The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 5: Gardens in Asia, America, Africa, Australia

History of Calcutta Botanic Garden

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759. The botanic garden of Calcutta was established in 1768, and has been subsequently greatly enlarged. In 1793, when Dr. Roxburgh was appointed curator, it contained only 300 species; but this indefatigable botanist soon increased the mumber to 3500, as appears by the catalogue of the garden printed at Singapore in 1814. Dr. Roxburgh died in that year, and was succeeded by the no less indefatigable botanist, Dr. Wallich, whose botanical exertions in Nepal are well known in Europe. The following agreeable description of this garden is given by Bishop Heber : - 'The botanic garden at Calcutta is a very beautiful and well-managed institution, enriched, besides the noblest trees and most beautiful plants of India, with a vast collection of exotics, chiefly collected by Dr. Wallich himself, in Nepal, Pulo Penang, Sumatra, and Java, and increased by contributions from the Cape, Brazil, and many different parts of Africa and America, as well as Australia and the South Sea Islands. It is not only a curious, but a picturesque and most beautiful scene ; and more perfectly answers Milton's idea of Paradise, except that it is on a dead flat instead of a hill, than any thing which I ever saw. Among the exotics I noticed the nutmeg, a pretty tree, something like a myrtle, with a beautiful peach-like blossom, but too delicate for the winter even of Bengal, and therefore placed in the most sheltered situation, and carefully matted round. The sago palm is a tree of great, singularity and beauty, and in a grove or avenue produces an effect of striking solemnity not unlike that of Gothic architecture. There were some splendid South American creepers ; some plantains, from the Malayan Archipelago, of vast size and great beauty; and, what excited a melancholy kind of interest, a little wretched oak, kept alive with difficulty under a sky and in a temperature so perpetually stimulating, which allowed it no repose, or time to shed its leaves, and recruit its powers by hybernation. Some of the other trees, of which I had formed the greatest expectations, disappointed me; such as the pine of New Caledonia, which does not succeed here : at least, the specimen which was shown me was weak-looking and diminutive, in comparison with the prints in Cook's Voyages, the recollection of which is strongly imprinted on my mind, though I have not looked at them since I was a boy. Of the enormous size of the adansonia, a tree from the neighbourhood of Gambia and Senegal, I had heard much ; the elephant of the vegetable creation ! I was, however, disappointed. The tree is doubtless wonderful, and the rapidity of its growth is still more wonderful than its bulk; but it is neither particularly tall nor stately. Its bulk consists in an enormous enlargement of its circumference immediately above the roots, and for a comparatively small height up its stem ; which rather resembles that disease of the leg which bears the elephant's name, than tallies with his majestic and well-proportioned, though somewhat unwieldy, stature. Dr. Wallich had the management of another extensive public establishment at Chitty-ghur, near Barrackpoor, of the same nature with this, but appropriated more to the introduction of useful plants into Bengal. He is himself a native of Denmark, but left his country young, and has devoted his life to natural history and botany in the East. His character and conversation are more than usually interesting ; the first, all frankness, friendliness, and ardent zeal for the service of science ; the last, enriched by a greater store of curious information relating to India and the neighbouring countries, than any which I have yet met with. These different public establishments used to be all cultivated by the convicts in chains, of whom I have already spoken. In the botanic garden, their labour is now supplied by peasants hired by the day or week ; and the exchange is found cheap, as well as otherwise advantageous and agreeable ; the labour of freemen here, as elsewhere, being infinitely cheaper than that of slaves.' (Narr. of a Journey, &c., vol. i. p. 41.)