by Connie Oswald Stofko
During much of the Victorian era, botanical gardens or conservatories were something only rich people could enjoy. The gardens were private, and the privileged few showed them off to only to their friends, said Kristy Schmitt, director of education at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
What botanical gardens were like during the Victorian era and how we came to have public gardens will be explained on a guided tour called “Our Victorian Garden– Yesterday and Today” to be held at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 5 at the Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave., Buffalo.
The tour will be led by Schmitt and Bob Snyder, volunteer and history expert at the Botanical Gardens. He collects post cards, artifacts and historical information on the Botanical Gardens and the families that have been involved with it, as well as horticulture.
Period dress is encouraged; wear your best hat.
A tea, coffee and cookie reception will follow.
The cost is $12 for Botanical Gardens members and $15 for non-members and includes admission to the Botanical Gardens after the tour.
Registration is required. Register online or call 827-1584, ext. 292.
The Victorian era took place during the reign of Queen Victoria of Britain from 1837 to 1901. The Botanical Gardens opened to the public at the tail end of that period in 1900.
When it opened, our Botanical Gardens was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and was ranked as the ninth largest in the world. Having these gardens open to the public was part of a new trend at the time.
Before the Victorian era, collectors would go on plant safaris or expeditions simply to discover and identify plants, and they brought back the specimens they found in a dried state. Live plants, especially from warmer climates, couldn’t survive the long ocean voyages, Schmitt said.
Because plants often lose their color when they are dried, artists were important at that time. They were able to produce pictures in full color to give people a better idea of what the plants looked like in their native habitats.
Around 1829, the Wardian case, which is like a terrarium, was invented, making it possible for collectors to bring back live plants from exotic areas of the world. Rich hobbyists in Britain collected rare plants in private conservatories or botanical gardens to show off to their friends, and they tried to top each other.
If someone brought back a rare plant from Indonesia, Schmitt said, their friends would think, “‘Oh man, I’ve got to go on a plant hunt to get a cooler plant than they have.'”
A new trend was started in 1841 when the British royal family opened its massive Kew Gardens to the public, Schmitt said. Cities there and in the United States decided to follow suit. Our building here in Buffalo was modeled after the beautiful Crystal Palace at Kew Gardens.
Viewing and learning about plants from around the world, a pastime once reserved for the rich, became accessible to a wider range of people, she said.
Having public botanical gardens also helped with conservation efforts, she noted. In the past, untrained individuals dug up plants from the wild. Having representatives of public botanical gardens, which were interested in research and education, gather the plant material, meant that it was probably done in a more ecologically friendly manner.
Similar to what zoos do, modern botanical gardens help plants that are endangered in the wild, Schmitt said, sharing plant material and pollen with other facilities to keep rare plants reproducing.