Truth and beauty: The purpose and reception of (botanical) gardens

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The Adelaide Botanic Garden First Creek Wetland designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean with SKM, David Lancashire Design and Paul Thompson.

The Adelaide Botanic Garden First Creek Wetland designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean with SKM, David Lancashire Design and Paul Thompson. Image: John Gollings

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The Bicentennial Conservatory designed by architect Guy Maron at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

The Bicentennial Conservatory designed by architect Guy Maron at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. Image: Grant Hancock

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Murdoch Avenue, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, with its rows of Moreton Bay figs.

Murdoch Avenue, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, with its rows of Moreton Bay figs. Image: Grant Hancock

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In the Botanic Gardens, Adelaide. 
Image courtesy of the Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium from a postcard reproduced in Tony Kanellos’ 2014 book <i>Out of the past</i>.

In the Botanic Gardens, Adelaide. Image courtesy of the Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium from a postcard reproduced in Tony Kanellos’ 2014 book Out of the past.

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Curating – looking for a balance between custody and care. Image from a postcard collected by Robert Emlen, Brown University – origin unknown.

Curating – looking for a balance between custody and care. Image from a postcard collected by Robert Emlen, Brown University – origin unknown.

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Stephen Forbes, director of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia from 2001 to 2016, reflects on the love and trust people have in botanic gardens.

In Australia’s capital cities the botanic gardens are part of our lives. We’re introduced to these beautiful gardens in prams, brought in as toddlers to explore, join preschool visits and school excursions, court in the gardens, marry in the gardens, introduce our own children to the gardens and celebrate anniversaries and milestones here. As we age, perhaps we explore these gardens more deeply to reveal other sides of their character. We introduce our grandchildren to them, and eventually our children or friends take us there. Botanic gardens then are as much a gallery of memories as a gallery of plants.

What makes a garden botanical?
The adjective ‘botanic(al)’ applied to gardens is often used rather loosely. In the absence of a definition serving an author’s purpose, ‘botanic(al)’ generally describes a diverse living collection of plants employed to a philosophical purpose. The earliest philosophical enquiries in botany are usually attributed to Theophrastus whose Classical treatises on botany, Enquiry into plants (De historia plantarum) and On the causes of plants (De causis plantarum), saw Carl Linnaeus confer on him the title ‘Father of Botany’. The title Enquiry into plants might suggest a definition for botanic gardens as ‘a living plant collection established for an enquiry into plants’. Such a definition maintains utility through history and across cultures, despite the purpose and nature of this enquiry varying widely in time and space. An alternative is drawn from the opening speeches for the University of Oxford’s botanic garden in 1621, ‘For the glorification of the works of God and the furtherance of learning’ – although the website today prefers a more secular form, ‘To promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature’.

The Bicentennial Conservatory designed by architect Guy Maron at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.  Image:  Grant Hancock

However, even these definitions might not capture the philosophical purpose for what might reasonably be considered botanic gardens. A number of examples can illustrate this point. Ancient Egyptian king Thutmose III’s (1479–1425 BCE) carved ‘botanical garden’ in his tomb at Karnak represents plants from military campaigns in Retjenu (present-day Syria and Palestine), and in ‘God’s Land’ (east of Egypt – the Land of Punt) and is interpreted as the setting for priestly initiation rituals. Aztec king Nezahualcóyotl’s (1403–1473) ‘botanic garden’ in Texcotzingo is interpreted as a place of learning supporting agriculture, cosmology, spirituality, philosophy, and the arts. The Eden Project, while purposefully excluding itself as a botanic garden, ‘aims to excite, engage and stimulate its visitors through the combination of world class architecture, jaw-dropping scale, serious scientific content, fantastic horticulture, thought-provoking art and stunning events’ while its mission is to ‘connect us with each other and the living world’.

In the Botanic Gardens, Adelaide. Image courtesy of the Board of the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium from a postcard reproduced in Tony Kanellos’ 2014 book Out of the past.

Why are botanic(al) gardens part of our lives?
Botanic gardens may be difficult to define but in each of Australia’s capital cities botanic gardens are the most, or at least among the most, visited attractions. With few economic, social, physical or cultural barriers to entry, visitors are evenly spread across gender, age and postcodes. Why is this – is there a latent love of botany (‘botanophilia’) in our community? Perhaps, but in surveys visitors see the key attractions of botanic gardens as peace, beauty and tranquillity (and safety). The richness of the living plant collections and of the landscape are fundamental to this experience. But I suspect there are also other elements at play here – respect for the institution’s botanical and horticultural authority, and a relationship with the institution that, on their behalf, cares, over generations, for something enduring that they care about. Botanic gardens are loved and trusted for caring for the living plant collections and landscapes that describe this peace, beauty and tranquillity, and compose people’s memories.

Peace, beauty and tranquillity deserve attention. Poet Les Murray observes humans as poetic rather than rational, yet poetics are now largely absent from the political agenda. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign famously saw the origins of the phrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, now viewed as a truism by politicians. Stepping over the political precipice into peace and beauty is viewed as rather fraught and even embarrassing. I’m reminded of Nick Lowe’s 1974 song (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding? Despite our apparent enthusiasm for ‘jobs and growth’ and for ‘activation’ we also require an antidote – especially one as perfect as that provided by botanic gardens. The plants and their composition are beautiful, but critically, we’re immersed in this beauty. There’s plenty of evidence now to underscore the importance of such immersion in greenspace for our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Perhaps this is the main difference between the beauty evident in a botanic garden and the beauty resident in the objects in an art gallery or an ethnographic museum collection.

This may be sufficient in itself. However, I think there are other things too that are significant for our connection with gardens. Peter Cundall refers to gardening as a kind of ‘controlled patience’ – in the context of this definition ‘instant gardening’ becomes an oxymoron. While the ‘slow food’ movement is a response to the impact of ‘fast food’, good gardening remains necessarily slow. The public trust and authority of botanic gardens has been built on this controlled patience in working with their living collections and landscapes. The living collections are both the essence of a visitor’s experience of peace and beauty, and at the same time the working capital for the gardens’ programs in learning, knowledge and sharing. Ultimately any garden, and especially a botanic garden, is about caring – both by the curators and by the visitors.

Curating – looking for a balance between custody and care. Image from a postcard collected by Robert Emlen, Brown University – origin unknown.

How we care for botanic(al) gardens – collaborative curation
A curator in a collections-based cultural institution is someone who cares for the collection. Indeed the job title derives from the Latin curare ‘to take care of’. David Levi Strauss observes, ‘One could say that the split within curating – between the management and control of public works (law) and the cure of souls (faith) – was there from the beginning. Curators have always been a curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest’. However, that caring shouldn’t be seen as the sole domain of the curator. Caring applies equally to the reception of a garden by the viewers that inhabit the curator’s world.

Robert Finley reflects on the etymology of the word ‘cultivate’, originating in the Indo-European root ‘kwel’: to revolve, circle, wheel, all of which we can see in the action of the plough or the spade on soil: a turning over. But ‘kwel’ also means ‘to move around, sojourn, inhabit, to dwell’. The acts of curation and cultivation then are more intrinsically rooted in a garden than the boundary condition, or enclosure, most often employed in defining gardens.

Seeing gardens in spatial and temporal terms, from the multiple histories of viewers’ perspectives, is important to our understanding of all gardens. Perhaps gardens are as much about our construction through our experience and memories as about boundaries and the change through cultivation that can be documented and archived.

John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn memorably includes, ‘Beauty is truth; truth, beauty–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Dennis Dean interprets Keats as quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds (for Keats and his readers, the world’s greatest authority on art of all kinds), implicitly affirming the sufficiency of the human intellect, explicitly affirming the equation of beauty and truth, and pronouncing this knowledge entirely sufficient to create the elegant geometry and art of the urn. He sees these lines as ‘the most famous equation in English literature and (one) precisely correct in suggesting the Newtonian origin of the unstated ‘proof’.

Peter Cundall’s observation might make more sense: ‘Once you learn to create and grow a garden it’s impossible to destroy’. I think he’s largely correct. But I also think there’s something in the peace and beauty, and the gallery of plants and memories in our botanic gardens. Perhaps the nature of our relationship with our gardens and landscapes in the place we inhabit, our caring, is eventually as transformative as the physical act of cultivation.

This article had its beginnings in his speech of welcome to delegates at the 2015 annual conference of the Australian Garden History Society in Adelaide, and the preparation for that speech published in the October 2015 Adelaide Review.

This article was originally published in Australian Garden History, volume 28 no 2, October 2016.


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