A quick look at our plant map betrays our precise geographical preferences for urban foraging and nature observation. The still largely undeveloped no man’s land along the former Berlin wall provides a sanctuary for many wild plants that would otherwise be regimented to more formal landscape practices. These abandoned spaces serve an important function because their lack of landscape architecture helps disrupt the plant blindness often found in city dwellers. The familiar patterns of trees lining a street one after the other, neatly trimmed bushes and meticulously mulched flower beds are non-existent in these spaces; here, plants can no longer be confined to our peripheral vision as mere ornaments but, rather, take on a central role of their own.
It is in one such space, known as the “Nasses Dreieck,” where we found – next to a pile of concrete remnants of the former Berlin wall – a plant whose history is firmly intertwined with what the English speaking world regards as a quintessential German product, namely beer. You may have already heard of the “Reinheitsgebot” or German Beer Purity Law. The law came into effect in the early 16th century and it dictated the only permissible recipe for beer: the holy trinity of barley, water and hops.
The rise of Common hop (Humulus lupulus) from botanical obscurity coincides with the success of the plant’s female flower cluster in keeping beer from spoiling. Using tea made from hops was thought to have sedative powers since ancient times, but otherwise the plant seems to have had relatively little medicinal value compared with other plants. Before the introduction of hops in the beer brewing process, an herbal concoction known as grut (or gruit) was responsible for preserving the precious liquid. The Common hop’s fate as a species was sealed when it began being cultivated in Germany for brewing beer in the 11th century. After it became popular in the use of beer brewing, the plant was eagerly examined for other possible uses and health benefits, and continues to be researched even today; for more about the medicinal value of hops, see this recent article from the American Botanical Council.
The unusual configuration of hops twisting around a birch tree next to the railroad tracks, the large remnants of the Berlin Wall stacked into a haphazard pile, and the old, half-way destroyed sofa sitting next to them, all disrupt our automatic mode of urban vision that traditionally assigns plants a passive, ornamental role…. Here, we can actively reflect on the role of urban nature and the history of botanical species. The only thing missing from this experience is a nice pint of beer!