This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
It is singular that with all the criticisms indulged in on Kings and Queens and Nobles, the world is largely indebted to them for very much of which it is proud; and this is especially true of the world in regard to some of the finest monuments that have been dedicated to flowers and gardening generally. The beautiful gardens I have given the reader a brief glimpse of - Le Jardin des Plantes - was in a great measure the idea of King Henry IV., who seems to have been a ruler who was actuated by a sincere desire to seek above all the happiness and welfare of his people. Moquet, a French traveler of that time, had brought a collection of foreign plants on his return, which were cultivated in the garden of the Louvre by the young lad who exhibited a strong taste for gardening, and at that early age he conceived the idea of drawing the French people nearer to friendship and brotherhood with foreign nations by the culture of foreign flowers. The idea developed and grew till these gardens were ultimately placed on a permanent foundation by Louis XIII.
Then there are the Royal Gardens at Kew; but suppose we now leave France and take a look at this famous establishment before bringing the reader back to American shores.
I had about written thus far when the morning's mail brings my usual bag full, and opening one of the book packages is a pretty volume in green and gold. " Historia Filicum, by John Smith, ex-curator of the Royal Gardens, Kew;" and on the fly-leaf " Mr. Thomas Meehan, with the kind regards and rememberances of his old master, the Author." It brought to my mind more vividly than did my recent visit, the Kew of some thirty-five years ago. The pupils of that day are scattered, and many of them gone! Seeman's bones are in the swamps of Central America, and Mclvor's among the hills of the East Indies; but the"old master" still lives, though probably much beyond his eightieth year. About twenty acres comprised all in that day. The kitchen garden was still walled in, and the pleasure grounds fenced off; still in a measure Royal private grounds. Sir William J. Hooker had but comparatively recently been appointed to the directorship, and my " old master" to the •curatorship. Dr. Lindley had been strongly pressed for the directorship, but Sir William obtained the place.
It was fortunate for the world that it was; for Botany and Horticulture all over the world has been moved by Kew; and I am quite sure that Kew owes more of its present famous magnificerce to Sir William Hooker than the outside world has the least idea of. No one questions his devotion to science; but he knew that science, after all, has to be supported by the people, and he was willing that the people should have benefits at Kew as well as scientists. The Economic Museum grew out of this desire. Specimens of those vegetable products useful in the arts and sciences were arrayed for public inspection; florists' flowers, flower beds, and pleasant drives and walks were not forgotten; and, while science found all it expected, scientific instruction was so blended with floral pleasure that the people were not jealous. All were satisfied, and peer and peasant, the learned and the unlearned, were proud of the gardens, and only too glad to see them receive support. This is how matters stood when I was with my " old master." I was not surprised to find that Kew had grown; anything so wisely planned must grow; but 1 was surprised to find it now a giant, so to speak - 400 acres !
Of all my haunts in the Old World, I was sure I should know Kew. In my mind I could see the little old tavern where the stage coach stopped, when a lad of 17, I was tipped out with his trunk in order to run a two years' course of study here. I was sure I should recognize the little old village houses in which my fellow students, keeping themselves on ten shillings a week, had to sleep in the garrets, and, as they used playfully to say, to lie in their beds and study astronomy through the chinks in the tile-roofs. There was no doubt I could go to the exact spot where we used to gather the rare grass, Cynodon dactyton, and exchange our treasure for herbarium specimens with other botanists elsewhere. Above all, I should know the old Cactus House, to the care of which I was banished for many months for refusing, boy-like, to"peach on other fellows" who had broken the rules. But I could see nothing of any of these, and I could no more tell that I had ever known these gardens by anything I could see than if I had not been alive thirty-three years before. Prof. Thistleton Dyer and Mr. Nicholson kindly received me. and they had probably not then been born; and though Mr. John Smith was still curator, it was not the Mr. John Smith, my master, of the olden time.
Mr. Smith, with a kindness I shall not soon forget, insisted in personally escorting me through the grounds, though the numerous calls on his attention leave him scarcely any time to properly perform duties which must be done. I fear he found me for some time a dull companion, for I am sure with old remembrances crowding on me, I never in all my journeyings felt so much like a stranger in a strange land. At last we came to the arboretum, and there at least were the old trees, old acquaintances, just as I had pictured them in my mind, and apparently just the same as they ever were. I suppose they must have grown some in all that time, but it did not seem so. I measured the Turkey Oak, 15 feet in girth, and the spread of its head was 90 feet; and the old Robinia - our Yellow Locust, was 12 feet 10 inches around; of course they could not have been so large when I first saw them.
Our American Oaks seem to do very well at Kew, and I fancy do most of our American trees. The largest Liriodendrons I have seen any where in England were here. It would be useless to attempt a detailed description of a huge place like this. There are houses for Palms, for Ferns, for Orchids, for Aquatics, for New Holland plants, for Succulents, and for innumerable other classes of plants, not all down in one bunch to save room and work, as in a commercial establishment, but with some view to landscape gardening effect. In this respect the great Palm House, of course, stands preeminent. I think it must be somewhere about 200 feet long by 70 feet wide, and there are galleries along which you can walk and be in among the branches of the trees planted in the earth, and look down on the fronds of the Palms and Ferns below. One does not know how beautiful these things are till he has a chance to view in this manner on these full-grown things. There was a Dicksonia antarctica, an Australian tree Fern, whose nest-like fronds, I remember, had a diameter across the head of eighteen feet. " Why cannot we have houses like this in our country ?" Ask the frost king. This huge pile only takes six boilers to heat it.
I suppose, said I to Mr. Smith, " it must take a little fortune in coal to warm it." '• Yes, " he said, " we use 300 tons of coke." " Do you have it very cold in the Winter?" " Yes, the thermometer generally goes down to twenty, and sometimes to fifteen below freezing point." And we could have houses, too, if this were all. It would cost us as much in one year as it costs the Kew house in ten.
The young students are much better cared for than " when we were young." A laboratory is just finished, in which lectures by Baker, Hems-ley, Brown, and others, on plant life are given, and every convenience for the young men to experiment in Botanical problems are afforded. There is a library of 300 volumes at their command; and besides all this, the wonderful abundance of living plants from all quarters of the globe.
Are the young men of the present time any better for all these facilities? I cannot say. Moore tells us of " Love, all defying love, who sees No gain in trophies won with ease".
And I am not sure but it is as true of love of one's profession as of the gentler passion. I can only say that Mr. Smith thinks they are immensely benefited, and that he sees an increasing desire on the part of the students to avail themselves of the increased advantages. It is wonderful how popular these gardens are with the people. The average attendance during the past year was 5000 a day. The heaviest visits are on Sundays and during the Summer months; these may be 18, 000. As many as 25, 000 have been there of a single Sunday afternoon. Notwithstanding these immense crowds, Mr. Smith says no serious damages have ever been done. Ten guards over these four hundred acres, keep in good order this huge mass of people.
But I feel that I am tresspassing on the reader's good nature. Who wants to hear stories a year old ? I know there are a few partial friends, who are pleased, but there are thousands from whom I do not hear, and who must naturally wish me to stop.
It is strange how we can travel in these days! I had barely passed out of range of the odor of the eglantine in the Old World, before, from the Capes of the Delaware, the sweet smell of the Indian corn was wafted over our good steamer; and I must confess it came as gratefully as incense to a heaven-thirsting soul. I never thought Indian corn so truly sweet, and yet the poems are all dedicated to the " Hawthorn's blossom!" There, on the 5th of June, in the "Pennsylvania, " I lost sight of America, and here on the same spot, on the 30th of July, the " Ohio" had me back. I only ran across for a little rest. It was my desire to steal away and get back, and nobody be the wiser therefor but myself. But I had the misfortune to " get in the papers, " and this and other work has been the consequence. However, if I have interested the reader, I shall be happy.