Out of Russia: Remember the Zanzibar lilies

MOSCOW - This is the time of year when Muscovites start to go mad. The snow, which was a novelty when it fell in October and helped to make the city look like a greetings card for the New Year holiday, still lies thick on the ground and will not melt at least until the end of March. For most people, dirty white is a colour which is rapidly losing its appeal.

A few lucky foreign residents have an escape route. Not only can they drool over the pages of brochures for exotic holidays but they can actually get away to these places.

Not so for the Russians. The majority are so poor that they are not sure where their next meal is coming from, let alone when they will next have a holiday. But travelling to paradise has become a liability even for the tiny minority of rich Russians since a factory director was exposed in the press for taking a tropical trip, then checking himself into hospital for two weeks to fade his tan so that his workers would not see it.

The answer, then, might be found in an afternoon off from reality at the Moscow Botanical Gardens. They certainly saved my sanity last week.

The Botanical Gardens, which are attached to the Academy of Sciences, are not open to the public because Muscovites have developed an unfortunate habit of pinching the orchids, which can be worth hundreds of pounds each. You have to ring in advance to arrange a supervised tour. In my ignorance, I had not done this. So I was on the dirty white and decidedly chilly outside, looking in, until an angel called Tatyana took pity on me, and suddenly I was in a green and steamy jungle looking out at the falling snow. Weird is the only word for it.

We began in the Asia and Africa department as Tatyana reeled off a list (in Latin) of the different types of palms on display. I was just revelling in the greenness of it all. Tortoiseshell cats raced up and down the tree trunks, the little tigers of this miniature jungle. Tatyana said the botanists fed them. What a life]

Then we toured the citrus section, breathing in the aroma of orange blossom, said to have relaxing properties, and checking the progress of three lemons and a grapefruit destined for selected staff members. Would they go to the best workers, I asked jokingly. Tatyana seemed to imply they would go, in good old Soviet style, to the bosses.

There were also greenhouses devoted to Latin America (coffee), Australia (eucalyptus but sadly, no koalas), sub-tropical regions (azaleas) and Japan (some bonsai trees presented by the Japanese embassy). But best of all was a little glass house containing a mock-up of an African lake.

I have seen some bizarre sights in Moscow but none to beat the vision of Vadim, a stereotypical Russian figure with a full beard, standing in swimming trunks up to his waist in warm water tending his beloved violet-hued Zanzibar water-lilies. I wiped the steam off my glasses and he was still there. It was not a hallucination.

He explained that he had to stand there for several hours a day pulling up and replanting the lilies and assorted weeds because otherwise they could not renew themselves. In nature, when it rains and the level of the lake rises, the plants come up to the surface and then settle down again when the water drops back. But this lake, effectively a giant bath, never moves and would be stagnant but for the stirrings of Vadim.

The original plants were brought to Russia from expeditions but since then Vadim has grown many more from cuttings in his one-room flat where he also keeps tropical fish, a wife and three children. When they are big enough, the plants and fish are put in the lake. Maybe his children will end up working here too.

I ask him for a job but he says: 'You wouldn't like it. It seems like heaven but it's very bad for your health, standing around in water all day long. My colleague has just been invalided out of the service.' So out I go, back into the dreary cold. But maybe now I can see it through until April.