Taste of Life: How Dapooree botanical garden was instrumental in bringing new fruits, vegetables to India
The letter, written in Marathi, the native language of the land, requested Lush to send “some instruction” as to the English mode of cultivating the potato
In December 1828, Dr Charles Lush, assistant surgeon and superintendent of the East India Company’s botanical garden at Dapooree (Dapodi) near Poona received a letter from a Maratha chief. The letter, written in Marathi, the native language of the land, requested Lush to send “some instruction” as to the English mode of cultivating the potato. A request for a trained gardener to be sent to his province was also made in the letter.
Accordingly, a consignment of seeds, saplings, and tubers was sent to the Maratha noble along with a gardener. A year later, the Maratha chief thanked Lush and requested another batch of seeds and saplings for a new garden he wished to develop in his province.
After Major-General Sir John Malcolm was appointed the Governor of Bombay, he purchased the Dapooree estate originally owned and developed by the English Commander Captain Ford. Being a man of science, he desired to convert the Dapooree garden into a botanical garden, where scientific experiments would be conducted regularly for the naturalisation of fruits, vegetables, and timber brought from all over the world.
However, his request for establishing such a garden was disapproved by the Court of Directors of The East India Company. After much deliberation, Malcolm decided to act on his plans and went ahead with converting the Dapooree estate garden into a botanical garden without waiting for the Court’s approval of the required funds. The money for the botanical garden for the first five years, till 1833, came from Malcolm’s emergency funds.
Assistant surgeon Williamson was entrusted with the superintendence of the botanical garden, of what had been done towards its formation, and an estimate of the expense of keeping it upon a moderate scale till honoured with the Court’s pleasure and recommended at the same time the grant of a salary of ₹250 per month in addition to his medical expenses and allowances.
A section of officials strongly objected to this on the ground of expense. They did not want a single rupee spent on the garden unless the court permitted them. But Malcolm stood his ground.
Williamson too had liked the idea of the botanical garden. He immediately got in touch with Dr Nathaniel Wallich, the superintendent of the Calcutta botanical garden, and requested help. Wallich kept sending seeds to the garden from Calcutta, Cairo, and Cape.
Williamson, unfortunately, died a few months after coming to Poona to look after the garden. Lush succeeded him. He seems to have had a special affinity for the garden. He believed that vegetables and flowers from other countries, tropical and temperate, could be successfully grown at Dapooree.
He found the depth of soil considerable, and a great portion of it, the coarse black soil of the country. In the immediate vicinity were beds of limestone in the trap rocks, together with red chalk and coarse river sand. Without seeking any additional monetary help, he brought the entire garden under irrigation.
When Dr Alexander Gibson, the famous Scottish botanist, took charge of the garden, it contained several useful and ornamental trees and among them a considerable number of timber trees. The fruit trees consisted of peaches, guavas, loquats, mangoes, apples, quinces, and apricots; besides the remains of a once-celebrated vineyard. There were also specimens of the rose jamon, alligator pear, and Indian almond, with several other indigenous fruits.
Gibson zealously prosecuted the objects contemplated in its institution. New nurseries at Hiwra, Neergoree, and Shivneri were established in the Poona district in furtherance of the same objects. Plants and saplings grown at these nurseries were distributed gratis to those who agreed to cultivate them. The importance of such introductions would manifest, Gibson believed when it was considered that the great complaint of the native cultivators was the exceeding cheapness of all the then-present articles of cultivation, consisting principally of grains, with which the markets were usually overstocked. The necessity, therefore, was proportionally great, of finding other employment for a portion of the people, and of introducing the culture of articles which might meet with a ready sale for exportation. No wonder cotton was extensively cultivated, and cultivation of opium rapidly increased throughout Central India.
All measures calculated to forward the increased culture of useful objects received the utmost encouragement from the Revenue Commissioner Mr T Williamson, who particularly directed attention to the cultivation of foreign cotton and the Mauritian sugarcane, mulberry planting, coffee, tobacco, and tea. The cultivation of tea had been successful at Ahmadnagar and the government expected it to be successful in Poona too.
Gibson conceived that many of the “hill localities” around Poona were eminently fitted for the naturalisation of the products of the south of Europe, like olive; others for the culture of coffee, and some for many other useful plants and trees of the New World. He was endeavouring to direct attention to linseed culture and to adapt other oilseeds to Poona.
In 1842, several implantations of European varieties of the olive tree were made in the gardens. Although they grew well, they did not flower. Trials were made of Bramah’s Hydrostatic Press for the extraction of oil from the groundnut, Carthamus, Flax, sesame, castor, and other seeds. This was one of the first such experiments in Asia.
Gibson considered groundnut oil a better and cheaper option than olive oil. Hence, he paid more attention to the cultivation of groundnut.
Gibson had also introduced the culture of arrowroot, tapioca, and of potatoes. He had found that potatoes thrived best in the red soil, where the grain crops were comparatively scanty and precarious, and that they would yield a remuneration superior to that afforded by the rabbi crops, even at one-third of their then price.
It was also proposed to pay attention to horticultural subjects in general, as also to the culture of pasture and fodder grasses, the planting of the mulberry for sericulture, together with the cultivation of medicinal plants.
Despite these humongous efforts, Gibson did not like the Dapooree garden. It was sometimes derided as a mere “cabbage garden” of the Governor owing to its poor soil quality, and he agreed with it. He preferred the botanical garden at Hiwra, Junnar, which was his den.
When Gibson started paying more attention to the Hiwra garden, letters were written by concerned officials to the Court requesting to sell the Dapooree garden. The “Gentleman’s Gazette” reported on July 3, 1846, that the government was planning to sell the Dapooree garden, including the mansion house. According to the report, several wealthy gentlemen intended to become purchasers, one of them being a “very wealthy old gentleman, who owned an extensive farm at Moondwa”. This gentleman might be William Sundt, who owned a coffee estate there.
But, not very surprisingly, it was thought by the Court of Directors that the Company had the readiest measure of most effectually gratifying the Maratha chiefs by exploiting their love for gardening, and thus enlarging the cultivation of horticultural products, by directing their agents in Turkish Arabia, Persia, and at the Cape, to send on the public account to Poona annually, supplies of vegetable and fruit seeds, to be distributed among the natives.
The Dapooree garden continued to function for several decades, out of the Court’s desire to supply seeds and plants to Maratha chiefs.
But the garden rose to fame in India and in Europe after the mid-1830s due to its mulberry plantations and the disagreements Gibson had with an Italian entrepreneur named Giuseppe Mutti.
More about this next week.
Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food enthusiast. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted at email@example.com