Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Exotic And Other Flowering Plants At The Crystal Palace And Gardens At Sydenham

So little is publicly known about the plants at the Crystal Palace, except that which is gathered during a momentary admiring glance, as the visitor strolls through the building, that we think a few explanatory details may not be misplaced.

In the first place, then, the celebrated botanical collection of Messrs. Loddiges at [p. 304]Hackney was the basis of this Crystal Palace collection. It was a fortunate coincidence that, at the very time when the Sydenham project was under consideration, Messrs. Loddiges had resolved to retire from business, and to sell off the whole of their unequalled collection—unequalled so far as private nurserymen are concerned. Nay, the very sale catalogue was being drawn up, when Sir Joseph Paxton, by authority of the Crystal Palace directors, stepped in and bought the entire collection by private contract, giving one round sum for the whole of the plants. The plants have remained at Hackney until room was prepared for them at Sydenham; they have been conveyed by waggons and carts on the ordinary road from one place to the other; and a most formidable undertaking this has been, considering the distance, the many thousands of plants, and the large size of numbers of them. Scarcely a day has elapsed, for many months, on which these plant-loads have not been seen wending their way from north to south.

The collection at Messrs. Loddiges' was in every way remarkable. It was about ninety years ago that Conrad Loddiges began to form it, and it gradually became one of the most celebrated in Europe. This was the parent collection, from whence that at Sydenham has sprung. A large portion of plants have been conveyed from the one place to the other, but there are still many to come. The collection comprises numerous specimens remarkable either for their size or for some other characteristics. There is, for instance, the Areca catechu, whence the betel is obtained; there is the Artocarpus integrifolia, which, though a small tree here, rises to sixty feet in its own native clime; there is the Piper nigrum, the black-pepper tree; the clove-tree, and others yielding spices; the strange and fearful poison-tree of Java; the Calmus rudentum, which rises to a height of 200 feet in its Asiatic home; the fantastic umbrella-tree, with its broad-spreading leafy summit; the cabbage-palm; the Elaeis Guineensis, now of such extraordinary value to us as the source of palm oil, which is pressed out from the pulpy part of the fruit; the Phoenix fariniferi, yielding a kind of sago; the Latania Borbonica, the monarch of Loddiges', which must have a paragraph to itself presently; the Theobroma cacao, whence cocoa and chocolate are obtained; the cow-tree of South America, so named from the milky juice which it yields; the banana; the plant which yields balsam of capivi; the Cordia manoica, remarkable for its rope-like structure; the golden-leaved Chrysophylla macrophylla, which in Sierra Leone attains a height of 100 feet ; the Bertholletia excelsa, the magnificent tree which yields the Brazil nut; the mahogany-tree. Indeed, dwarfish as most of the plants necessarily are in comparison with the sizes which the species would attain in their own native homes, they present, besides beauty of appearance, abundant materials for instruction in respect to the economical and medicinal uses to which they are applied.

The Loddiges' collection, then, was the basis whereon Sir Joseph Paxton proceeded to form the Sydenham collection. But, empowered by the company, he has likewise made large purchases elsewhere. He has obtained, from one quarter or another, as many as 8,000 camellias, and 10,000 geraniums, fuchsias, and calceolarias. There are no fewer than 600 roses in the Alhambra alone, forming elegant parterres around the marble fountain in the Court of the Lions. One very interesting purchase has been made—a collection of seventy-two orange trees and twenty-four pomegranate trees, brought from the Chateau de Neuilly after the death of the late King Louis Philippe. The remarkable shape and large size of the orange trees, and the brilliant green of the leaf, render them very conspicuous and ornamental objects; while pomegranate trees carry us in imagination to Eastern climes, where all sorts of beautiful princesses ate of their fruit in enchanted castles and fairy palaces.

Besides purchases, the Sydenham collection has been enriched with many botanical gifts, and will doubtless be enriched with many more, for there is abundant liberality of the kind among wealthy persons of taste in this country. They will give, if their gifts seem likely to be appreciated and taken care of, as we have had proof in the noble presents of books to the British Museum, and of pictures to the National Gallery—despite of our lamentable want of good rooms in which to place the pictures. Her Majesty has given two specimens of the Araucaria excelsa, and about a dozen other plants. The Duchess of Gloucester has given a collection of [p. 305]
white camellias. There has been presented a fine American aloe by the Misses Ranall of Blackheath; an Araucaria excelsa, by Mr. Lloyd of Wickham; an American aloe, by Miss Millington of Greenwich; a Ficus macrophylla from Australia, by the Botanical Society; an auraucaria, by Earl Powis; a splendid Australian flowering-plant, by Mr. Fairrie of Liverpool; a small collection of plants, by Earl Mansfield, from Caen Wood; a magnificent aloe, which had been brought, when young, from the Palace of the Caesars at Rome, by Mrs. Jenkyns of Wells Deanery; a variegated aloe, by Miss Blaxwell of Camberwell; two araucarias by Mr. Wells of Red Leaf; a striped aloe, by Lieutenant-colonel Tweedie of Bromley; a Dracaena draco, by Mr. Keen of Croydon; two American aloes, by Mr. Letts of Dulwich; a noble araucaria, by Messrs. Veitch, of Exeter; a collection of aquatic plants, by the Duke of Devonshire; and a large number of other gifts, which, though the company very properly record them, need not be catalogued here.

The arrangement of so fine a collection has necessarily occupied much and weighty attention. It was at one time intended to arrange all the plants within the building geographically, in some determinate order, according to the countries to which the respective species belong. But difficulties have presented themselves. Although there are ten architectrual courts to illustrate ten different epochs of art, it by no means followed that the company possessed, in equal ratios, plants belonging to all the various countries represented by those courts; and it might very likely be, that the botany of some countries, if unrelieved by specimens from other places, would look meagre and poverty-stricken in respect to colour or size, and would not aid in carrying out the picturesqueness which has been so much studied in the general arrangement of the fine arts departments. It was decided, therefore, to adopt a systematic arrangement in connection with the ethnological specimens, and also in one important part of the park or grounds; but to arrange everything else in such forms of beauty as would contribute to the general effect of the Palace, considered as a whole—to make the plants and flowers a graceful decoration to the building itself, and to the courts and halls which occupy so large a portion of its area.

The ethnological groups, the Nations, are really instructive, for their botany as well as for their characteristics of human tribes. There are a few of them at the northern end of the building, but the main portion is at the southern end. Here we have the Australian, the Tasmanian, the Papuan, the Tahitian, the Negro, the Bosjesman, the Hottentot, the Bornean the Sumatran, the American-Indian, the Esquimaux—all are given with the scrupulous regard to feature and form which Dr. Latham is well fitted to insure; and such simple adjuncts are provided as may assist in illustrating the dress, and weapons, and usages of the people. Then, in each bed or parterre which contains a group, Sir Joseph Paxton has brought his botanical knowledge to bear, by planting trees obtained from or indigenous to the country inhabited by that group. When the plants are more fully labelled than they yet are—and we recommend the utmost possible liberality in this respect, as a matter that will be sensibly appreciated by the mass of general visitors-—these nations will be very instructive, and we can learn a little concerning the botany of tropical climes.

These national groups, we have said, offer facilities for a systematic arrangement of the plants; but in other parts of the building, the picturesque has been studied rather than the systematic, without, however, an entire neglect of the latter. For many months has the process of arrangement been carried on by a whole army of gardeners, under Sir Joseph Paxton as commander-in-chief, and Mr. Eyles, as one of his two head generals. Trees and shrubs of considerable size, mostly in boxes, are ranged along both sides of the nave at appropriate intervals, forming a beautiful vista as seen from either end. Then, in front of all the eighteen or twenty courts, Fine Art and Industrial, beds of beautiful flowers are arranged, with winding paths between them, to afford access to the courts, an arrangement singularly novel and refreshing to the eye. A third repository is found in some of the courts themselves, where, as in the Alhambra, plants and flowers can be introduced in harmony with the general style and purport of the court. Another source of arrangement is afforded by the two marble basins—one marble in presenti, and the other marble in futuro: the elegant vases and circular recesses around these basins are filled with exquisite flowers; while, when the hydraulic arrangements shall have been completed, the basins themselves will be filled with aquatic plants, including the widely-renowned Victoria regia. Wherever there are any large spaces between or beyond these courts, these have been filled with plants, sometimes mounted upon or grouped around mounds of root-work. Lastly, suspended from a great height, are upwards of 300 wire flower-baskets, of elegant contour, which furnish a very striking addition to the grandly-beautiful appearance of the nave. Each basket is, internally, a kind of wire hemisphere three or four feet in diameter; and this is enclosed within an outer basket of graceful form and florid decoration—florid, so far as wire-work can be. Each basket is well packed with moss round the interior; rich mould is placed within the moss, and flowers are planted in the mould. The baskets are hung up at regular intervals along both sides of the nave by wire-ropes, which can be raised or lowered; and an ingenious plan is adopted for watering the flowers in the baskets. Flowers with bright colours and drooping tendrils are purposely selected; and nothing can be more pleasing than the appearance thus presented.

A visitor, leisurely strolling along through the building will meet with many plants which attract attention. At one place is the "Elephant's Foot," or testudinaria, one of the oddest of all odd plants. It looks like a block of wood, brown and hard, and furrowed over in a strange manner; it has just two delicate little branches at the top, but else it looks like a huge lifeless lump ; it grows on rocks and barren places. There are multitudes of palms and ferns, which deserve our notice, for the grandeur of their leafy summits. There is the Caffre bread-tree, with its strange shell-like exterior and pulpy interior. There are the tiny oaks in front of the Nineveh Court, grown from acorns brought from Nineveh itself. There are the Egyptian palms, near the Egyptian colossi and sphinxes—palms which, like some other things at the present day, have suffered through the war in the East; for they were detained so long at Malta while the Himalaya was conveying troops to Turkey, that they have not yet recovered from the ill effects of their journey. There are the pomegranate-trees, fittingly placed near the Alhambra, and looking beautiful with their small delicate leaves. There is a goodly number of the orange-trees, which will hold up yet more grandly when they are dressed in their new boxes or cases. There are creepers which, next year, will have crept up to the second tier of girders—some forty feet from the ground.

We have spoken once of the Latania Borbonica, the tallest, and bulkiest, and heaviest plant in the building: it was Loddiges' most choice palm, and has always been highly valued. It is about five-and-thirty feet in height; and at Hackney it had not room to grow, for its top was flattened against the glass roof of the palm- house. Here, however, at Sydenham, it has everybody's permission to grow as tall as it likes. The stem is brown and smooth, covered with a yellowish cuticle in the lower part, and with a peculiar hairy-like envelope higher up; and it has a beautiful plume of fan-like leaves at the summit. There is an interesting bit of history connected with this palm. It was brought originally from the Mauritius, and was once in the collection of the Empress Josephine at Fontainebleau; it was purchased thence by Mr. Evans, of Stepney, and at his decease, in 1814, it came into the possession of Messrs. Loddiges. At that time it was only five feet in height; but in forty years it grew sevenfold. The tree itself weighs upwards of a ton, and, when packed in a box of solid earth, eight feet square, the ponderous mass weighed no less than fifteen tons. When, therefore, the time came for removing the tree from Hackney to Sydenham, great preparations had to be made. Messrs. Younghusband, who have removed the materials of the old Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham, and most of the plants from Hackney to Sydenham, were intrusted with this duty also. A very strong carriage was made, weighing seven tons, and having enormously broad wheels; and on this the tree was placed, strongly incased in timber, with iron bracings, and shored up on either side. Thus arranged, on one fine day towards the end of July, Messrs. Younghusband harnessed about thirty horses to the carriage, and drew the Latania Borbonica in triumph through the streets of London. The fan-like leaves sometimes swept against the three-story windows of the houses, and we may be pretty sure the boys of London had a rich treat in following the waggon.

The plants at Sydenham, as every one is aware, are not confined to the interior of the building. There is a park, which, when completed, will be as instructive to [p. 307] the botanical student as attractive to general visitors for its fountains. And here we will venture to give a few words of advice to visitors, by way of parenthesis. In fine weather, enter the Palace from the railway by way of the park. Do not feel compelled to trudge along the hundreds of feet of glazed corridor, gallery, passage, and wing, and to ascend the formidable flights of stairs, and to pass through so much of the refreshment department before entering the building. There is no occasion for this. There is an entrance into the park immediately adjoining the railway station, and you get into a scene of beauty at once. You have the yet unfinished, but even now striking Rose Temple immediately before you; you have fine gravel-walks winding between grassy plots and beds filled with lovely flowers; you have noble terraces on the left, on the balustrades of which are statues, vases filled with flowers, and some of Louis Philippe's Orange-trees; and. lastly, you have the finest of all possible views of the Crystal Palace itself; for from no point does the grandeur of its garden front become so perceptible as the south-east, within a short distance of the railway station. Of course, in unfavourable weather, it is a good thing to have a covered passage-way from the station to the palace; but at all other times the park route is to be preferred; you are pleased at the outset, and enter the building determined to be pleased with that which is to come.

The Park, so far as plants are concerned, will present very different appearances in different parts. The upper terrace, close to the building, has little besides flowers placed in vases. The lower terrace forms part of the Italian garden, which is laid out with beds of graceful shape, filled with choice shrubs and flowers. Below this is the English garden, presenting, both in its general arrangement and its plants, an analogy to the pleasure-ground or garden of an old English mansion. Many of the trees which formerly occupied this spot have been retained, as forming suitable ornaments for such a garden. There is one cherry-tree which perhaps may, in future years, be pointed out as a memorial; for Sir Joseph Paxton sat under that tree while he sketched the vast idea of the Crystal Palace and its Park.

We have said that one of the two modes by which a systematic arrangement of plants will be adopted, will be put in force in the Park. Under the care of Mr. Milner, who is second in command out of doors, as Mr. Eyles is within, this park-system will gradually be carried out in a somewhat remarkable way. There is to be an Arboretum—a classified arrangement of trees and shrubs. This Arboretum is to assume the form of a broad, well-made gravel-path, bordered on either side with the classified plants. The path will not be straight and monotonous: it will begin near the railway station; it will wind about in graceful curvatures; it will follow in part the borders of the tidal lake, and carry the visitor within easy reach of the geological and fossil specimens; and it will bend east and north of the great fountains until it comes to an end near the north wing of the Palace. Throughout the whole length of this path, the trees, and shrubs, and hardy plants will be arranged according to the system of Jussieu. There will be abundance of labels or inscriptions to denote genera and species, and so forth. Speaking in general terms, and without reference to minute correctness, the Park will ultimately be bounded by the Palace and its wings on the west, and by the Arboretum on the east—the two meeting on the north and the south.

It is obvious at a glance, that many months must elapse before such an Arboretum can be completed; but it is no more than just towards those concerned, to know that plans are in progress for imparting system as well as beauty to the arrangement of the large and fine collection of plants belonging to this company. There is a ragged hilly spot on the south margin of the Park, which is now being formed a collection of ferns, built up on a mass of rock-work, or rather root work, in rather a singular way; but this will form no component part of the Arboretum.—Chambers' Journal.

The Floricultural Cabinet, and Florists Magazine
Joseph Harrison
Whitaker & Co., 1854

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