Botanic Gardens in Colonies

Britain and other colonial powers began not only to increase the size of foreign plant collections in their botanic gardens at home, but also to establish gardens in the countries they were colonizing. The Dutch set up gardens in southern Africa and on Java in what is now Indonesia both to provision their ships and to study and to acclimatize plants which might be useful either at home or in other colonies. The French followed suit on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and on Martinique in the Caribbean. The British had their own botanic gardens at Calcutta, Singapore, and in what is now Sri Lanka. The Germans, who were late-comers to the colonial game, set up botanic gardens in Africa in what is now Cameroon and Tanzania in the late nineteenth century. In all cases the gardens maintained close ties with the home country, and the home gardens.

There are a number of ways that this network of botanic gardens have had ecological effects. By introducing plants into the home country, they paved the way for exotics to become established in new habitats. Two examples of introductions which appeared initially to have few negative effects are plants brought back to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The black locust, a large tree originally found in a relatively limited area of the Appalachians of North America, now grows freely in forests and woodlots all over Europe as well as far beyond its home range in the United States and Canada. Its scientific name Robiniapseudoacacia L., honors Jean Robin who was the King's gardener even before the Jardin des Plantes was opened. A tree Robin planted in the early 1600s was transplanted by his son to the Jardin, and still grows there, the oldest tree in the center of Paris.

Another plant which migrated via the Jardin des Plantes is the butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii. This native of China was sent back to France by Abbe Armand David in the nineteenth century. It now thrives in cultivated gardens but also grows wild along railroad lines and in disused land in Europe and North America.

Both of these plants are today considered undesirable alien invaders in some parts of their adopted countries. The black locust can produce thick plantations whose shade does not allow other, native plans to grow, while buddleia frequently forms dense thickets, forcing out native plants along streambeds and in old pastures.

Other transplants produced consequences which took less time to become apparent. Among them is breadfruit, a native of the South Pacific, which Sir Joseph Banks, then director of Kew, thought would be good food for the slaves who worked in the sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. After a false start in 1791 - the first shipment from Tahiti was on the Bounty when its crew mutinied against Captain William Bligh - breadfruit and the plantain, another import, helped make plantation agriculture profitable by providing cheaply and easily grown food.

Coffee first arrived in the Caribbean directly from a botanic garden. In 1714 Louis XIV obtained a plant from Amsterdam and sent it to the Jardin des Plantes. The intendant of the day had the Jardin's first heated greenhouse constructed for it, where it did very well. By 1721 enough new plants had been propagated from it to risk sending the first offspring to the botanic garden at Martinique in hopes that after acclimatization there, the plants could be established in the French possessions around the Caribbean. It worked: the coffee plantations of the French Antilles as well as of Brazil, Jamaica, Columbia, and Mexico were all initially planted with descendants from that one coffee tree.

Another example is that of rubber. Many plants in tropical Asia, Africa, Central America, and Brazil, produce latex: Columbus may have been the first to mention 'white milk' oozing from the bark of some trees while the French explorer La Condamine brought the first specimens of caoutchouc to Europe in the eighteenth century. But it was not until 1839 when Charles Goodyear discovered a process which produced rubber suitable for hoses and other industrial uses that demand increased dramatically.

The only commercial source of rubber for most of the nineteenth century was the wild rubber tree in Amazonia, Hevea brasiliensis. So intense was the demand that a direct steamship line ran from Manaus more than 1800 km (1100 miles) upstream on the Amazon to Liverpool, carrying trading goods one way, and latex the other. In 1876 Henry Wickham, a plant collector engaged by Kew's director Joseph Hooker, chartered a ship on the line to rush some 70 000 seeds across the Atlantic. He got permission from Brazilian authorities for the transfer by convincing them of the need to release ''exceedingly delicate botanic specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty's own Royal Garden at Kew.''

Hooker arranged for a night freight train to meet the ship when it docked at Liverpool and cleared space in Kew's glasshouses for the seeds. Within 2 weeks of their arrival in England, some 7000 seedlings had begun to grow, and a year later 1900 plants were sent to the Perdeniya Garden in what is now Sri Lanka. From there, seedlings were distributed to several other tropical botanic gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens (Figure 4) got 22 seedlings, 11 of which it used for propagation in the garden. By 1917 it is estimated that the Singapore garden and its

Figure 4 View of the Palm Valley, the heart of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photograph by M. Soderstrom.

director Henry 'Rubber' Ridley had distributed seven million seeds and by 1920 the Malaysian peninsula was producing more than half the world's rubber. There is no way of estimating how many native plants disappeared during the rapid transformation of jungle into rubber plantations. Indirectly the cultivation of rubber had other effects on habitats also, since it made the development of trucks and cars - and therefore of the industrialized world's sprawling, petroleum-powered society - much easier.

Those who undertook these transfers of plants felt no guilt at the massive reworkings ofecosystems which ensued. Most people in the nineteenth and early twentieth century believed that God made the world for humans to enjoy so that making plants serve humans was doing God's work.

At the same time, however, many botanic gardens by accident or design preserved part of the native vegetation in the gardens themselves. For example, the New York Botanical Garden (Figure 5) includes 16 ha (40 acres) of first growth, mixed hardwood forest. This remnant is a unique reminder of the forest which covered most of what is now the city of New York before Europeans wrested control from the indigenous population.

Figure 5 The hemlock forest in the New York Botanical Garden preserves a remnant of the forest which once covered much of the New York City region. Photograph by M. Soderstrom.

Other examples of habitat conservation include the Singapore Botanic Gardens' small jungle enclave amid the city's myriad high rises as well as the Conservation Area at Kew. There a part of the garden is being conserved as British farmland, with upkeep and interventions following traditional British agricultural practices.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Oplan Termites

Oplan Termites

You Might Start Missing Your Termites After Kickin'em Out. After All, They Have Been Your Roommates For Quite A While. Enraged With How The Termites Have Eaten Up Your Antique Furniture? Can't Wait To Have Them Exterminated Completely From The Face Of The Earth? Fret Not. We Will Tell You How To Get Rid Of Them From Your House At Least. If Not From The Face The Earth.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment