Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/May 1889/Botanical Gardens



NOTWITHSTANDING its size, prosperity, and luxury, the commercial metropolis of the United States has been hitherto a less fruitful soil for the rise and growth of humanistic and scientific institutions of learning, and museums, than Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, and, through its university, Baltimore. Movements, donations, and beginnings for the building up of such institutions have not been wanting, but they have usually been hindered by the predominance of mercantile interests and tendencies, unfortunate starts, misadministration, seizure by political aspirants, or lack of competent, skilled, unselfish management, and have fallen short of their intended and possible aims. Centenarian Columbia College, with its professional branch schools, has been left far behind by Harvard, Yale, and Johns Hopkins universities. The Astor and Lenox libraries can not compete with those of other cities of like importance with New York, and are surpassed by libraries in Boston and Washington. The Museum of Natural History in Central Park has only recently acquired importance and value; and the Art Museum has not till within a short time, by means of a few large bequests and gifts, overcome its previous failures. Ethnographical, zoölogical, botanical, and pharmacological museums are, except for the sporadic collections in scientific institutions, and for the ethnographic collection in the Historical Society, not existent, nor have we a botanical and zoological garden. The museums of the medical schools do not exceed the measure of demonstration objects, and the small pharmacological collection of the College of Pharmacy is one of the most neglected and insignificant of all.

The creation of higher institutions of learning and of scientific collections has hitherto been left for the most part to private enterprise and munificence; the latter has, as everywhere else in our country, accomplished much in New York that is good and useful, and has given large sums. But the givers have too often lacked correct understanding, and have failed to secure the qualified and experienced agents that were needed in order to put their rich gifts to the best use. Men of the stamp of Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray do not readily grow up and flourish in the intellectual atmosphere of a commercial and partly political metropolis; or they are less appreciated; and therefore the endowers of large foundations want the stimulating and authoritative influence and the correct intelligence to apply their gifts in the right direction, and to guard them against extravagance from injudicious expenditure, dilettanteism, and experimenting. Furthermore, Americans, in their lack of knowledge and of models, have been distinguished by a tendency to perpetuate their munificence and names preferably in monumental edifices; hence the excessive foundation of so-called universities with splendid buildings, but which have been usually destitute of what alone, with or without architectural luxury, gives them purpose and value—an efficient faculty, well-endowed apparatuses, and capable pupils. In consequence of this erroneous comprehension and consequent expenditure in buildings, and by the scattering of teaching force and means, most of our higher schools, libraries, museums, and collections have been weakened. We have no lack of imposing structures, but no real universities and technical high-schools; libraries, like those of the Astor and Lenox in New York, elegantly housed without a correspondingly general value and utility. The munificence of our founders directs itself, as Prof. James M. Hart has remarked in his book on "German Universities," mainly to brick and mortar. The rest is left to chance and the discretion of the administration; hence numerous experiments, often followed by a miserable, inefficient career.

In comparison with other cities of like size and population, New York is poor in public squares and parks. In size and natural beauty the Central Park can indeed well sustain a comparison with the parks of other cities, and it might, if the money poured out upon it since its creation in 1857 had been wisely and honestly expended, have been one of the best parks and botanical gardens in the world. If Nature had not done so much for it, it would stand, notwithstanding half a million dollars a year are expended upon it, far behind the parks of other great cities. If only a part of this sum had been systematically applied to the maintenance of a competent, experienced botanical and landscape gardener as director of the plantations, and the necessary palm-and plant houses had been erected, the Central Park might have been, not only one of the largest but one of the handsomest public parks and botanical gardens; for, with its superficies of eight hundred and forty acres, it has a much greater area than, for example. Regent's Park, with its beautiful botanical and zoölogical gardens, Kensington Garden, and the Kew Gardens of London, taken together. The last-named, a famous botanical garden, contains only sixty-seven acres, and has nothing like the diversity of formation that the Central Park contains.

The plan for making Central Park, like those parks, a botanical garden as well, has existed since its foundation in 1857,[1] and has come up again from time to time; a costly beginning was projected under the Tweed régime, and the foundations were laid for a large glass house, by which the little lake on the east side of the park between Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth Streets was to be roofed for the cultivation of Victoria regia and other fresh-water plants. The money that was appropriated found takers enough, but no building came out of it.

Much might be accomplished in the Central Park with its rich flora under expert and artistic administration, without great cost, if only the majority of the trees and shrubs were marked with their botanical and English names, as is done in the squares of Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities; and the people of the city might thus be put in the way of becoming acquainted with at least the native trees and bushes, and excited to some interest in botany. The daily thousands of summer visitors pass by these abundant groups of plants without any information to their names, and without any means or motive for informing themselves respecting these objects that make the park attractive and beautiful. This, however, is one of the most important purposes of the botanical gardens of our time; and the Central Park could fulfill it as well as and even better than Regent's Park and Kensington Garden and the plant-houses in Hyde Park in London.

Of the eight hundred and forty acres in the Central Park, four hundred acres are wooded with trees and shrubs; forty-three and a quarter acres, besides the reservoirs, are covered with water in the six lakes; and of the many meadows the largest contains nineteen acres. The size, conditions of soil, natural beauty, and central location are therefore far more favorable and more diversified than in the famous parks and botanical gardens of London, Paris, and Berlin. Only a proper beginning, a scientific and artistic organization, and the wise application of the means that are at hand, are needed to combine the useful with the agreeable in the park, and make it also one of the handsomest of botanical gardens.

One is therefore involuntarily reminded of Schiller's words—

"Warum in die Feme schweifen, sieh' das Gute liegt so nah?"

("Why wander into the far, seeing the good lies so near?") when he regards the present movement and efforts to create a "great botanical garden" in certain territory in the northern annex to the city, on the Bronx River, beyond Mount Vernon. A committee of the Torrey Botanical Club is trying and hopes to collect a million dollars for that purpose. It is given among the purposes to be attained by this garden that it will furnish the city with living plants as demonstration objects for botanical instruction in the medicinal, pharmaceutical, and other institutions. But smaller gardens and houses for the cultivation of tender and half-hardy plants, like the little botanical garden created by Prof. Asa Gray and his pupils in Cambridge, the Arboretum in Boston, and Shaw's Gardens in St, Louis, would be abundantly sufficient for this purpose. Instead of utilizing that which is at hand and near us, we must, in a fashion characteristic of New York, have something new and grand for a botanical garden—a scheme that will bring money among the people, give position and name to politicians, feed the mills of land-speculators and contractors, and therefore find favor everywhere.

The project is not objectionable in itself. But why not apply it to the already existing Central Park, which has abundant room and all that is needed for the establishment of a complete botanical garden, and would gain immensely by it in usefulness and beauty? With a million dollars all could be provided on the same grand scale that the Kew Garden of London possesses in plantations, hot-houses, and botanical museums; moreover, a large sum of money alone will no more make a great botanical garden than it will a great university. It requires, first of all, the intellectual creators and the scientifically and artistically competent organizers and architects.

Without reverting in this short article to the history of botanical gardens, which may be found in every large encyclopædia, we will confine ourselves to the discussion of their scientific importance. This is not so much in the drift of modern botanical sciences than it was formerly. With the popularization of science and the rise of landscape gardening on an extensive scale in or near all the great cities, botanical gardens have acquired more and more importance and perhaps greater value for the awakening and instruction of the masses, and should therefore be made easily accessible to them and as instructive as possible. Hence the public parks that are most easily within reach of the largest numbers of people are the peculiarly favorable territory on which to place botanical gardens. Their importance and usefulness in this sense were recently expounded in a striking manner by Prof. Schwendener in his address on assuming the rectorate of the University of Berlin, when, having described the present condition of botany and its aims and purposes, he said: "If we ask how botanical gardens stand in reference to this new direction, it can not be denied that they are in general behind the progress of science. They still exhibit, aside from a few unimportant changes, the impress of an earlier time. Certain fashionable plants, like palms, orchids, camellias, azalias, cactuses, heaths, etc, are cultivated in extravagant numbers, and grow, bloom, and decay without bearing any fruit for science. Where there are specialists, who work up some group in monographs, as rich a representation of its forms in living examples as possible may be justified; but we should not forget in this case that most systematic research must rest for the greater part on herbarium material, for the whole number of cultivated forms constitute only a fraction of what is already described. The largest collections of living plants in the gardens of the great cities may contain sixteen thousand or eighteen thousand species; but the flora of the whole earth includes ten times as many. The phytographer is not willing to depend upon garden specimens, because they sometimes vary considerably from plants collected in nature and afford no certain guarantees of their origin. It is therefore not to be supposed that the demands of the new system can be satisfied with specimens that have grown under cultivation. Hardly anything else can be expected of the future than that the enormous stock of living plants which all the great gardens now exhibit will suffer a gradual reduction.

"But if the vegetable kingdom is gradually giving up the charm which it has exercised so long, what shall take its place? The gardens as such stand in no other relation to the now dominant microscopical and experimental physiological research than that of furnishing the necessary material and a certain number of plants for experiment, and for that no particular efforts or large gardens are needed. In this direction, therefore, no one will probably desire extensive enterprises or set up new aims.

"As little does it lie in the province of botanical gardens to deal with problems in the geography of plants. What has hitherto been done in this direction by the arrangement of geographical groups, and which is all that can be done in the future, belongs to the domain of popular demonstration and the instruction of wider circles, not to that of science. It may be of real interest to the garden-visiting public to find Japanese, Chinese, American, or Australian plants, etc., together in greater numbers, and the administration of the gardens are not to be blamed if they meet this popular desire as practically as they can, only they must not conceive that they are thereby solving any scientific problem.

"The one thing that remains for the directors of botanical gardens, if they would keep up with the progress of science and to make them something more than mere magazines of living plants, is to engage themselves in the questions that concern the variability of organic forms, the influence of changed life-conditions on the form, the phenomena of hybridization and reversion, and especially the factors that are conducive to the further development of the vegetable kingdom and of its history.

"If we raise the question, in conclusion, of what will be the consequences of the perspective we have defined for the botanical gardens, it is hardly to be feared for the smaller gardens, serving principally for the purposes of instruction, that they will be seriously affected by it, for their stock of plants does not at most exceed the present requirements for demonstration.

"But a profounder change concerning the scientific side of botanical gardens may nevertheless be anticipated in the future. The fashionable plants of the trade-gardens and the monotonous forms of certain genera which require whole houses in their aimless fullness of species do not deserve such a preference; and the time is at hand for botanical gardens to break with these old traditions and to carry out a stricter selection connected with necessary reforms in nomenclature. For this is demanded an expert and energetic administration which recognizes modern problems and knows how to overcome the hindrances that stand in the way."

What evidently is wanted and should be created in New York is what the botanical gardens of London, Paris, Berlin, and other great cities principally are, a "magazine" of cultivated native and exotic plants, in which botanists and lovers of plants as well as the masses can enjoy themselves and be instructed, and by means of v which a perception of and interest in the beauty and endless richness of forms and colors of the plant-world can be awakened and advanced in the populace. The Central Park is eminently adapted for such an establishment, has the right location for it, abundant space, and therefore all the prerequisites that are needed. Should it seem desirable, in the course of the growth of the city northward, at some later time to have more and new parks with botanical gardens, future generations will know how to provide them, probably with better means and service, and in any case with closer-lying interest and benefit. At present it would be an extravagance, a vain illusion, and a needless and costly experiment, to go for the establishment of a botanical garden beyond the Central Park, which is so well adapted to the purpose, and to create from the beginning a "grand botanical garden" at a considerable distance in a wholly unprepared territory.—Translated and abridged for the Popular Science Monthly from the March number of Pharmaceutische Rundschau.

  1. It may be of interest to mention here that after the once famous Hamilton Garden near Philadelphia, which was managed for three years toward the end of the last century by the famous botanist, Friedrich Pursh, New York has had the first botanical garden in North America. It was established in 1801 by Dr. David Hosack, a physician, who came to this country from Scotland, on a tract of about twenty acres, which he bought from the city. It was situated several miles north of the city at the time, on the place of the present square between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Streets. The wooded, hilly land was cleared and laid out and surrounded by a stone wall, along which the tall forest-trees were allowed to remain. In 1806 the garden was under high cultivation, and contained over fifteen hundred species of American useful, medicinal, and ornamental plants, a good hot-house, and an audience-room for botanical teaching. In 1806 and 1807 two hot-houses were added, and a number of West Indian and European plants were put under cultivation. A catalogue printed in 1807 gave the names of two thousand species. The garden—which Dr. Hosack had named the Elgin Garden, after his Scottish home—was regularly taken care of during the following years by the owner and some wealthy lovers of plants; but was sold in 1810, for want of means to carry it on, to the State of New York, for seventy-three thousand dollars. With this, skillful direction of the garden seems to have come to an end. It was committed in turn to the Regents of the University of New York, the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and finally to Columbia College. This wealthy corporation, by an arrangement with the State Legislature in 1816, annexed the garden, which had fallen into decay, and with this the once widely known Elgin Botanical Garden, of New York, ceased to be.