The Botanical Garden as a Source of Pleasure and Science: Three Urban Examples
Four Botanical Gardens as Illustrations of Science and Pleasure
Ever since the Garden of Eden, humans have been fascinated by the botanical experience. One might suppose that this appeals to the botanist in each of us. There are many familiar specimens throughout the history of the world, such as the famous Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon, dating from the sixth century B.C. These were created by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his queen to make her feel more at home on a flat desert landscape. They were watered by a lift system that doused the plants with liquid refreshment drawn from the Euphrates River. While some scholars dispute their very existence, the Hanging Gardens have long been honored with inclusion in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. More recently, such outstanding botanists as Carl Linnaeus of Sweden and America's own Luther Burbank have made contributions to this field. This article seeks to trace the rise of botany and its transformation from a hobbyhorse to a serious branch of biology. Five gardens will be examined: one in London, two in New York and two on the Michigan State University campus to reveal how botany interacts with both serious professionals and the casual but interested visitor.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Near London, there spreads an area of incredible beauty as well as scientific research and education. Covering about three hundred acres, they have for centuries provided the British and visitors with pleasure and edification. Originally a royal palace, Kew House--also referred to as the "Dutch House"--became the centerpiece of this unique endeavor. A favorite of King George III, this excellent mansion is located in the northern part of the gardens and was completed in 1631. In the southern part, there is a wonderful hint of the Orient in the Chinese Pagoda, dating from 1759. There are winding walks and special times of the year on the botanical calendar, coinciding with predictable blooms such as bluebells, daffodils and rhododendrons. As delightful as these occasions are, the really serious business of Kew comes from its status as one of the world's top botanical research gardens. The Herbarium, for example, has five million sheets of dried specimens to aid research and study! It was work at Kew that led to the development of the rubber plant and its introduction to the Malay Peninsula and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and to the introduction of the quinine plant to India to fight tropical mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria. As both a pleasurable destination and a center of botanical research breakthroughs, Kew has few rivals.
New York Botanical Garden
The New York Botanical Garden in Bronx Park is, in a sense, America's answer to Kew in London. Only a little smaller (approximately 250 acres), these gardens can boast of a collection to rival any other in the world. Some one million plants from everywhere thrive here. Started in 1891, the collection has of course grown to epic proportions. It shares Bronx Park with the New York Zoological Garden--commonly referred to as the Bronx Zoo. It is also near Fordham University, a leading New York educational resource. It has sightseeing trains to carry tourists throughout the Garden, like other major botanical gardens, but also had a recent Christmas treat with a miniature toy train which wound its way past New York skyscraper landmarks and cultural icons such as Yankee Stadium, a Bronx neighbor of the Garden. The grounds also feature outstanding library resources to aid serious botanical scholars in this fascinating research. All in all, this facility can hold its own with Kew as a world-class botanical garden, whether the flora studied is the backyard variety or more exotic palm trees from far away.
Old Westbury Gardens
Some twenty-two miles east of New York in Nassau County, there is another botanical garden that deserves more than honorable mention. This is Old Westbury Gardens, a combination of museum and outdoor gardens located on Long Island's famous Gold Coast, once chronicled by noted American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Built by John S. Phipps, heir to a U.S. Steel fortune, it seems to embody the very phrase "the good life." This property has been featured in the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest and in New York State "Great Western" Champagne television commercials in the past. The mansion and some one hundred surrounding acres were converted to a museum and botanical garden in 1959 and are being maintained by a Board of Trustees. Inside the mansion, one is treated to antique furnishings much as they were in Phipps' day, and prominent paintings by English masters, including Thomas Gainsborough, Henry Raeburn and Joshua Reynolds. Outdoors, there are five interconnected gardens, each reflecting a different mood or theme. Sprinkled throughout the walk are stunning vistas along avenues of beech and linden trees and sparkling pools and lakes. Occasional sculptures add to the tour experience, and gardeners will find unusual specimens of flowers and shrubs to study, including the marsh mallow. Special events round out the educational calendar here and the overall effect is one of outstanding beauty, combining art with nature. If it lacks the research depth of Kew or the New York Botanical Garden, it makes up for this with an exhilarating aesthetic adventure, both indoors and out.
W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Clarence E. Lewis Landscape Arboretum, MSU
Michigan State University is in itself an arboretum. There are over sixteen thousand trees on the large campus, many of native and more exotic origin. Within the campus, there are research facilities for soil science and turf grass management, among other areas of study. The Baker Woodlot has recently been redefined to include a bird sanctuary, and the Horticulture Gardens feature scientific control over climate so that a visitor could swear that he was in a May garden party, even though the calendar outside says October! No description of the campus botanical assets would be complete without mention of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden, the oldest continuous garden of its type in America. It comprises only five acres, but packs a lot of information into its small area. Founded in 1873, it boasts some five thousand species, organized into economic, systematic, landscape and ecological groupings. It is also vulnerable to flooding from the nearby Red Cedar River, which flows through the campus. Unfortunately, this recently happened, with some damage inflicted. Another great botanical attraction here is the Clarence E. Lewis Landscape Arboretum dedicated in 1984 to honor a horticulture professor and now part of the MSU College of Agriculture. With extensive gardens of its own, this arboretum within the larger context of MSU insures that this university is at the forefront of botanical research, public education and information dissemination with the plant-loving public and scholars alike.
For most of organized human history, people both prominent and ordinary have been involved with gardens large and small. Since Nebuchadnezzar's time, botany has grown into a true science and major industry. The late Audrey Hepburn did a video before her death which revealed her love of gardens. Everyone should take time out now and then to detour off the beaten path and explore the varieties of flowers and blooms available in the nearest garden. They are an important part of the world cultural heritage.