Volcanic aftermath leads to potatoes and a botanic garden in Geneva (Plant Portrait VI*)

My companion at a dinner last month said it was the volcanic eruption in 1815 that led to the establishment of the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques in Geneva. The smoky skies led to six months of starvation across Europe, I thought I heard him say.

The rest was lost in the muffled conversations that I now enjoy in any busy restaurant or function centre. This time it was the town hall of Dunedin, soon after it had been announced that the next Global (World) Botanic Gardens Congress was to be held in Geneva in 2017.

Later, though, as I trawled the remains of my high school European history chronology I couldn't place a volcanic eruption in Europe, in that century, or having any impact on the Napoleonic events around that time. So I did the obvious thing and searched for '1815' and 'volcano' on the closest e-device.

Sure enough, there was a major volcanic eruption in that year. Coincidentally, a recent issue of New Scientist waiting for me in my office when I returned to Melbourne included an article on volcanoes that have altered our climate over the last 70,000 years. The eruption of Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, in 1815 killed about 71,000 people locally and changed the world climate for the next six months. Europe, it said, had a 'year without a summer'.

That summerless year was the making of the Geneva botanic garden according to my Swiss friend in New Zealand. But why? Some further searching revealed a short backgrounder to the first botanical garden in Geneva by René Sigrist and Patrick Bungener.

In the eighteenth century Geneva was blessed with a number of large private gardens that fulfilled some of the desires we have for botanic gardens. They were full of interesting plants from all over the world, including in the garden of Paul Gaussen, the oldest female ginkgo in Europe. Until the end of that century, it seems, this specimen was the source of all ginkgos kept in the gardens of mainland Europe.

I've told before the story of this ginkgo growing in the Montpellier's botanic garden, how it was donated by Joseph Banks and on the ordered of Napoleon I planted out in 1795 after the then Director hid it in his home garden to protect it during the Revolution. 

Relevant to my tale about Geneva, this male tree had a female branch grafted onto it in 1835. That branch was sourced from the only known female tree then in Europe, in Geneva. I'm presuming it was from Gaussen's garden. In Montpellier it set fruit in 1835 and the now bisexual tree is thriving today, or at least in 2008 when I visited it.

But we are ahead of ourselves. Geneva had lots of lovely large gardens as the eighteenth century drew to a close but no botanic garden. Or at least no public botanic garden. Frédéric-Guillaume Marice created a garden in the 1780s where he planted plants scientifically and took meticulous climatic measurements to better understand their growing requirements.

In 1793, a 0.2 hectare (botanic) garden with a fountain and a place to store preserved plants (a herbarium) was created from a bequest left by Charles Bonnet. In the following year Geneva was short of food, particularly corn, and the 'botanic garden' began to introduce new foods, such as the potato, into local diets and cultivation.

This modest success encouraged the Genevois to plan for a much grander botanic garden in their city, but without any success until Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (a famous botanist in the days when botanists were also famous phycologists - he was a hero of mine during my early studies of algae) arrived in town.

De Candolle had been Director of Montpellier's botanic garden between 1808 and 1806, caring for Banks' gingko when it was entirely male. He returned to his home city in 1816 on the understanding that a proper botanic garden would be built but without any guarantee of funding.

Apart from raising the money, which de Candolle began to do almost immediately, he needed a place to build the garden. As luck would have it, the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia led to another food shortage in Geneva (the year without a summer) and de Candolle claimed an abandoned area to grow potatoes.This time de Candolle was able to maintain public support for botany and in April 1819 the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques was officially opened to the public.

So back to my dinner conversation in Dunedin. In four years time Geneva will celebrate the 200 years or so since the volcano in Indonesia led to the growing of potatoes in Geneva which led to the establishment of its renowned botanic garden and which surely helped get a cutting of a local gingko sent to the Director's old haunt in Montpellier. At least that's probably what I was told.

Images: The picture of Tambora volcano is from Wikipedia.

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.


Anonymous said…
Excellent story Tim, I' m learning heaps from your blogs. Thank you. Sarah West Dean
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks Sarah! Always good to hear they are appreciated. Tim