Number 38    September - October 2004


By Pat McNally

I was blinded the first time I left the Park Hotel in Chennai (Madras), India. The humidity and temperature of the outside air blurred the lenses of my glasses, just the way a martini glass fogs when you take it from the freezer. What I lost in the sense of sight was compensated for by heightened senses of smell and sound. The mixture of diesel exhaust from auto rickshaws and urine residue at the curbside hit my nose. The constant honking, sputtering un-muffled engines, and the pleas of street hawkers hit my ears. Once my glasses cleared, I could see the sun drenched scene - hundreds of yellow tricycle taxis, and thousands of spring colored saris. It was hot. Everyone was in a hurry. They all knew where they wanted to go, and how to get there. I had no clue where I wanted to go, or how to get there. I just wanted to un-jetlag, and absorb my new environment.

Within an hour I found a little three-acre botanical garden. It had no name, and was free unless you took pictures. I offered to check my camera. The hostess in a lilac and silver sari said, "No, I trust you -- absorb with your soul, there is no need to take images. It is ok to take the tranquility with you."

I spent less than an hour, wandering though palms, banyans, ferns and fountains. My first sensation was the silence of the place, yet only a few feet away was the Anna Salai, the main thoroughfare of old Madras. My second sensation was the smell. I realized that chlorophyll tickles my nose, and makes me smile. Sight was dominated by two rhythms of color, the flowers nodding in the breeze and the matching saris of the women raking gravel, removing spent flowers and leaves, and floating jasmine in the fountains. I think sari colors must have come from the palette of flower colors. If you squint, you can't tell the flowers from the women. When I left, the streets had turned from chaos to calm, and so had I.

That first day in India set a standard for my travels to Asia. I have been fortunate to be included on the faculty of University of Chicago research teams for the past two years. While the content of the research was related to business strategy in Asia, the highlight of my 15 weeks there has been the gardens. It is the tranquility that gardens offer that keeps me grounded. It is not the Latin binomial names. It is not the rarity of the specimens or even the variety. It is the sense of space, the lack of noise and all those cool colors in otherwise hot places that whisper -- 'slow down, inhale, absorb, and peek around without a plan in mind.'

Lal Bagh's Garden Glass House, Bangalore, India

Two gardens have earned a special place in my heart. Both are huge -- well over 100 acres of garden, and varied, like the Huntington. One, Lal Bagh, is in Bangalore, India. The other is the Singapore Botanic Garden. Both of these evoke nostalgia for the Huntington, yet with delicious differences in layout and collections.

Lal Bagh is in the 'Silicon Valley' of India. Originally designed as a Mogul garden by the local Sultan, it featured plants from Kabul, Persia, Mauritius and Turkey. It was originally called 'Mango Tope'. The Brits took it over in the1830's and added 'useful plants.' There was a belief that 'anything' would grow in Bangalore. Apples, coffee, tea, grapes, macadamia nuts, rubber trees and cloves were imported, and thrived. In the later 1800's it was declared a Botanical Garden, and to this day it is actively involved in research and education for this region of India. At the end of the 1800's the Lal Bagh Glass House -- modeled after London's Crystal Palace -- was built. It looks very similar to The Huntington's Conservatory, with ornate ironwork and glass patterns. The entire structure was finished in twelve hours after the foundation was complete -- a bit quicker than our local project, -- yet equally impressive.

Singapore Botanic Garden

Lal Bagh offers a respite from the steamy squalor of India. The Botanic Gardens of Singapore offers an unstructured escape from pervasive precision. Singapore is super clean, super organized, super controlled, but its garden's know how to win the heart of a tawdry Irishman. The Gardens were founded in the 1850's, a century later than those of Lal Bagh. Kew-trained botanists came to run the place, under the direction of 'Rubber Ridley,' the chap who figured out how to propagate and extract latex from rubber trees. The Gardens were financed by the sale of rubber seed, creating the fortune that supported the gardens for years. The Gardens are renowned for their collection of "Ginger" families -- the birds of paradise (Strelitziaceae), banana (Musaceae), canna (Cannaceae), and the colorful ginger plants (Zingiberales).

Singapore's nine-acre Orchid Garden is a delightful feature -- with 60,000 orchid specimens representing hybrids of more than 200 species. The orchids are displayed outdoors, perched on charred tree trunks. The Singapore Garden is adding an Evolution Garden that will trace the evolution of plants, with specimens arranged by age of species. And, to top it off, a 'Coolhouse' is under construction. A sign there says -- "Others need a hot house to grow our plants, we need a 'cool house' to grow theirs."

These South Asian gardens, like The Huntington, offer a place to go to reconnect with our real habitat, to move without confinement, and to inhale freshly synthesized oxygen.

Pat McNally, Garden Docent, Propagation Volunteer and Garden Docent Program Chair

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