This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V26", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
The peculiar attraction of a tropical forest is not a little hightened by that air of mystery which prevails over the impenetrable chaos. Though there be the gigantic trunks of the fathers of the forest, with a canopy of foliage, however not their own; in their giant limbs an ever-changing world of leaves, flowers and fruits, excluding from view, together with the heavens, the tops of the trees; and as marvelous as appears, in shape and color, what can be seen, yet our never-resting fancy imagines still greater wonders beyond, where the human eye or foot is unable to penetrate. There is not one tree like its neighbor; no class of plants is represented in masses; every step reveals different forms, different colors; everything is so unlike the other, that it is impossible to give or gain an idea of a tropical forest in the most glowing description, which reality mocks and defies in its chaotic assemblage and endless variety of species, even of the same genus. In one single region of the mountains of Java, for instance, may be found over one hundred different kinds of trees of the Fig tribe.
As manifold in form, color and odor as the high trees and palms are, so diversified are also the lower plants, which cover the humid ground; especially where the forest grows less dense or a stream, a brook, winds its way through a labyrinth, richer and grander than the wildest fancy could picture it to us. When we listen with eager attention to the narratives of the adventures of travelers in foreign countries, giving a vivid description of their resources and natural products, we learn to understand how the interest these parts of the world have for us, in both an economical and a scientific point of view; and the usefulness or necessity of an acquaintance with them, has caused our fathers to bring to our northern latitudes as many plants and animals as circumstances permitted; and the inhabitants of most of the great cities have, during the last decennium, constructed pleasant gardens, in which the animal world of foreign climes is cultivated. They have built palaces for tigers and antelopes, for monkeys and elephants; nor have they forgotten themselves, that they might listen, not only to the frightful roaring of the lion, but also to the charming music of Mozart and Wagner. The tropical floral world alone, which should have had the precedence, was kept in the background, and only for scientific purposes, suffered in botanic gardens and narrow premises of a few private amateurs.
It had not yet been employed as a powerful means for grand decorative purposes, the cultivation of aesthetics and the refinement of the masses of the people. This now, is no longer so, since the Flora at Berlin has been completed, of which, it is universally admitted, the tropical garden forms the most interesting and attractive part, being connected with the largest and most elegant music hall in the metropolis of German intelligence, and for which one horticultural firm alone, that of James Booth at Hamburg, furnished tropical plants, principally palms, to the amount of fifty-eight thousand thalers (about forty thousand dollars). The large capital laid out by the society, consisting of enthusiastic amateurs, is on a fair way to prove as good an investment as that of the Frankfort Society Palm Garden. Visitors from far and near flock to these places, and, for a fee, less than a quarter, pass hours of leisure in healthy enjoyment, and gather useful information, wandering, as it were, through countries thousands of miles away. Here a majestic forest has been planted, a forest whose home is beyond the sea, in the far off sunny South. Its trees do not fraternize with the German oak, the beech or fir, whose branches are intertwined like clasping arms of love and joined hands of friendship.
Single and motionless, there they stand, the proud foreigners; no storm bending their slender stems, no gentle breeze moving their leafy crowns; nor does that fresh and sappy green of a northern spring shine refreshingly through the eye into our hearts. No murmuring sounds are heard from their lofty tops; mute and still they look down, bewitching us with a different charm, awakening foreign pictures, bewildering visions in our fancy, and causing a yearning for a distant paradise. Like the forest of Dunsinnane to the castle of the passionate Scot, has this forest come to us, only more peaceably, friendly - and from a far greater distance - for palms they are, that bear their noble heads aloof under the protecting baldachin of glass. From the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon, they wandered to the flat, sandy banks of that sluggish river, meandering through the Prussian capital. In naming these distant rivers together, the imagination, aided by art and skill, alone can accomplish a connection. And they have accomplished it in the Flora at Berlin.
Being an enthusiastic horticulturist, it is just for the sake of this, my favorite art, that I again appeal to the true friends of horticulture in behalf of a winter or tropical garden, as already proposed and but rudely sketched in former articles published in this and other papers. I have no doubt that if the character of such a work of combined art and science were fully or at least better understood by our wealthy and influential lovers and patrons of art and science, we would not have much longer to wait for the realization of it; and with perhaps still better success than they in Europe, under difficulties unknown to us have been able to accomplish - an enterprise which is sure to meet with an enthusiastic and hearty approval by all whose sympathies are not yet entirely absorbed by horse, politics or money.
In soliciting the favor of those who are expected to advance the necessary means, one of the hardest obstacles to overcome is the generally prevailing opinion that a suitable building must be something like an elaborate Fairmount Hall, and therefore, by its expensiveness in construction and ornamentation, absorb the greater part of the availing funds for ends altogether foreign to the main purpose. It should be borne in mind that the first object in building a Conservatory is to construct something to answer a special purpose, and not something to be looked at; it is to work and not to look well. After the first is obtained and the second can be added, then, of course, there would never be an objection, provided it can be done without impairing in the least the first. But I doubt, nay, positively deny the possibility to do so; and if all the artists in the world, with the engineers into the bargain, were to put their wits and ingenuity together, they could not produce anything deserving the predicate, beautiful.
The futile efforts, which nevertheless some men, unconscious of the fact that they are void of that sense of the beautiful and the perfect which is one of the highest attributes of our nature, must be classed with those of invent-, ing the perpetuum mobile or the quadrature of the circle. To exhibit such curious structures conspicuously in our parks, is, therefore, an act incompatible with good taste and contrary to the idea of a park, for it is contrary to the idea of the beautiful and the picturesque; and our parks should never be allowed to become a convenient depository for miscellaneous productions of uncultured manufacturers and would-be artists. A committee on art, consisting exclusively of recognized judges in aesthetics, should keep a watchful eye on the purity of the park, and prevent its being disfigured with pretended works of art, and thus become an instrument rather to deteriorate than to elevate the taste of the people. It is unnecessary to build (as has been tried) the house high enough for the accommodation of full grown palms, some of which attain to the height of one hundred and eighty feet; and even if it could be done, it would not be a wise thing to do.
To construct, however, a series of light roofs, from fifty to sixty feet high at the ridges, and covering an area wide enough to be shaped and planted so as to represent abstracts from tropical forests and scenes in their most characteristic features is, with our present technical facilities, a matter comparatively easy and one of at least as much interest as an aquarium or a zoological garden. That the idea has as yet not met with more favor and active interest amongst our philanthropic and more cultivated "prominent citizens," is not the fault of the idea, only it has not originated with a well known "leading " man, a recognized authority. Although I have found as yet but very little encouragement in my unceasing endeavors, except from a few, but not sufficiently influential men, who fully understand the merits of the matter, it will nevertheless finally find its successful advocates, and in every well regulated community be considered as well a desirable, if not indispensable institute, as theatres, lecture-rooms or public gardens, only available during our short summers.
In fact such an institution should be connected with a theater, a hall for concerts, lectures, receptions, grand festivals, exhibitions' social gatherings, or museums and libraries; then it would form the focus of the culture, refinement, and the intelligence of every place where it existed. It would be the true modern Lyceum.