Thursday, 10 January 2013

A Cabinet of Botanical Curiosities


Curious? I'll return to the photo later, but firstly some musings as I prepare to leave London for Melbourne.

Curiosity is something I think botanic gardens and museums do well, or should do well. Every display or exhibit worth its salt makes us curious, and glasshouses particularly conjure up a sense of wonder as you step into a new, often steamy, world.

So I've been thinking about the potential of the glasshouses in all three botanic gardens I've worked in. The Princess of Wales Conservatory here at Kew perhaps does it best: ten different climates, thousands of different plants, regular show-stoppers like the Titan Arum, and animals! The piranhas and water dragons may not be plants but they draw in the curious, who then see plants.



In the case of Kew's Palm House, the exterior is the attraction.



In Australian botanic gardens, glasshouses are less important for displaying the world's plants. Quite a few of the climatic zones under glass at Kew are found outdoors in Sydney or Melbourne, but for curiosity you can't beat a glasshouse. And there is still room for planting evocative landscapes (remember the glasshouse in South China Botanical Garden?), situating your curious plant in something like its natural habitat or creating some other satisfying plant association (a mass of colourful orchids for example).




My dream, and one I might explore with my new colleagues at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, is a glasshouse converted into a Cabinet of Botanical Curiosities. I can see an artistically decorated glasshouse with changing exhibits to demonstrate the odd and appealing parts of the plant world. There would be publications to go with the plants, a conversation (social media) and perhaps some radio and television. 

I know it's not a particularly novel concept. The Renaissance was awash with such things and more recently there has been a spate of '100 things that changed the world'. But that's OK. It still might be a good idea.











Take your pick.

To get things started I'm going to use my hitherto inactive Talking Plants Too blog to store the names, and perhaps a few pictures and notes, of plants that might coalesce into this cabinet, and perhaps a book or booklets.

The plants must be interesting and/or important. If not strange, outlandish, bizarre, bewildering, bewitching, baffling or odd (things that I find interesting), they should be of great significance, consequence or value (which is what I gather important means).

In the interesting category I would include...

Big ones: Amorphophallus titanum; Rafflesia sp.; Victoria amazonica/cruziana; largest orchid, cactus etc. flower; fungi (basidiomycetes)...

Little ones: Wolfsia; Nymphaea thermarum (alongside Victoria); smallest orchid flower; cryptogams (models of algae/desmid, fungi and bryophytes)...

Fast ones: Stylidium (Trigger plant; also stilt plants from WA); moss capsule; that Cornus that does something interesting...

And for now, other ones: Welwitschia mirabilis; Dracena draco (Dragon-blood Tree); Jade vine (vivid blue-green flowers); Aristolochia (Pelican Flower); carnivorous plants, odd cacti and succulents...










If we go down the important road, these are the kinds of banners that might drape across the glasshouse door. The second one might have an aquatic companion volume called Plants with a Porpoise...J. More seriously, it would be useful to look at the way plants, and the way we use plants, respond to two big elemental threats in Australia - fire and (lack of) water.

So what do I want from you, and me? Ideas, inspiration and irritations. I think I'll curate Talking Plants Too as a bit of scrap book and not worry too much about prosaic posts. For example, my first post will simply be a picture of a Western Australian trigger plant on tiny stilts. That's all. I think it's interesting, or at least curious, and I'll look into it some more later.

And the cricket photo? Well that's just to get your attention. It's from the Herald Sun, a few years back. It's the "Science Minister's XI", selected to take on a visiting English team. This was in the days when Australia won and England lost, but even then we might have struggled (especially with the botanist at the left). The picture and story was an attempt by the then Minister Brendan Nelson to get some media attention for science. He'd been frustrated by the lack of coverage for his government's recent injection of funds into science, commenting that perhaps we'd do better if we put scientists into cricket uniforms. This was the result...

Other images: The pyramid is part of Sydney's Tropical Centre; the photo of the Titan Arum in from Melbourne's Tropical Glasshouse this Christmas (c/o ABC News]; and the other glasshouse interior is Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens.

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