Botanique might simply evoke to many people in Brussels a metro station. For others it is linked to funky music and hipster nights. Nevertheless, thanks to the historical research of Denis Diagre-Vanderpelen, “The Botanic Garden of Brussels (1826-1912)”, we are reminded that Botanique was first and foremost—before moving to Meise—a botanic garden.
“The Botanic Garden of Brussels (1826-1912). Reflections of a Changing Nation” is an essay that is read and written like a novel, the story of the old capital of a young country which, to keep up with other mayor European cities, decides to bestow upon itself a Royal Horticultural society with the goal of “establishing in Brussels a vast garden where all the species of plants, ornamental as well as useful, will be mass cultivated”. It was born as a private society—it was the age of the first privatization wave—and, as such, it was meant to be profitable and sustainable. It combined thus the contradictory roles of private park, commercial nursery and agricultural research institution. Failed as a business, this green coveted area in the city center was saved from speculators thanks to, we learned after several chapters, the intervention of the state in 1870. As a public institution, it became a reference for tropical flora. Commercial interests continued to play a key role, since Leopold II needed the expertise of the garden for the exploration and exploitation of his private property of the Congo.
Although the French edition is sold out it is still available in English. It is an enjoyable and instructive summer reading. You will be familiarized with the main political and scientific actors of the day (you will perhaps discover the personalities under many street names in Brussels) and reflect on new aspects of the philanthropic and scientific Belgian bourgeoisie: their contacts and networks abroad, their orchid-hunters, their passion for the exotic, etc.
According to the author “The Botanic Garden of Brussels really was a speculum mundi. It was a mirror of the Belgian bourgeois utopian world, at once liberal and driven by the spirit of enterprise, and shy, wishing to take shelter from its problems under the wing of the (bourgeois) State.”
Image credits © Ruskin in Brussels