The Objects . . .
Mueller’s account begins by asking the extent to which botanic gardens can ‘. . . exercise a vivid and powerful influence on education, on technology, on rural pursuits, and on the advancement of independent researches for the enlargement of phytologic knowledge’ (. . . Objects . . . , p. 151). He then provides an intentional definition that distinguishes botanic gardens from other kinds of garden by their programs of science and education:
‘. . . the true botanic gardens of this age [are] scientiﬁc gardens; while all those institutions, in which no real phytologic researches are carried out, or in which the main aim does not consist in affording instruction, might well be called public pleasure gardens, or perhaps recreation grounds or parks, according to the design for which they are created, or in consonance with the requirements for which they are maintained (p. 152).
The early origins of botanic gardens he places firmly in ancient history, well before the medicinal gardens of early modern Renaissance Italy, noting that the gardens of his times were much more than mere medicinal gardens. Botanical science, he claims, began with the ancient Greeks and the special contribution of Theophrastus and his garden (370-288 BCE).
‘. . . from the early transcendental days of Greece up to the most recent decennia all institutions designated as botanic gardens were mainly or exclusively devoted to the rearing of such plants as were adopted for medicine, for alimentary or industrial purposes; and it would be little short of relapsing into barbarism, were we to alienate any such institutions of ours entirely from their legitimate purpose’ (p. 155).
He refers to early precursor medicinal gardens of the Italian Renaissance when monastery-style physic gardens opened to the public . . . that ‘In 1333, the botanic garden of Venice was established as an institution accessible to the public’ ( p. 154). We also know, for example, of similar medicinal gardens in Italy like that at Salerno established by Matthaew Sylvaticus in the south (founded ?1309), and the Vatican physic garden (1447). In Germany there was the municipal apothekengarten of Hamburg est. 1316, No doubt there were others. All recalled the earlier monastic physic gardens.
Today it is Pisa (founded in 1544) that is frequently cited as the first modern botanic garden, probably because at this garden there was the first appointment of a chair of botany in an act that symbolically distinguished a new scientific discipline, botany, as being distinct from medicine.
After a brief outline of some of the major contemporary botanic gardens of his day he concludes this section with a note of deference:
’. . . among all existing state gardens none can be compared to the grand and justly-famed establishment of Kew.’
Then, with gusto, he elaborates on his main theme:
‘As an universal rule, it is primarily the aim of such an institution to bring together with its available means the greatest possible number of select plants from all the different parts of the globe; and this is done to utilise them for easy public inspection, to arrange them in their impressive living forms, for systematic, geographic, medical, technical or economic information, and to render them extensively accessible for original observations and careful records. By these means, not only the knowledge of plants in all its branches is to be advanced through local independent researches, conducted in a real spirit of science, but also phytologic instruction is to be diffused to the widest extent; while simultaneously, by the introduction of novel utilitarian species, local industries are to be extended, or new resources to be originated, and, further, it is an aim to excite thereby a due interest in the general study and ample utilisation of any living forms of vegetation, or of important substances derived therefrom. All other objects are secondary, or the institution ceases to be a real garden of science. But the detailed interpretation of these fundamental rules may be more or less rigorous, as the extent of the operations thus designed must very largely depend on the natural facilities and monetary means which are at command for the purpose (p. 156).
He then looks to the specific colonial problems of settlement, future developments and aesthetic considerations:
‘Moreover, the early attainment of any of these varied objects must evidently be all the more difficult in a new country, where in the ﬁrst generation we are passing yet through the laborious and expensive process of founding all those institutions, from which in the natural course of events a later time can only derive the fullest beneﬁt. But in all these planting operations indicated for scientiﬁc demonstration we can still ﬁnd full scope for the display of tasteful ornamentation and picturesque grandeur’.
This is followed by his account of some of the many meanings for the expression ‘plant diversity’ – from global ecology to individual variability, while also alluding to additional comparative ecological, geographic, aesthetic, social and even religious considerations . . . and all related to Melbourne’s unique climatic conditions:
‘A real botanic garden, then, ought to display the living vegetation in its multifarious forms as far as ever local circumstances will permit. All the plants of the globe build up together a great harmonious system in nature; they are all referable to distinct speciﬁc forms, all created by design of an Almighty power for special purposes; they are, moreover, all endowed with well-deﬁned qualities, all interesting and beautiful in themselves, and eligible for our varied wants. We may accumulate collections still more extensive for our phytologic museums than for our garden displays; but we still need to study, as far as we can, the forms of the vegetable empire in their living freshness, their natural grace and vital beauty. What can be more instructive than to compare allied species, from often widely distant parts of the globe, when placed in culture side by side . . . To accomplish great results in all these respects we have in our climatic zone enviable facilities; and thus horticultural pursuits for strictly scientiﬁc purposes become also here far more grateful than in the countries of colder climates where most of us spent our youth. . . . how we can rear here without protection the marvellously rich and varied vegetation of South Africa; how in our isothermal zone we can bring together the plants of California, New Mexico, Florida and other southern states of the American union, and how we need no conservatories for most of the plants of Chili, the Argentine State and South Brazil. In Australia we require hardly to allude to the singularly peculiar vegetation of New Zealand, or the gay, curious and remarkably varied vegetation of West Australia, because We are rightly accustomed to regard these neighbouring colonies as portions of the great integral southern empire of Britain; but it requires to have studied the vegetation of Australia and New Zealand specially to appreciate its richness, and to understand fully its value for a garden in a colony like Victoria (pp. 156-157).
Mueller’s colourful German-English prose makes point after point, each as direct and pertinent today as it was when written down 150 years ago.
There follows a discussion of different plants and their possible utility when cultivated in Melbourne, following the theme of colonial botanic gardens as experimental stations. The article is rich in factual detail and deserves reading in full, but the following collection of snippets catches the flavour of his creative imagination:
‘Test experiments, initiated from a botanic garden, might teach us whether the Silk Mulberry tree can be successfully reared in the Murray desert, to supplant the Mallee-scrub . . .’.
Which oaks are ‘. . . eligible for avenues’ or as ’. . . timber trees’. ‘. . . from a single imported Asiatic Ash 15,000 young trees were obtained by me for Victoria’. ‘. . .how many of the 160 true species of Willows and of their numerous hybrids are available for wickerwork; and we should learn, whether any of the American, the Himalayan or the Japan Osiers are in some respect superior to those in general use’. Which trees ‘. . . can be adopted as a forest tree for this colony’ . . . ‘. . . how far Californian Red-wood trees (Sequoia gigantea), or New Zealand Totaras, may give us good timber, when merely grown from cuttings in the open’. ‘What other utilitarian plants, such as the Fig, various Coniferae, Tanners’ Wattles, grasses, &c., we may gradually establish …’ ‘Numerous Pines and other industrial trees have been secured for this country . . .’. ‘. . . I cannot imagine anything more interesting than a full collection of Acacias . . .’ . . . ‘To me 300 Acacias appear far more valuable than 300 varieties of particular fancy ﬂowers, at least in a young botanic garden, where their names, their native countries, and perhaps even the uses of many could be learnt.’ . . . ‘Good Wattle-bark is three times as rich as Oak-bark in tanning principles, and much quicker produced, and that in localities where no oak will thrive.’ ‘We should watch their growth in various geologic formations; we should note their adaptability to certain climatic regions.’
Mueller is well known for his introduction of blackberries to the Australian bush, his willingness to replace natural vegetation with introduced species contrasting strongly with today’s sensibilities, but reflecting what the establishing colony believed important at the time.
He praises many native plant genera as easy to cultivate and notes the outstanding potential of those from Western Australia, discussing some that would be suitable for conservatories, and how a botanic garden can offer economic, scientific, and horticultural evaluation and sustenance for the human spirit:
‘Such an assemblage affords at all times ample material for original study and designing art, while its contemplation raises the taste and standard of horticulture . . . a botanic institution should aspire to these higher aims. . . . ‘such a collection . . . can also become commercially one of quite a lucrative gain.’
‘. . . simultaneously every one, as a rule, evinces a desire of acquiring some more accurate horticultural information, and of becoming acquainted with some item or the other of knowledge relative to the plants around him. This applies, with equal force, to the native vegetation, by which we are surrounded anywhere.’ ‘In all the changeable events of this versatile life, whether the saddest or most hopeful, we are longing to ﬁnd in the ﬂoral world some emblems for our joyfulness, as well as for our deepest grief.. . . ﬂowers seem identiﬁed with all the tender feelings and all the gentle sentiments of mankind.’ ‘One of the great objects, which a scientiﬁc garden is to fulﬁl for whole communities, indeed, consists in elevating the traditionary notions or the simple conceptions of plants to scientiﬁc cognisance and the highest educational standard.’
He anticipates today’s (2020) RBGV Vision Statement (‘Life is sustained and enriched by plants’).
‘The very existence of the whole animal creation, indeed of man himself, is dependent on plants.’
He draws attention to the need for infrastructure:
‘For the full utilisation of such collections we need moreover to maintain a laboratory and ateliers of other kinds . . . to ﬁx all observations by lasting records, and render them, by issued volumes or by illustrations of pictorial or plastic art, accessible at all times. No sooner does a seed-grain germinate, than it can be utilised for research.’
A year earlier, in November 1870, Mueller had given a lecture on the use of plants in industry at the new Industrial and Technological Museum (opened Sept. 1870) recommending establishment of a botanical section and emphasising mainly exotic timber and forest products.  He had previously contributed to the Paris Exhibition of 1855, the wood exhibits being then forwarded to William Hooker at Kew. In November 1861 Mueller’s plant exhibits were on display at the Exhibition Building before they were shipped to London’s 1862 International Exhibition noting its potential as timber for shipping and railway sleepers. Mueller’s own recently completed Botanical Museum was already bursting with his timber, carpological and herbarium specimens. In 1865 he sent a ‘small collection of colonial woods’ to Dublin’s International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures before preparing at the Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia for the international Paris Exhibition of 1867. Then again exhibits were displayed in the Industrial & Technological Museum in 1872-3 prior to London’s 1873 International Exhibition which included phytochemical samples. In spite of his demise as director, Mueller was commissioner and judge at Melbourne’s 1880-81 International Exhibition in the new (completed Oct. 1880) Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens.
He makes quantitative estimates of plants suitable for cultivation. Should native plants be preferred – and are there any plants that should not be cultivated in botanic gardens?
‘Should we not largely surround ourselves with our own native plants, handsome and instructive as they are. The range of cultivation in our state garden has at times been already extensive. In 1865 seeds were collected of 700 species of trees and shrubs in the garden; seeds also of 170 kinds of grasses, of 1100 herbaceous plants, and of 80 species of ferns.’
‘Should we not be able to show in culture the poisonous herbs, against which the squatter as well as the explorer must guard? . . . ‘Of the 110 Saltbushes of Australia, some are ascertained to be eligible as culinary esculents; the majority of these plants are of high value for sheep-pasture’.
What should be the policy for plant exchange and distribution?
‘The command of large collections of museum plants, commenced by my personal ﬁeld exertions more than thirty years ago, gave here local advantages for affording also to correspondents in other colonies a fuller insight into the characteristics of the vegetation of their respective localities.’
His report for 1861 alone records that the Gardens sent out 51,920 seed packets, 31,455 plants, and 36,474 cuttings.
He is aware of the scientific and social power of botanical illustration in an era when the technology of printing images was changing rapidly (Fig. 28).
‘I suggested the publication of these illustrations in a weekly journal. . . . Sydney Mail’
. . . with an ulterior object of re-issuing the plates and descriptions in a connected form . . . the ﬁrst illustrations, to be followed, in regular succession, by others, an electro-plate’
Botanic gardens must provide periodic catalogues of their collections:
‘It is unquestionably of importance to provide in any scientiﬁc garden from time to time accurate catalogues of the contents . . .’ ‘by united efforts we could provide for the publication of an universal catalogue in annual editions . . . so all horticultural establishments . . . should enjoy the universal use of the best index which at the time can be compiled’.
On providing scientific inspiration, fostering a love of plants and the role of botanic gardens:
‘I have a vivid remembrance with what an enthusiastic avidity many a student commenced his scientiﬁc collection of plants from gatherings in a botanic garden; how he sought for correct appellations, traced the indigenous localities of any species, endeavoured to understand the particular relationship of plants, and commenced to arrange systematically what he had gathered … greeted any rarity or novelty with the outburst of absolute delight’.
. . . ‘Such was the ﬁrst commencement of the luminous career of some of our great naturalists, and such was also the ﬁrst origin of some of the most important museums of plants. As means of education the collections of a botanic garden, whether exhibited in their vivid freshness, or stored for preservation and reference, may exercise a vast inﬂuence’ . . . ‘even the study of languages and geography, through scientiﬁc garden plantations, may be fostered, and this in a manner more pleasing than in most other forms . . .’
Plants pervade all aspects of our lives and botanic gardens reflect the particular needs and interests of the times:
‘ . . . Perhaps even it is not too much to contend, that no observant visitor can pass through a scientiﬁc garden, be it ever so often, without taking with him in each instance some new instructive information . . . very few may really have a comprehensive persuasion of that actual relation which exists between botanic inquiry and utilitarian application . . . much more difﬁcult then must be the recognition of all that which is only foreshadowed in a dim future. . . . we cannot cast our views around us without meeting, in every direction, objects derived from vegetation . . . what can more readily lead to new local industries . . . to secure by interchange or otherwise additional treasures for the institution . . . recognising the real value and signiﬁcance of the riches which in his institution are already accumulated . . . the diffusion of special knowledge in a manner best adapted to the requirements of time and place’
‘When an important plant has once been introduced or tested, a task in which a botanic garden must always take a leading share, then rural enterprise and private capital are expected to advance the cultivation and utilisation of such a plant to commercial dimensions’ . . . ‘The miners, in prospecting through the ranges, might scatter the seeds of berries . . .’ ‘. . . the medicinal Squill on our sea-shores.’ ‘. . . the uses of a botanic garden as a horticultural school’ . . . ‘For toxicologic experiments in a botanic garden the various poison plants become of importance . . .’
Mueller evaluates the colony’s development, the need for increased local expertise and the maturing of scientific institutions:
‘We are no longer in the earliest youth of our colonial existence . . . ‘A central institution for phytologic information requires to be maintained among us somewhere . . .’ ‘ . . . A botanic garden, which cannot afford to maintain at least one collector in the ﬁeld, must be regarded as a very imperfect . . .’.
He is aware of the vagaries of horticultural fads and fashions and the particular attraction of those coming from European cities. But, while conceding the appeal of horticultural display, he holds firm to his predominantly scientific vision by pointing out costs in both money and labour . . . all for questionable lasting benefit:
‘In some parts of Europe the fashions of horticulture have recently undergone some changes again, so far as to render the growing of ﬂowers in masses, or hands, or decorative ﬁgures less predominant, as this extremely artiﬁcial culture is giving way largely to the far more natural one of picturesque or scenic grouping. I advisedly do not apply to this system of planting the term ‘subtropical gardening’, which is yet retained in the excellent book published this year by Mr. William Robinson, of Kensington, who has contributed by this and other works (such as the one on the gardens, parks and promenades of Paris) so much to ennoble horticulture to simpler natural grandeur, and lead it to higher scientiﬁc tastes.’
‘. . . these various cultural systems might even in some instances and to some extent be advantageously blended; but while they may all be represented in a botanic garden, the formal decorative planting or the cultures for exclusive ornamentation should there at least not prevail, but be made subservient mainly to scientiﬁc objects. Much in respect to bedding ﬂowers and other simply decorative planting may be fairly left to the gardens formed for private entertainment and pleasure. . . . I hold, that in a public cultural establishment, even in older countries, its endowments are more legitimately employed by devoting them to produce works of permanency and utility; not however falling into the other extreme of shutting out altogether ornamentation in its less expensive form.’ ‘But incontestably a reaction of public opinion will ere long set in; there will be little or nothing to show for much of the expenditure of years, and a just and resentful censure will sooner or later overtake us.’ ‘ . . . Let us study to embrace all that is attractive in any form, whether native or foreign, into one grand whole of magniﬁcence, without singling out a few transitory plants for almost exclusive culture’.
‘. . . we need not disdain those ornamentation works which serve to embellish still more a stately structure. We can build grottos … raise islands, and convert swamps into lakes … have fountains playing … raise statues … to glorify monumentally what is noble and great…’ ‘But … we should never lose sight of the still higher objects for which a botanic institution is founded; otherwise, while triﬂing away slender means on perhaps even trivialities, we have failed to afford our early guidance to lasting prosperity or progressive and enduring advancements’
He contemplates the blending of art and science:
‘Though . . . if ever we attempted to restrict an institution of this kind to absolutely utilitarian purposes, we assuredly would ﬁnd the separation or exclusion of simple means of enjoyment a total impossibility. The avenues, formed of timber trees, as forest representatives from wide distances, will afford to the strolling visitor no less of cool umbrageous expanse than if raised for his recreation only. The colouring changes of the vegetation throughout the seasons, or the varied periodic hues of foliage and blossoms, are assuredly not diminished in their impressiveness because the perhaps tyrannic sway of fashionable predilections, or of tastes subject to endless dispute, are left unobeyed in the exercise of the free judgment of science.’
He draws attention to botanic gardens as experimental sites, especially for economic botany:
‘Test plantations as prominent among the obligations of a scientiﬁc garden. Some of the results of my experiments on [fibre] strength were given in the descriptive catalogue of Victorian sendings to the Sydney Exhibition of last year. But such tests must be continued or extended . . .’
‘There ought to be, in a scientiﬁc garden, representative plants of any important ﬁbre hitherto drawn into industrial use. So it should be with . . . starch-plants, dye-plants, oil-plants, fodder-plants . . . any species adopted in medicine.’
‘Manures in their varied constitution and application require also experimental tests. Diseases of plants, in their increasing multiplicity, need to be carefully traced and elucidated’
Finally, his spiritual conviction and respect for the wonder of nature is expressed eloquently in lyrical form:
‘The soul, sunk in mournful sadness, will also ﬁnd yet some consolation in a garden of knowledge, and will feel how the power of a Divine Providence pervades every leaf and ﬂower; or the mind susceptible to the religious teaching of nature will there also recognise how the apparently lifeless root or grain sprout under the spring rays again with hopeful vitality from the cold darkness beneath— a symbol of an imperishable existence and of an eternity beyond this world.’
In his ‘Objects . . .’ of 1871 Mueller had clearly articulated an all-embracing vision for the tasks associated with the role of botanic gardens. There is a historical layering of these goals reflecting the changing history and emphases of botanic gardens themselves which included: a concern for herbs, spices and medicinal plants (following the earliest phase of botanic gardens, the physic gardens or hortus medicus with its apothecaries and simples in the age of herbalism); ornamental novelties (reflecting the 15th to 18th century ages of European discovery and enlightenment that brought back novel, beautiful and curious and new plants from distant lands – also reflecting the Enlightenment botanophilia, the fashionability of plants among the European wealthy; economic botany -that echoed the period of colonial botanic gardens, especially the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the Royal Garden at Kew under the de facto directorship of Joseph Banks who facilitated the development of a network of botanic gardens to process plant economic resources from round the globe, the construction of economic museums displaying dyes, plant craft and products, fibres, textiles and so on); plant taxonomy (the period of the Enlightenment associated with the development of descriptive botany which included plant nomenclature, classification systems, especially the artificial ‘sexual system’ of Linnaeus and the ‘natural systems’ of the de Jussieu family and description of plants from round the world).