kappel am Albis, and Rifferswil. A raised bog is not a mire high up in the mountains, as the name might suggest, but a unique habitat with acidic soil, nourished only by rain, and hospitable to but very few plants and animals. It begins with a blanket of peat built up over the millennia by Sphagnum moss, which then usually rises up above the surrounding landscape, progressing from a low-moor bog, to a so-called carr, and eventually to a raised bog. Peat moss begins to die at a depth of only 5 centimetres, then slowly transforms over decades and centuries into precious peat, which is removed, and these days normally mixed with garden soil, or used pure in bog gardens. Until the middle of the 1980s peat was still being harvested in Switzerland. Nowadays it is forbidden, as since then all Swiss raised bogs have been placed under preservation orders. The transformation into peat is only the first stage of a process lasting millions of years, in which increasing pressure turns peat first into brown coal (lignite) and then into black (bituminous) coal. If yet further compressed and drained of moisture, anthracite is created, the most valuable type of coal. In the culmination of this process, the black carbon crystallises under maximum pressure and rewards us in exceptional cases with the hardest material in the world, the diamond.
In the 1990s I went to the Seleger Moor to buy plants from time to time. While I was there I often had the honour of being chauffeured around the park by Robert Seleger himself in his electric golf cart. It clearly gave him pleasure in the last years of his life to show me, and presumably also other visitors, his magnificent empire with all ist treasures.
Except for a few new varieties, Rhododendrons are dependent on this acidic environment. In the Seleger Moor it is primarily the typical black muck soil mixed with peat which is used for these plants. Alongside regular fertilising, it is necessary to deadhead the plants after they have flowered, especially the larger varieties. Every single withered bloom must be broken off at the base of the truss, so that the developing seed pods do not continue to be supplied with valuable energy and nutrients. This energy would then partly be no longer available to the buds the following year, resulting in an uneven distribution of blooms and thereby a loss of the desired effect of the plant.
Almost ten years ago I undertook an apprenticeship for several months in the Seleger Moor. As well as weeding, the head gardener, Roland Dünner, assigned me the special task of removing the spent flowers of many of the Rhododendrons in the aforementioned way. During this time I must have deadheaded over a hundred thousand blooms. This may sound monotonous, yet I very much enjoyed my time there, as it was the early morning hours (I always worked from 7am-12 noon) when the dawn light and particularly the birdsong lent an incredible magic to this place.
In the past days and weeks I have found myself time and again in the Seleger Moor and experienced its glorious profusion of blossoms at first hand. It felt like being present at a firework display which lasted not the usual quarter of an hour, but for several weeks. A highlight for me came last Wednesday, shortly before a much longed-for thunderstorm. I had the pleasure of showing some friends of mine, a married couple along with their five children, around the park for two hours. Inspired by the wondrously labyrinthine paths, the intense perfume emanating from certain Azaleas, and this much-lauded plethora of colour, they were overwhelmed with such a joie de vivre as only nature itself can bring about.
Photography: Denis Kovalenko.
Rhododendron and Azalea framing a Swamp Lantern.
Swamp Lantern with yellow-blossomed Azaleas.
Rustica Hybrid Azalea.
Robert Seleger; photography D.K.
The fern garden; photography D.K.
This magnificent pink-blossoming Azalea is the Pinkshell Azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi),
native to North America. Photography: D.K.
View of the “jungle lodge”. Photography: D.K