Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
As we speed along the highways in Europe on the Cosmos route, it seems as if we have been sucked into a pretty technicolour postcard. An uninterrupted row of pink cherry blossom trees bursting with vigour, line the sidewalk, and beyond them are stretches of manicured green as far as the eye can see. At Lausanne, in Switzerland, snow capped mountains streak to the azure blue sky buffetting around soft white clouds, while below, cobbled pathways lead to numerous flower boutiques, dazzling in their variety of blooms and colour so perfect that they seem artificial. In Amsterdam, fields of tulips, in every conceivable hue from the deepest of purple to pale gold gather flower enthusiasts from all over the world. Nearer home, in Bangalore, in March, sloping tiled roofs are covered with the gentle blue of jacaranda flowers with a carpet below of soft lilac petals.
Are we a nation stirred by Nature's precious bounty? By exotic flowers, like the plumage on a peacock, by sweet smells of pine and eucalyptus as one drives up the Nilgiris, where the last hairpin bend takes you on cue to an overwhelming show of magnificent blooms . . . by the drive up Tirupati hill which is more joyous thanks to vigorous bursts of different coloured bougeanvillae at intervals? Do we take pleasure in a patch of garden in a home, or is there a mind-set that a beautiful home is linked only to affluence? Even a small apartment springs to life with potted greenery, carefully tended.
Flower shows are held to "show off" the best varieties to the public which views them with scant interest. These are events which are becoming very commercial rather than aesthetic. The Western concept is indeed different and I have picked on a few areas to illustrate that horticulture shows are planned to spread awareness of the different species of plants which can be cultivated, to impart skills to ambitious gardeners, and the programme mainly revolves around dissemination of information. In Britain for instance (and it is their legacies of garden shows which we supposedly follow in India), planning horticulture in a town is part of the way of life. A principal designer is appointed for displays and a grand scheme, and he or she and her team master-mind the shows, never losing sight of the objective of promoting British horticulture.
The much acclaimed Chelsea Flower Show, last year, with Penny Rile leading the team, constructed a forty square foot stand in the Grand Marquee combining with ingenuity fruit, flowers and vegetables, making it visually attractive. The park culture abounds in the U.K., like Green Park, Greenwich Park, Hyde Park, Holland Park and Kensington Gardens to name a few. Kew Gardens on the South bank of the Thames with 50,000 odd species of flowers spreads over 300 acres. The second oldest botanical garden in the U.K. is the Chelsea Physic Garden founded in 1673 which grows plants for medicinal purposes.
The British passion for gardening, spanning centuries, has produced some of the finest gardens in the world. The extraordinary range of gardens on show in Britain today are under the care of the National Trust and National Trust for Scotland which are beautiful reflections of Britain's cultural heritage. Styles are varied, from formal gardens of the Elizabethan era, characterised by their geometric designs of clipped yew, mazes and topiary to natural landscapes of the 18th Century romantic movement. Gardening became an aristocratic obsession, and plant hunters often courted death as they searched for rarities to bring home. The 19th Century brought with it a new artistic appreciation of plants, moving towards cottage gardens.
Today the scale of things may be smaller, but the Britishers take a pride in their gardens. Most gardens are open through the year to the public, some only from March to October as each season proclaims its own riotous hues, from carpets of bluebells to the glorious blaze of rhododendrons and azaleas down to the subtle golden shades of autumn. The Gardens of the Rose at Heretfordshire show some 30,000 varieties of roses.
Over to the U.S., and the world famous Philadelphia flower show held every March and sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society founded in 1827. The Cincinatti extravaganza is the only North American flower and garden show endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain. Alzheimer's Remembrance Therapy Gardens are designed to bring normality to Alzheimer patients with fragrant honeysuckle, sweetpeas, heirloom plants and calming water to create a restful sanctuary.
A time honoured tradition in Boston and throughout the New England region, the New England Spring flower show, is a true harbinger of spring, attracting 150,000 visitors to the U.S. each year. The year 2000 marks the 129th annual show which brings together many of New England's talented gardeners, designers and horticulturists for nine days of activities and entertainment apart from exhibits and the sharing of information. Spread over 5-1/2 acres over 40 fully landscaped gardens, this year's theme will be Symphony for the Senses, and the show is the largest indoor event in New England, the second largest flower show in the U.S. and the longest continually running event of its kind.
The Washington Flower and Garden Show is the only show in the Washington metropolitan area with over 2-1/2 acres of display gardens filled with thousands of flower and trees forced to bloom just for the show. The show has the finest garden mall anywhere with all kinds of garden accessories.
In India, the concept is different. Except in regions which are flush with natural vegetation, and endowed with Nature's prolific colours in the form of blooms, there is very little to comment upon in the ingenuity of organising shows or the objectives of dissemination of information. The percentage of people interested in their own gardens is very minimal, even though tree planting is a fetish, without any kind of horticultural planning. The concept of "saying it with flowers" however has taken root, even in a conservative place like Chennai, with the result that many florists abound in a city whose floral traditions were certainly different.
The Gymkhana Club began to generate interest among its members by organising garden shows in 1991. Potted plants were displayed in the club, individual home gardens were visited by a panel, and the 40-50 participants exhibited the fruit of their labour in the different slots allotted to them, like succulents, flowering annuals, indoor plants, crotons and cacti. "In a few years, however, interest waned, and the shows petered out," laments Rabi Rajarathnam, chief architect of these shows. "In fact we tried to keep interest alive by conducting bonsai and flower arrangement classes."
In 1821 when British soldiers discovered Udhagamandalam, they set about filling the gaps in the landscape. Against Victorian houses and country style churches, spruced gardens took their place in the picture postcard scenery. The English planted their own vegetation, potato, cauliflower, cabbage, strawberries and raspberries and flowers like rhododendrons and buttercups. The legacy continues, and the Government Botanical Gardens, established in 1847 has over 650 species of plants and the garden spreads over 22 hectares with manicured lawns, exotic trees and ornamental plants, an Italian formal garden, a conservatory and a fountained terrace. Just 19 kilometres away is Coonor with its salubrious climate at an altitude of 1,712 metres. Sims Park was established in 1874 with exquisite flower beds, lawns and rockeries. Rare commercial trees and herbs like Aracaria, Quercus, Phoenix, Magnolia, Pine and many other varieties are found here, and it is in May that flower shows are held in the Nilgiris.
The Brindavan Garden in Mysore poses its own attractions with its terraced gardens, fountains and planned ornamental gardens at the Krishnarajasagar dam. In Gangtok, Sikkim, a rare spectacular show of exotic varieties of flowers, orchids, and other native varieties draws a large number of visitors during summer. Flower shows are held in Shimla, Darjeeling, Delhi and Mt. Abu, but most of the shows have a "sameness" about them which lack enterprising planning and originality. The biggest rose show in the country is held at the famous Rose Gardens of Chandigarh where magnificent varieties are on display during this two-day festival.
In Bangalore the garden city of the south, the focal point is Lal Bagh, a botanical garden spread over 240 acres, named so because of the profusion of red roses. The greenhouse has a collection of various kinds of flora, and the Glass House is built on the lines of the Crystal Palace in London. The garden and flower shows are held twice a year in January and August, where different categories of gardens like ornamental live gardens, tropical gardens, terrace gardens, etc. are judged.
Among the more enterprising of flower show organisers, and a visionary who seeks to emulate the stimulating concepts of the West is Mr. Parthasarathy of the Bangalore Urban Arts Commission who feels the necessity of creating awareness. On the panel of judges for international shows, Mr. Parthasarathy speaks with pride on Bangalore and Delhi being awarded top prizes, among others like Las Vegas, New Zealand and Pretoria.
In Chennai with the water famine being the biggest bugbear to garden culture, flower shows are far and few between. With cut flowers being in demand today, the commercial floriculture policy of Tamil Nadu holds high potential. "Tamil Nadu farmers have yet to realise the full benefits," says Surit K. Chaudhury, Commissioner of Horticulture and Plantation Crops, "as compared to the farmers in Maharashtra who are well versed in cultivation, production and post harvest techniques."
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