Tropical plant dreaming (Plant Portrait IX*)

Botanical glasshouses are a place to dream. As are tea shops. Early in James Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom stares through a window at a canister of tea from Ceylon, thinking:

... The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence on the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of Idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic Gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves. Imagine trying to eat trip and cowheel …

Bloom/Joyce is musing on the tropics being the bounteous and slothful garden of the world. Good that a botanic gardens hothouse is mentioned. Joyce presumably had the one at Glasnevin, in Dublin, in mind so my first four images are of that conservatory, taken during a visit in June 2010.

The Conservatory at Glasnevin is a particular kind of glasshouse, one that is more about content than context. You enter to learn about tropical, and other plants, not to necessarily experience the tropics. This is as much a function of size and budget, as it is of intent - it takes a mighty lot of room and money to recreate even a mock tropical environment inside a house made of glass.

And there is nothing wrong with displays of this kind. Much of the plant collection in the glasshouses of Kew Gardens, and plenty of other leading botanic gardens around the world, is displayed like this. Visitors learn about particular species and about how plants they eat or grow in their garden once grew in liana ridden forests near the equator (or elsewhere). 

But even in Glasnevin it's not all plant diversity and straight laced displays. Here is picture deep into the glasshouse, with some tropical atmosphere and context.

At the other end of the spectrum we have glasshouses that are big on context and, usually quite deliberately, thin on content. I'll take the liberty of repeated two images from earlier posts, the first from South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou, the other from Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. They are very much about creating an atmosphere and sense of being in a tropical forest. 

If you look beyond the mist and behind the waterfall, the plant selection is not particularly true to a rainforest of any kind or demonstrating any natural diversity or ecosystem. It's all about the vibe, as we Australians like to say - at least since the line was used with such impact in the film The Castle. The designers of these two glasshouses are quite aware and comfortable with this.

So.... what about here in Melbourne. Our rather plain and small Tropical House in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens is about content, albeit with a pretty design to bring the best out of the collection. We had someone recently describe it as their favourite place to visit in the city. They liked its dagginess I think. It is quaint and it does have a familiar and evocative feel about it, harking back to simple days. Nothing grand, nothing showy, understated...all the things we like in Australia. that enough. Is it?

I have grand plans to build a new glasshouse in the Royal Botanic Gardens. I don't want a temple for botanists nor a tropical themed wallpaper. I want context and content. I'd like a place where people could gather and learn, perhaps over one of those great coffees I'm so keen on (a meeting place like no other, with a backdrop like that imagined by Mr Bloom in the Dublin tea shop). But also a place that brings the tropics (or some other place) to life, in all senses of that phrase.

Somehow this has to fit within the heritage landscape of the Royal Botanic Gardens, adding rather than subtracting from the spectacle (as does Guilfoyle's Volcano). It should also have a minimal impact on the environment through clever heating and cooling. I'm sure our bright minds at the Gardens will come up with a solution that does all this and more. If that 'more' includes the plants Rafflesia and Victoria in bloom, I shall be much pleased.

Images: for more pictures of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, see my post on various gardens from Ireland back in 2010. For more on South China Botanical Garden is my 2009 post and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, my post earlier this year. Below is a bust of the author (of Ulysses, not this post) in the Martello Tower museum at Sandycove, near Dublin.

*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.


Your plans for RBG Melbourne sound exciting,Tim. Perhaps a research trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall would be valuable.
Stuart Williams said…
I agree that it would be good to develop a glasshouse that has planting representing an actual tropical ecosystem. There could be additional exhibition wings with "celebrity species" and seasonal display gardens. But it would take a lot of space to do this successfully, especially catering for the large number of visitors this would potentially attract. Perhaps it’s time to consider long-term planning for a third campus of the RBG ...
Talking Plants said…
Thanks for feedback (other than companies specialising in authentic Provence...). Eden Project is a favourite of mine and they do lots of things really well - including strong messaging about why they are there (to connect people with plants). There glasshouses are much bigger than I would want but they do use some good sustainable principles. So a good model. In regard to a third campus for RBG, that's always a possibility and not something I would discount. Need to make sure we can look after it of course, while maintaining the two we have already! Tim