The Floral Kingdom in the Bronx

Flora Illustrata: A Celebration of Botanical Masterworks

an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, November 15, 2014–February 22, 2015
LuEsther T. Mertz Library, New York Botanical Garden
The cover of Vaughan’s 1894 seed catalog, an example of what Elizabeth S. Eustis in Flora Illustrata calls the ‘height of dazzling chromolithography’ of late-nineteenth-century seed catalogs. ‘The appropriation of chromolithography for commercial purposes repelled art critics, but delighted consumers,’ Eustis writes. ‘It remained the preferred embellishment of seed catalogs until color photography began to displace it around 1896.’

Botanical gardens, like film stars, have survived by reinventing themselves. Their persistence has been most remarkable. In America, they are linked to big cities for which, like orchestras and libraries, they are items of civic pride. Up and down France, no fewer than eighty-eight sites still class themselves as botanical gardens or public arboretums. In Germany, they number more than a hundred, including several linked to locally based universities, frequent holders nowadays of the botanical watering can. Much though modernizing university presidents might wish to be rid of heated greenhouses and steamy palm houses, none has yet dared to sell off a botanical garden and spend the proceeds on administration.

Political devolution has been even less of a danger. So far from dismembering “national” botanical sites, it has created more. In May 2000, a brand new National Botanic Garden, funded by the UK Millennium Commission, opened in Wales, after the devolution of powers to a Welsh National Assembly in 1998. Skeptics wondered if its distinctive exhibits would be beds of leeks, the Welsh national vegetable, immortalized by Shakespeare’s Fluellen in Henry V. Almost before leeks could have been harvested, the botanical garden had to be bailed out by a big rescue grant, mostly from the very National Assembly that had championed it. Several more grants have followed. If there is ever a National Botanic Garden of Catalonia, it will have to spend very fast to beat the Welsh track record: three years from inauguration to bankruptcy.

When Americans embarked on botanical gardening, they came late to a long-established genre. Botanical gardens are sometimes said to have begun with Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus, in Hellenistic Athens, with further speculation that in the first one, he grew new plants sent home from Persia and India by Alexander the Great. Theophrastus certainly had a garden and observed seasonal changes in the plants he grew in it, but his knowledge of plants found by Alexander’s conquests was drawn from books by participants in the campaign. He never himself grew the citron trees whose cultivation in Media he describes so well from other eyewitnesses’ writings. There is no sign that his garden was laid out in any scientific or rationally classified way.

Botanical gardens began in Tuscany in the 1540s on the orders of the Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. In 1544, the first one was founded in Pisa. In 1545, the Venetian republic started another in Padua. Florence rapidly followed in December of that year. Nowadays, Pisa’s garden…

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