Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/May 1890/The Botanic Gardens at Kew



IT is now about two hundred years—the exact date is not known—since Lord Capel laid out the garden that has become a scientific institution of world-wide fame and influence. Switzer says, in his quaint Ichnographia Rustica, 1718, "The earliness with which this lord appeared in gardening merits a very great place in my history, and a better pen than mine to draw it." On the death of Lord Capel, in 1696, the estate of Kew House, including the garden, passed into the hands of his son-in-law, who added to its importance for a while by making it the headquarters of English astronomy. It was afterward leased by Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II. The garden was made a scientific establishment—what they called a "Physic Garden" in those days—by the widow of Frederick, the dowager Princess Augusta, under the advice of the Earl of Bute. She employed William Aiton to direct the scientific work, and Sir William Chambers to superintend the decorative gardening. "Science will ever be grateful to the one," says a writer in The Saturday Review,[1] "and Taste will never forgive the other while his constructions remain." In 1768 Sir John Hill published a catalogue of the plants at Kew. There were fifty ferns, about six hundred trees and shrubs, and several thousands of herbaceous plants. The list was not greatly lengthened twenty-one years after, when Aiton issued the Hortus Kewensis with the aid of Dr. Solander. But the collections made by Sir Joseph Banks in Captain Cook's famous voyage were deposited here; then those of Robert Brown and Allan Cunningham, who had accompanied Captains Flinders and King respectively to Australia; then the plants of Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope, gathered by Messrs. Bowie and Masson; those of Caley, and Ker, and Menzies, and a host of smaller collections. In 1810 William Aiton the younger published a new edition of his father's work, which contained nearly ten thousand descriptions. About 1789 the estate was bought by George III, who devoted much of his leisure to its improvement. But evil days followed the death of Sir Joseph Banks, in whom Kew had a friend at court. For all Aiton could do, the gardens sank into neglect, and in 1838 it was proposed to disestablish and disendow them. A protest was raised, and, after further consideration, the gardens were surrendered by the crown and became a national establishment in 1810. Sir W. J. Hooker was appointed director in the following year. Kew has been fortunate in having had few changes in directors. It was in charge of William Aiton from 1759 to 1793; of William Aiton, Jr., from 1793 to 1840; Sir W. J. Hooker was director from 1841 to 1866; his son, Sir Joseph D. Hooker, from 1866 to 1886; and to him has succeeded Mr. W. T. Thiselton Dyer.

Under the directorship of Sir W. J. Hooker the Royal Botanic Gardens rapidly advanced in importance. During his term of ofiice a report of the Progress and Condition of the gardens was made annually. This was superseded in 1883 by a monthly Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. The early reports of Sir William Hooker are interesting, besides their historic and scientific value, for the evidence they give of his sturdy, ceaseless battles with the Treasury. The director is pathetic, indignant, and argumentative by turns, and one way or another he contrived to worry on till better times. In 1844 Sir William took the first important step of his administration by petitioning for a grant of the Royal Fruit House, which he offered to fill with his private collection of plant products. It was allowed in 1847, and thus the Museum of Economic Botany had its origin. This branch of the establishment now occupies three buildings. Every tree and plant which is known to serve a useful purpose is represented there, with illustrations of the manner of its employment, if possible. While the collection is very popular with the holiday visitor who comes only to be entertained, any one can understand its serious value to an ingenious and thoughtful mechanic or manufacturer. The Museum of Timber is largely used already. Cabinet-makers and furniture manufacturers quite recognize by this time what a store of hints for their craft is garnered here. The utility of the economic section, moreover, is by no means confined to the inhabitants of the British Isles. From every quarter of the globe samples of new products are sent for examination and report. So long ago as 1815 an Herbarium and Botanical Library had been projected at Kew. George III, doubtless persuaded by Sir Joseph Banks, even raised a building for the purpose. After Sir Joseph's death, however, the scheme lapsed, and the building was granted to the King of Hanover. On his decease, Sir William Hooker urged the fulfillment of the old design, and his petition was granted when Mr. Bentham and Dr. Bromfield bequeathed their collections to the nation. The Herbarium of Kew is the largest in the world, and by far the most useful, because it is also most admirably arranged. The number of specimens in it is not on record. At Sir William Hooker's death, twenty-four years ago a rough estimate made the number a million, exclusive of duplicates. The written catalogue fills two gigantic volumes, and has to be continually posted up, for the collection increases by twenty thousand or so yearly. The dried plants in their portfolios stand in cases, and all are arranged upon the system of Sir Joseph Hooker's great work, the Genera Plantarum. The student has only to give the number attached to any genus in that book, and the case is unlocked and the portfolio laid before him in a moment. There are no formalities to check the young scholar here. He has but to present his credentials to Prof. Oliver, keeper of the herbarium, sign his name, and get to work. There are interesting features at every step of this noble collection, fascinating bits of history connected with every group of cases which bears the name of some distinguished botanist, the fruits of whose lifelong labor are stored here. Of all these, perhaps the herbarium of Dr. Lindley is the most attractive. It occupies only four small cabinets, but the contents will surpass the visitor's utmost expectations. On the lower floor is preparing the catalogue of all plants known, for which Mr. Darwin left a bequest. Mr. Daydon Jackson, Secretary to the Linnæan Society, has had the work in hand over three years, and it is not nearly finished. He employs a staff at the British Museum also, The catalogue of the library is not printed, but is contained in a ponderous manuscript volume in the keeper's room. The books include, besides all modern volumes and pamphlets on botany, a great number of those antique curiosities which bibliomaniacs treasure.

The work at Kew covers a vast field. In the first place officially stand the botanic interests—to study new plants and class them. Next, where plants are wanted for cultivation, which can not be obtained readily in the market, or which the service of the public demands, the Royal Gardens will supply them if possible. Where diseases, vegetable or animal or insect pests, threaten local plantations, Kew will look into the matter and consult with experts at home. Kew is ready also to report and to obtain advice upon new-industries which those upon the spot suggest. Furthermore, it keeps an eye on all institutions of the same class throughout the British Empire, which act in concert with their great model in the mother-country, and through it with one another. Foreign institutions co-operate in like manner with Kew to a certain extent. From time to time the authorities of Kew publish a list of new plants, which at present seem to average five hundred to six hundred a quarter, including those renamed for scientific purposes. From time to time, also, they publish a list of the seeds matured in the Royal Gardens, which are exchanged, on application, with all regular correspondents. One of these seed-lists includes something like four thousand species. This magazine of seeds is collected, nominally, for the benefit of institutions which may be able some time to return the favor in part, but in practice no one who applies with a serious purpose for seeds or plants is refused. How the rapidly increasing population of the globe is to be provided with food and clothing is a problem which the authorities of Kew believe falls within their department. They welcome every vegetable product which is reported to have qualities that make it useful to mankind, whether as a food, a medicine, a convenience, or a substance useful in manufactures. They are glad to report upon specimens of such substances, or to obtain the reports of trustworthy experts.

The story of the cinchona plantations is a good instance of the work of the Royal Gardens. Some forty years ago both the English and the Dutch authorities in the East Indies took alarm at the growing price of quinine, due to the rapid decrease of the forests of cinchona in Peru. The Dutch moved first, and imported a great number of seeds and seedlings, which they planted in Java at a heavy cost. But, probably because they had no Kew to advise them, the Dutch had chosen a species which was hardly worth growing, and the plantations have been long since uprooted. For some years the English Government confined itself to importing seeds and plants, which died on the passage to India. This was evidently futile, and Sir William Hooker urged a systematic procedure. Mr. Clements Markham, in 1859, was sent to Peru to collect seeds and young trees. When he returned, his precious stores were received at the Gardens, nursed, and transmitted to India with trifling loss. This effort was successful. In the plantations of Bengal, laid out and managed by officers recommended by Sir William Hooker, there were, at the date of the latest report, about five million trees. From Kew cinchona-trees have been distributed also to all parts of the world where there was a chance for successful cultivation. The plantations of Ceylon are only inferior to those of Bengal; in Jamaica the sales of bark exceed £5,000 a year; the tree has been introduced also into St. Helena, Trinidad, Mauritius, Cape of Good Hope, Queensland, and many other settlements. The output of the cinchona drugs from these sources up to 1880 was 87,704 pounds, which, taking quinine at an average value of two dollars an ounce, would represent $2,806,528.

Ipecacuanha is a plant scarcely less important than cinchona itself. But few members of the vegetable kingdom so absolutely refuse to exist under anything short of perfectly satisfactory conditions. In 1866 Sir Joseph Hooker sent a specimen to the Botanical Gardens at Calcutta, which promptly died. Then a struggle began in which the advantage was now on one side, then on the other. In 1875 the Director of the Calcutta Gardens triumphantly reported that he had one hundred thousand nice young plants, but in 1886 the strain received from Kew direct alone survived—less than five per cent—and all hope of successful cultivation in India has been abandoned long since. Plants had been sent out to Singapore, however, in 1875, # with much more lively confidence, and there perseverance found its reward. Ipecacuanha is established in the Old World at last, and the authorities of Kew may be trusted to diffuse the cultivation. Another instance is Liberian coffee, distributed from Kew to take the place of that grown in the East Indies, which was affected by a fungoid pest, and that of the West Indies, which suffered from the white fly. Liberian coffee, moreover, will thrive in hot and moist situations, where the Arabian variety is unable even to live. It has been introduced in a great many places, but, although its growth is very promising, it has nowhere become the general crop. This imperfect success was another problem for the investigators of Kew, and the solution is now believed to be found in the fact that the treatment proper for the Arabian berry after gathering is not suited to the Liberian, with a widely different pulp.

Among the many questions sent to Kew from all parts of the world, there must "be some of trivial importance, or which could be perfectly well answered at the local botanic gardens. But all genuine inquiries receive attention. Debate has been gravely held, opinions even have been formed and reported upon such matters as a South African cane which some gentleman in those distant parts thought adapted for fishing-rods; upon the value of West African palm-kernels as material for coat-buttons; upon a pithy stem which the government of a West India island believed suitable for razor-strops.

One function of a national institution very seriously regarded at Kew is the training of young men to fill botanic situations in the colonies. Something is demanded of such young men beyond the practical knowledge which suffices at home. Instruction is given them in the principles of scientific botany, and those general conditions which rule the practice of horticulture under differing circumstances. The advantage of this system all around scarcely needs illustration. While serving the interest of the colonies, it increases the sources of information for Kew, since all these emigrants keep up more or less of a correspondence with the institution in which they were trained.

The village of Kew lies on the south side of the Thames, about six miles westward from Hyde Park Corner in London. "The Gardens" are a favorite resort for holiday-makers and tourists, being visited by six or seven hundred thousand persons yearly. Painters also flock there in summer-time. When the crown surrendered its rights to them in 1840, the Gardens had an area of eleven acres, and contained ten greenhouses of one sort or another. Sir William Hooker promptly begged permission to annex the Orangery and the land adjacent; then a part of the Pleasure Grounds; and after that the Royal Kitchen and Forcing Grounds. All these petitions being granted, by 1847 the Gardens had reached their present dimensions—about seventy acres. Three years later the rest of the Pleasure Grounds was granted for the establishment of an Arboretum, making the total area little less than two hundred and fifty acres. "The Arboretum is the richest in Europe, no doubt," says the writer in The Saturday Review, "but probably inferior to that of Harvard University, where special attention has been paid to this department." This admission in a British journal, and The Saturday Review above all others, should be very gratifying to Americans. The failure of Kew's Arboretum to be the finest in the world is explained on the ground that the soil—sandy and shallow, resting on a stratum of gravel—is unsuited to many kinds of trees. In former times, also, when an imperial collection had to be got together as quickly as possible, and as cheaply, specimens were not planted with the care which might have overcome the disadvantage. It became necessary to reconstruct the Arboretum twenty years ago on this account. A singular example of the influence of fashion in gardening then came to light. The British public had been running after evergreens so hotly that nurserymen had ceased to grow deciduous species. It seems incredible that the authorities of Kew should have asked in vain for months throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, for young aspens. As for American oaks, maples, etc., they absolutely could not be found in the kingdom. Unscientific lovers of the beautiful may rejoice that it has not yet been found necessary to interfere with the old forest trees, planted, perhaps, by Lord Capel. The new-comers are arranged by genus—all the willows, for example, with the alders, around the pretty lake, pines here, cedars there, oaks, nuts, maples, tamarisks, camellias, ranunculus, etc., etc.

In the Garden proper the smaller plants are found in bewildering array. No list of the species represented at Kew has been taken since that of the younger Aiton in 1810, but one is now being made. Some departments have been catalogued already. Of orchids, there are about 1,400 species; ferns, 1,100; stove plants, 2,500; succulents, 1,000; palms and cycads, 500; greenhouse plants, 3,000; herbaceous, 4,000; trees and shrubs, 3,000; in several cases, however, the figure is but a guess as yet. The total, great as it will prove to be, bears but a small proportion to the sum of Nature's wealth. If we take the flowering plants alone, as enumerated in Bentham and Hooker's Genera Plantarum, there are two hundred natural orders, 10,000 genera, and 100,000 species; and this leaves out of account the ferns and all the lower orders of Cryptogamia. The Economic Section has few visitors, and they are not tempted to carry exploration far. Not a few of the culinary and medicinal herbs in use are found here. If by some fatal chance the onion of commerce should be exterminated in the back-gardens of England, Kew is prepared to replace it. Side by side therewith grow the patience-dock and the skunk-cabbage, the briony, the cuckoo-pint, the Japanese yam, and the all-good. In ferns the Kew collection is exceedingly rich. It has had three special benefactors in this department, to the first of whom, Mr. George C. Joad, the public is indebted for the charming rock-garden opened in 1881. Sir Joseph Hooker had long been working for one, and the bequest of Mr. Joad's collection of ferns brought the matter to a crisis. Dr. Cooper Forster was an enthusiast upon the culture of filmy ferns, and Mr. W. C. Carbonell was specially interested in the cultivation of hardy ferns, particularly in the crossing of them, and the development of sports. Both these gentlemen bequeathed their treasures for the nation's enjoyment when their own power of enjoying them ended.

The glass houses at Kew are extensive structures. The Winter Garden covers more than an acre and a half of ground. The Palm House is three hundred and sixty-two feet long and one hundred feet wide. The new Orchid House is one hundred and forty feet in length, adding the two wings together. This last is not wholly satisfactory—to the orchid enthusiast an orchid house never is, nor can be. Supplemented, however, by a low, neat range, from which the public is excluded, nearly all the 1,400 species which form the national collection thrive admirably. British orchidists are proud of Kew—nowadays—for it was not so satisfactory in this department a few years since.

  1. The writer is indebted to an appreciative article in The Saturday Review (London), of October 5, 12, and 19, 1889, for the material of this sketch.