One of the advantages of being an Emperor is that when you start to worry about whether your houseplants will survive a cold Austrian winter, a purpose-built hothouse is a mere snap of the fingers away.
And so it was with the giant green iron and glass construction currently home to the Wüstenhaus (Desert House) located in the Schönbrunn Palace gardens. It was built in 1905 to provide winter accommodation for the more sensitive specimens among Emperor Franz Joseph’s exotic plant collection.
The building underwent a complete refit recently and reopened as a mix of botanical and zoological gardens.
It’s essentially a showhome for some of the succulents owned by the federal garden service and also attempts to educate and inform the public about desert (wild)life and its peculiar survival strategies.
Tip: When you enter the building, the location of the ticket office isn’t obvious – just keep going the only way you can and you’ll find it eventually.
Once you pass through the ticket barrier, you go through a set of artificial tunnels with glass enclosures featuring various desert fauna, such as snakes, lizards and desert ants.
Here you’ll also find the bizarre-looking naked mole rats, whose burrows are revealed in cross-section. They look like nothing you’ve ever seen and, apparently, are related to neither moles nor rats.
Also watch out for the Mexican Blind Cave Tetra, a fish that (as the name might suggest) lives in Mexican cave pools and is, well, blind.
The tunnels lead you into the first, smaller, open glasshouse space, filled with succulents. A few animals are free to roam the enclosure: hummingbirds, doves, agames and small iguanas (the latter two are lizards) but I only spotted the birds.
Next up is the main glasshouse area, a huge edifice stuffed to the brim with tiers of cacti and similar plants, some of which are very impressive indeed and all of which are in excellent condition.
One plant to look out for there is the Welwitschia Mirabilis.
The Welwitschia is native to the Namib desert. What makes it remarkable is its longevity – specimens are believed as old as 1500 years and beyond. Its two corkscrew leaves can be up to 6m long, and the roots anything up to 30m deep. It’s actually named after its discoverer, the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch.
A trip around the glasshouses takes no more than 30 minutes. Whether that’s worth the entrance fee for an adult depends on your interests.
The Desert House is in the far east of Schönbrunn park, on the route between the Hietzing park entrance and the zoo. It’s marked on all the maps dotted about the park.
Tip: the entrance to the Desert House has public toilets immediately inside, which you can use without having to go through a ticket barrier first, i.e. you don’t need to visit the house to use the toilets.