- since 2011 -

Raise the Botanic

Monday, 11 July 2011

Flowers on the Mersey, in a space-age garden, two centuries after Liverpool opened its first exotic hothouse. Just a crazy dream...

"Let's put a controversial building on Liverpool's Pier Head and call it the Fourth Grace." Why? "Because we need something big and iconic for 2008 and all that." And what exactly will it do? "Don't quite know." Failed.

"How about one of those shiny new skyscrapers that have gone up in every other British provincial city?" Why? "Because it'll be a spectacular new addition to the Liverpool skyline." And what exactly will it do? "Have loads of flats in it with breathtaking views, and some offices and cafés and...stuff." Passed, for want of something marginally more imaginative.

"Next up, a brand new Museum of Liverpool, on the site of the proposed Fourth Grace." Why? "Because it's cultural and it's about Liverpool." And what exactly will it do? "Enable us to exhibit everything that was in the Museum of Liverpool Life, plus loads of other fascinating historical stuff that we've never had the space or opportunity to display." Passed, with distinction.

My turn now, as along as we all pretend we're in a parallel universe unfettered by recession and short-sightedness. It's proposal for Liverpool's waterfront that is environmentally-friendly, captures the spirit of our age and revives a fabulous but practically forgotten tradition. Namely the Mersey Biome, 200 years on from the city's original Botanic Gardens founded by the great William Roscoe.

Biosphere at Genoa

Biosphere at Genoa

That's biome as in state-of-the-art greenhouse. They've got one in Genoa, 2004's European Capital of Culture. It's small but perfectly formed and looks great on their waterfront. They've got one in St Austell, and like the Eden Project Liverpool could build its version from ETFE, a transparent, durable and light (one per cent of the weight of glass) material. But the Mersey Biome doesn't have to be anywhere near as massive.

Inside Liverpool would house its own very treasure of exotic flora, once among the premier European collections of orchids and bromeliads (rainforest plants) and still one of the largest municipal collections in the country. It's been dispersed and stored indefinitely at various sites ever since the most recent Liverpool Botanic Gardens, located in Calderstones Park, closed in the early 1980s.

Last but not least, we could resuscitate the Calderstones collection as well as signposting the various specimens now held at Sefton Park's Palm House, World Museum and the University of Liverpool's Ness Gardens as part of an all-new Roscoe Botanic Trail. Eco-tourism with a genuine, historical raison d'etre; a project as educational as it is aesthetic, located perhaps at Princes Dock - a fragrant nexus between the Pier Head and Peel's proposed Liverpool Waters development along the Central Docks. Madness, I know.

Botany always has been a Liverpool thing. If you're holidaying in the North West Himalayas or Nepal later this year, look out for the Roscoe Purpurea 9,000ft up, first named and described by Sir James E Smith in honour of William Roscoe in 1805, and first observed to flower at the Liverpool Botanic Gardens in 1823.

William Roscoe and the original Botanic Gardens plan

William Roscoe and the original Botanic Gardens plan

Roscoe of course was one of Liverpool's greatest sons. A man of letters, occasional poet, historian and slavery abolitionist, he assisted American artist John James Audubon in his publishing of the magnificent Birds of America (see the copy in Central Library).

He was also a botanist at a time when botany was all the rage, with new and strange plants being discovered by explorers and collectors all over the world. Swedish scientist Carolus Linneaus had devised a system whereby all flowering plants could be placed in one or other of 24 classes, according to the number of stamens and styles possessed by the flower. Around the same time, Sir Joseph Banks accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage round the world (1768-1771), collecting plants from South America, Cape Horn, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the Cape of Good Hope.

With the help of John Rutter (a Quaker who also founded the Medical Institution in Mount Pleasant) and William Lace (a boy's-own adventurer who'd captained privateers, fought the French fleet, explored parts of Africa and given possibly the first-ever description of a gorilla), Roscoe founded the Liverpool Botanic Gardens in 1802.

In its prospectus he wrote: 'The establishment of Botanic Gardens in the neighbourhood of the town is at present a desirable and obtainable object. Even the cultivation of the fine arts, however alluring in its progress, must yield to the superiority of the study of nature; for who will venture to compare the productions of the painter and sculptor with the original? It is necessary for the progress of science that the student should be supplied with actual living specimens'.

Genoa's waterfront

The Gardens were laid out on five acres of land near Mount Pleasant, at the top of today's Myrtle Street where it joins Crown Street (behind the Women's Hospital where Minster Court now stands). Myrtle, like nearby Vine, Grove, Mulberry, Almond and Walnut Streets, commemorates their presence.

They consisted of five conservatories, together 240ft long and 24ft high, and capable of being heated to different temperatures to grow plants from any part of the planet - particularly orchids, ferns and members of the ginger family such as turmeric and cardamom. By 1808 the number of kinds of plants, shrubs and trees was over 1,000.

The Gardens were very much a private venture, though, with admission by ticket only and members of the Royal Family often on the guest list. The curator was John Shepherd, a learned horticulturalist who together with Roscoe procured plants, roots and seeds from other gardens and nurseries at home and abroad, enlisting the help of travellers and sea captains.

They sent Scottish botanist John Bradbury 1,600 miles up the Missouri (see below) and were visited by Sir James E Smith, who'd surreptitiously purchased the original Linnean collections for 900 guineas in Scandinavia and been chased back to England by a Swedish frigate. Cuttings from Mount Pleasant were sent as gifts to a new botanic garden in St Petersburg, and in 1826 Shepherd was invited to the Russian Embassy in London to be presented with a diamond ring from Tsar Alexander.

In a 1950s essay about Roscoe, historian H Stansfield wrote: 'Special social functions were arranged at the Liverpool Gardens, and they were attended by the elite of the town. On summer evenings the proprietors, their families and friends, took strolls round the grounds admiring the flowers, or through the conservatories to see the first blooms of some rare orchid from the faraway tropics...

'Throughout the year, there was a succession of blossoms, among them: Arabian jasmine, pepper, papyrus, sugar cane, coffee, mango, gardenias, asclepias, guava, pomegranate, custard apple, tamarinds, cotton, hibiscus, coral tree, vanilla, papaw, banana, figs and mimosa'.

Shepherd died in 1836, and Liverpool's exponential growth forced a withdrawal to Edge Lane in Wavertree where a new glasshouse was built in an 11-acre walled garden. Five years later it was taken over by Liverpool Corporation and opened to the general public, and the emphasis upon science and discovery diminished. When the site was damaged by an air raid in 1940 the collection was moved to Calderstones Park.

In the late 1960s Daily Post columnist Richard Whittington-Egan recalled, 'Entering that great hothouse [in Wavertree] you were, in an instant, transported from the cold, smoke-stained air of Liverpool into the warm, perfumed atmosphere of kinder climes. And all about you bloomed a lush jungle of exotic plant life. There was even a grove of miniature orange trees, while a magnificent display of orchids and an extensive collection of carnivorous plants, which you could watch as they caught and ate insects, were always great attractions...

'I cannot help feeling a sneaking regret at the passing of one of the very first lungs of this city and casting an affectionate glance back to the days when, for more than a century, you could be sure of finding palms and papyrus growing in Edge Lane'.

In turn, the glasshouse at Calderstones was opened in 1964 with great fanfare by Sir George Taylor, director of Kew. Just 20 years later it was 'decommissioned' and the core of the collection is now kept - not on public display - in Garston.

Today Britain loves its environment, and Liverpool's waterfront is arguably cleaner than at any point since the port's earliest awakenings. Time to go green and not only re-open the city's celebrated Botanic Gardens but move them back to the centre of town. The Liverpool Biome: a 'desirable and obtainable object' of which Mr Roscoe would be exceedingly proud.

Where to see Liverpool's botanic beauties...

Sefton Park Palm House: provides a home for some of the original collection, with 'Olive' the date palm as the centrepiece. Look for the Dendrobium pierardii, an orchid originally from India, China and the Himalayas and first to flower in the Botanic Gardens in 1812. World Museum: its herbarium contains 350,000 items, including material collected on Captain Cook's second voyage to the South Seas, and plants bequeathed to the Liverpool Royal Institution by the British East India Company. Ness Gardens: on the slopes of the Dee estuary and developed in 1898 as the private gardens of Arthur Kilpin Bulley, one of the foremost supporters of plant hunters in the early 20th century. Now part of the University of Liverpool, with 46 acres open to the public.

Mersey to Missouri

Among the exotic flora now held at World Museum are specimens from North America collected by John Bradbury, a Scottish botanist sponsored by the Liverpool Botanic Gardens to explore the Missouri River in 1811. Upon his arrival Bradbury was personally welcomed by Thomas Jefferson, who arranged for his passage to St Louis. From there, he joined an expedition that included fellow botanist Thomas Nuttall of Blackburn, who would later become Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.

In Central Library's Record Office is a pamphlet from the American Philosophical Society that reproduces 23 letters from Bradbury to William Roscoe in Liverpool, chronicling his adventures over a five-year period in what was called Missouri Territory and Upper Louisiana...

'Mouth of River Naduet, 19 April 1811. Sir, the specimen of wool I sent you is as you suggest undoubtedly from Bos Moschatus. I called it the Buffaloe as adopting the popular name. I have already seen it or the carcasses although we are not yet arrived at the Buffaloe country. In their migrations they go in herds of 10, 20 or even perhaps 100,000. One of these herds in passing over the ice of the Missouri above this place about six weeks ago broke in and it is supposed as many as 1,000 perished - we have met the carcasses floating down every day.

'I think I mentioned in my former [letter] that I go along with a party who are on their way to the Pacific Ocean. I propose when we arrive at the Rikaree Nation to purchase horses, hire a hunter to accompany me and cross southward to the Arkansas, a distance of about 400 miles... I shall remain during the summer on this river either with some Nation of Indians or alone as may hereafter appear more expedient. Having become tolerably expert with the rifle, I have no doubt of being able to subsists myself in the woods.

'I have little to communicate as yet in respect to plants, but indeed I have not had much opportunity as the weather has been excessively bad, by continued rain: two species of fern for which I can find no description and a white erythronium are all I have marked out for sending since I commenced my voyage. I have a species of Talpa which will probably be new. It agrees with the European Mole in having five toes on each foot but is much smaller and has a beautiful silvery gloss.

'It is perhaps right to mention for the satisfaction of the [Liverpool Botanic Gardens] Committee that I remain in perfect health although the bad weather has been much against me, as also have some scrapes I have got into in my walks, from which I could only extricate myself by swimming...

'St Louis, 16 August 1811. Sir, I arrived here a few days ago from my excursion up the Missouri which I ascended to the Gros Ventre Nation of Indians 1,650 miles from this place. The Sioux Indians assembled as we expected to oppose us, but on our going up to them they declined to engage...

'I am more than ever confirmed in the opinion that the western parts of this country are more abundant in unknown plants than any part of the Globe, the country of the Amazons perhaps excepted, and I do not despair of being able to visit them in some years by my own means, the most dangerous part being in some measure accomplished - none of the Indians from the southwest bank of the Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico being hostile to the Whites, and there is little danger in meeting them when they are returning from war unsuccessful, when they sometimes throw away their clothes and make it their Medicine (a Vow) to kill all they meet, and even then if you have obliged any one of the party formerly they can save you - even a Squaw - as they hold private friendship sacred.

'I have availed myself of this trait in the Indian character and made presents to the chief warriors in each Nation I have passed through. I have also arranged to accompany the Osages next summer who go annually for salt to the great Salt Lick beyond the Arkansas on the borders of Mexico...'

In this last letter Bradbury enclosed a note addressed to the Committee of the Liverpool Botanic Gardens, tendering his resignation as their collector. From the tone of many of his letters it's evident that his plans had been constantly thwarted by lack of money, even though the Committee sent him £100 per annum. The hardship of the American wilderness took its toll, and at one point he was robbed by Indians on the banks of the Missouri. For all that, more than 1,000 of his specimens were eventually potted in Liverpool (and some in London's Kew Gardens) and today he's acknowledged as the first trained botanist to explore the interior of America's Great West systematically.

In 1816 Bradbury sailed from New York back to Liverpool where he published his Travels in the Interior of North America, providing the first descriptions of the daily life of traders with whom he travelled, including Daniel Boone and John Colter, who was stripped naked by Blackfeet warriors and chased for five miles across prickly-pear prairie but miraculously survived.

The following year Bradbury returned to America, having secured free passage for his family from a sea captain he'd previously befriended. He settled in Kentucky, where he died in 1823.

'Botany always has been a Liverpool thing. If you're holidaying in the North West Himalayas later this year, look out for the Roscoe Purpurea 9,000ft up, first named in honour of William Roscoe in 1805, and first observed to flower at the Liverpool Botanic Gardens in 1823'


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