The latest census in Hungary put the number of people who self-identify as Bulgarian at 6,500, the smallest of the thirteen officially recognized minorities in the country. While Bulgarians might not be part of some of the oldest communities living in Hungary, they certainly share an interesting story of how their ancestors found their way to the heart of central Europe. Gardening, that’s how.
Bulgarian gardening in Hungary
Bulgaria’s affinity for a good vegetable is well-known and documented. As is one of Bulgaria’s exports in the 19th century: skilled gardeners standing ready to share know-how. The debut on the markets of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of vegetables such as peppers, zucchini, and eggplants is linked to their work along the banks of the Danube river and beyond.
Renowned academician Ivan Evstatiev Geshov studied the issue extensively, collecting data on Bulgarian gardeners working abroad. In 1888, only a decade after gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire, some 12,000 people left Bulgaria to work as gardeners abroad, his research showed. Their journey didn’t end in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they settled initially around the towns of Szeged and Miskolc before trying their luck in bustling Budapest. Bulgarian farmers made their way also to Romania and Russia.
The ease with which Bulgarian gardeners moved west and north is easy to explain: They knew what they were doing. They not only knew how to build irrigation systems but were also familiar with the technology which, through pre-grown seedlings, systematic fertilization, and watering, could produce a rich harvest. Before migrating to Hungary, Bulgarians were already busy across the border in Romania. According to one source, in 1714, Bulgarian farmers were instrumental in planting a big vegetable garden in the city of Brasov.
Bulgarian gardening: the generational tradition
The gardening skills of the Bulgarians go back to their ancestors, the Thracians. It was from them that they inherited the skills of making wine and planting vegetables. Their work was so important that they even had a dedicated patron to protect them from afar. At the time of the First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018), there were records of vegetable growing. Agriculture was also flourishing in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396). The cultivation of turnips, onions, garlic, cabbages, root, and leafy vegetables was widespread in settlements around Veliko Tarnovo, the then-capital of Bulgaria. After the fall of Bulgaria to Ottoman rule, new vegetable crops began to arrive in Bulgarian lands, brought from the Far East by the Ottomans.
At the beginning of the 20th century, young independent Bulgaria started capitalizing on its agricultural know-how. At that time, schools were opened across Bulgaria to train people in many fields of agriculture, most importantly, winemaking and fruit and vegetable growing.
Back in Hungary, the Bulgarian community enjoyed a warm welcome from locals courtesy of the innovations they brought along with them. In 2014, the Society of Bulgarians in Hungary erected a monument honoring the contribution of Bulgarian gardeners. The location of the monument, representing a traditional Bulgarian water fountain, is hardly random: The monument stands in a place where a big Bulgarian vegetable garden used to be.
“Bulgarians saved Budapest from famine after WWII. They introduced completely new technologies in watering vegetables and growing them,” recalls Alexi Andonov, whose grandfather was also one of the many Bulgarian gardeners in Hungary. And while descendants of Bulgarian gardeners might have found a new line of work in Hungary, the memory of their ancestors is very much alive.