The Journal Gazette
Friday, July 19, 2019 1:00 am

An ode to plant hunters

Conservatory exhibit recalls adventures

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Before entering the gardens for Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory's latest exhibit, you can have a seat in a wealthy gentleman's sitting room.

Near your chair are stacks of books including Sir Walter Scott's early-1800s novel “Ivanhoe” and the complete works of late 19th-century travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson. In a case on the wall, the gentleman has displayed some tools an adventurer of that era would have needed while traveling the globe, including a sextant, pith helmet, map of the world and rifle.

“The sitting room, ... is a memorial in a way of the adventures of plant hunters over the centuries with whom he is fascinated,” conservatory manager Rebecca Canales says.

The Showcase Garden has been transformed into a representation of the gentleman's estate, complete with formal and informal garden spaces showing off species that plant hunters brought back to Europe from around the world.

Signs throughout the display share stories of how the species were first collected by plant hunters like the fictional Botanica Jones, after whom this summer's exhibit is named. The snowbush, for example, was collected by Johan Forster and son Georg Forster on James Cook's second Pacific voyage from 1772 to 1775.

Sometimes the plant hunters were scientists, and sometimes they were thieves. In 1848, Scottish adventurer Robert Fortune stole 20,000 tea plants from China, allowing European powers to break the East's monopoly on tea.

The exhibit includes examples of how specimens were brought back.

Some were dried in plant presses. Other plant hunters took advantage of an early 1800s invention, the glass-walled Wardian case – what we more commonly know as a terrarium – which kept specimens alive on the voyage home. Some ships were built with large greenhouse-like structures for that purpose.

Canales says the conservatory and Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department crew enjoyed creating the formal garden in the center of the exhibit.

Looking like something you would expect to see Victorian ladies strolling through with parasols, it is perfectly symmetrical and has a fountain at the center.

It features a tea plant as well as Breadfruit (first noted in 1769) and the bright pink Sweet William (first mentioned by botanist John Gerard in 1596).

Around the edges of the exhibit are several smaller spaces with benches to represent informal gardens that would have popped up on our gentleman's estate.

One has Asiatic Lilies and Japanese Andromeda, another is full of ferns. Pitcher plants, which trap insects inside for food, hang from a tree.

Many of the plants will seem familiar to visitors. Hostas, ferns and plants in a shrub border are all things we see in yards far removed from a gentleman's estate, but they were first collected by plant hunters and considered fashionable and rare when they appeared in Europe a hundred years ago or more.

The exhibit offers visitors the chance to explore where these species came from and learn more about the adventurers that made them famous.

If you go

What: “Botanica Jones: Scientist, Merchant or Thief?”

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; ends Nov. 17

Where: Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, 1100 S. Calhoun St.

Admission: $5 adults, $3 ages 3 to 17, free ages 2 and younger

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