A jewel in Lalbagh's crown
Come November 30, it will be 112 years since the then Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone for the Glass House at Lalbagh in Bangalore. The man behind the idea was John Cameron. He was also the man who introduced the pear squash, better known as chow-chow, to the city. The father of horticulture is said to have stood at the toll gate on Hosur Road to distribute vegetables to farmers, discovers Meera Iyer
On November 30, 1898, the who’s who in Mysore gathered at the Lalbagh Botanical Garden in Bangalore. The occasion was a reception party hosted by His Highness Chamaraja Wodeyar for an English royal then on tour in India, Prince Albert Victor, heir to the Prince of Wales. During this function, the dapper young prince laid the foundation stone for a building then called the Albert Victor Conservatory, but now known as the Glass House.
The man behind the idea of the Glass House: John Cameron, Superintendent of Lalbagh. Cameron took over as the Superintendent of Lalbagh in March 1874. Like his predecessor, Cameron had a background in botany and had trained at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, then the centre of botanical research in the world.
We don’t know too much about John Cameron the person. But whatever little we can glean from stray records and correspondence of John Cameron the official reveals a man full of ideas, action, and a passion for plants and horticulture.
Horticulture with gusto
The main reasons for the establishment of Lalbagh as a Government Botanical Garden in 1856 were the introduction of new useful species, the acclimatisation of these so that they could be taken to other places in India, and the education of ‘native’ farmers and gardeners on superior methods of horticulture and cultivation. Cameron pursued all these objectives with great fervour.
Lalbagh’s first known plant census, done in 1861, records 1033 species. In the first six years that he took charge of Lalbagh, Cameron managed to introduce an average of 160 new plants every year, so that Lalbagh’s second plant census records 2,020 species in the garden.
And eleven years later, the garden had an astonishing 3,222 species, though of course, by this time the garden had also increased in size. It’s no wonder that the 33 years that Cameron was in charge of Lalbagh are regarded by horticulturists as the Golden Era of plant introductions.
Cameron cast his net far and wide, using his contacts around the world to bring in new plants to the garden: Clematis from Greece, oil palms from West Africa, silkrubber from Indonesia, Qat from Yemen, Fish poison tree from Sri Lanka, blackthorn from Australia… He also tried to introduce many commercial crops, including varieties of coffee, apples, rubber and grapes.
The chow chow makes an entry...
In fact, many of the vegetables that we think of as integral parts of our diet were introduced during Cameron’s period. The next time you chew your chow chow palya (curry), ponder how this may not have been possible but for Cameron.
Horticulturist S V Hittalmani writes about how Cameron introduced and popularised the chow chow, also called seeme badanekai or foreign brinjal. Sometime in 1890, Cameron received three chow chow fruits from Sri Lanka. After trying them out in Lalbagh, he was convinced the vegetable could be useful.
But convincing farmers was no simple task. To persuade them to try out this new crop, Cameron personally toured the surrounding countryside on horseback, talking to farmers and distributing the seeds. (This probably explains Cameron’s special horse allowance of Rs 30 per month!) A few months later, he revisited them to find out if they had tried the vegetable and how their crop was doing.
It is said that the indefatigable Cameron even stood at the toll gate on Hosur Road to distribute these fruits to farmers. Perhaps this is why people in our neighbouring states still refer to chow chow as the Bangalore brinjal.
From January 1887, Cameron was also given charge of the Bangalore museum. But the additional responsibility does not seem to have lessened his commitment to horticulture. He kept up a steady stream of scientific publications, some based on botanical tours that he undertook to various parts of the state. He continued with experiments at Lalbagh to determine the potential value of new plants. Students and volunteers were encouraged to come and watch these for free so that they may learn.
Outstanding volunteers were also given certificates of merit. He began a Gardeners’ Class in Lalbagh to train ‘native’ gardeners, with six scholarships available for deserving candidates. Cameron even edited a 115-page book in Kannada on kitchen gardening, titled Mysore Seemeyalli Kaithotagala Vyavasaya, which was all about the cultivation and care of exotic and native vegetables.
Cameron’s second mission was to enlarge the area under his care. When he assumed office, Lalbagh had an area of about 45 acres. In 1889, 30 acres were added to the eastern side, followed by 13 more in 1891, including the Rock with the Kempegowda tower. Three years later, Cameron managed to add a whopping 94 acres to Lalbagh, just east of and below the Rock.
Another pet project of Cameron’s seems to have been the Zoo. Lalbagh had a zoo since at least 1866, but Cameron seems to have collected animals for it with quite as much enthusiasm as he collected plants for the garden. Among other things, he procured a tiger cub (for an exorbitant Rs. 50!), orangutans, bears, hoolock gibbons and rhinos for the zoo, besides innumerable birds and small animals like rabbits.
He also continued to improve Lalbagh’s facilities. It was Cameron’s idea to have a conservatory in the garden to facilitate acclimatisation of plants and also as a venue for the flower showers which until the Glass House built, were held near the bandstand. In 1891, Cameron also had an elegant new main gate built. The grand wrought iron railings of the Cameron gate, as it was called for many years, were designed to provide a view from the road of the garden inside.
Cameron handed over his responsibilities as Superintendent of Lalbagh and the museum to his able successor GH Krumbiegel in January 1908. He returned to England shortly after. Today, though horticulturists hail him as the Father of Horticulture in Karnataka, his contributions are forgotten by most.
Nothing remains in Lalbagh to preserve his memory. The zoo that he so lovingly tended was closed in 1933 when all remaining animals were transferred to the Mysore zoo. The entrance that bore his name for many years is now known only as Main gate, and I wonder how many today know who is responsible for the welcome glimpse of green they get as they crawl past the traffic here.