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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The St Vincent botanical garden

A botanical garden may be defined as a garden devoted to the collection, cultivation and labelled display of plants. The plants selected may be those native to the region where the garden is located or may include species collected from all over the world.

The St Vincent botanical garden with trees and plants in the background and figures in the foregroundThe St Vincent botanical garden, as seen from the bottom of the central walkThe origins of the botanical garden lie in the medieval European physic garden, where herbs and other medicinal plants were cultivated and studied, but, as Europe’s imperial horizon’s expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, botanical gardens became increasingly concerned with the collection of newly encountered plant species from other continents.

As many tropical plants failed to flourish in Europe’s colder climate without the protection of expensive and often unreliable hot houses, the British and French established botanical gardens in their colonies, where they could study tropical plants in their natural environment.

Plants were investigated for their potential medical and economic benefits, but they were also valued for their beauty, and, as horticulture became an ever more popular pastime in the 19th century, plants that were purely ornamental acquired an economic value too.

The botanical garden of St Vincent, believed to be the oldest in the Americas, was the brainchild of the island’s governor, General Robert Melville (1723-1809), who established it in 1765, with the aim, as Lansdown  Guilding explains in his 1825 account, of providing ‘a spot in the West Indies, in which plants, useful in medicine, and profitable as articles of commerce, might be propagated: and where nurseries of the valuable productions of Asia, and other distant parts, might be formed for the benefit of his Majesty’s colonies’.

The garden’s success and lasting importance were to a large extent due to the  exertions of its first two superintendents, George Young (d 1803) and Alexander Anderson (1748?-1811), both highly dedicated and able botanists. In their hands the garden became an important centre for the collection, propaganda and distribution of plants, making a significant contribution to the regional Caribbean economy.

Young obtained specimens from as far away as Borneo and India, as well as from other Caribbean islands, and by the time he handed over the garden’s superintendence to Anderson in 1785 it contained 348 different plant species. Anderson built on the foundations laid by Young, and by 1800 the garden contained 2,000 different plant species, including 100 previously unknown to science.

Anderson was also largely responsible for the introduction of the breadfruit to the Caribbean, receiving a consignment of eight varieties of Polynesian breadfruit from Captain William Bligh (‘Bligh of the Bounty’) when the latter visited St Vincent in 1793.

The plate shown here gives a view of the garden from the bottom of the central walk. Guilding’s account concludes with a catalogue of the plants grown in the garden; the list includes ‘commercial and medicinal’ plants, such as cassia, cinnamon and pepper, ‘valuable woods’, such as  laurel, mimosa and oak, ‘fruits’, such as guava and fig,  and a wide range of plants categorised as ‘exotics, curious or ornamental.’

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