Posted by: Rob Viens | May 27, 2012

Gunpowder and Breadfruit: Rio’s Botanical Garden

Today, May 27th, Darwin visited the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. The most striking thing about his diary entry this day is how it differs from what he writes several years later in Voyage.  Check out the first couple of lines of the two descriptions:

“Walked to the Botanic Garden, this name must be given more out of courtesy than anything else; for it really is solely a place of amusement. — The chief & great interest it possesses, is the cultivation of many plants which are notorious from their utility. — There are some acres covered with the Tea tree. — I felt quite disappointed at seeing an insignificant little bush with white flowers & planted in straight rows. — Some leaves being put into boiling water, the infusion scarcely possessed the proper tea flavour.” (May 27)

Compared to:

“On several occasions I enjoyed some short but most pleasant excursions in the neighbouring country. One day I went to the Botanic Garden, where many plants, well known for their great utility, might be seen growing.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

It would appear that our man Charles was a little more candid in his diary than he was in the final published  version.  Not wishing to offend anyone, I would guess?

Friar Leandro’s Lake in the Botanical Gardens (from the Digital Journal)
Friar Leandro’s Lake

To be fair, his description of the garden is pretty much the same in both versions (only his personal opinion is different). Here are a few words from the diary describing what he saw:

“There were trees of Camphor, Sago, Cinnamon, Cloves & Pepper, the leaves of all, especially the Cloves & Cinnamon, had a delightful aromatick taste & smell. — The Bread-fruit was growing in great luxuriance; the leaves from their great size & deep divisions were uncommonly handsome. Oh for the time, when I shall see it in its native Pacific isles. — The Mango & jack-fruit were likewise here; I did not before know their names. — The landscape about Bahia takes its character from these two most beautiful trees; as for the Mango I had no idea any tree could cast so black a shadow. — They both bear to the evergreen vegetation of the Tropics the same ratio which laurels do to our English trees. — In this zone these three latter, together with the Banana, Orange, Cabbage palm & Cocoa-nut tree, stand before all others (with the exception perhaps of the tree fern & some firs) in the beauty of their appearance; At the same time how remarkably they contribute to the subsistence of mankind: & in this double respect how far do they surpass those of Europe. — The Tropics appear the natural birthplace of the human race; but the mind, like many of its fruits seems in a foreign clime to reach its greatest perfection.” (May 27)

This sounds to me like he did sort of like the gardens (though his elitist views of European superiority do show through at the end).

Breadfruit (from Wikipedia Commons)

So a few notes about the Rio Botanical Gardens, which despite what Darwin thought about them in the 1830’s, have become quite a trove of botanical treasures and research.

The plot of land used for the gardens, located on the southern flanks of Corcovado Mountain, was originally a gunpowder factory and a royal nursery for acclimatizing imported plants (such as pepper, cinnamon, etc.). According to footnotes in Darwin’s diary, it was “converted into the Royal Botanic Garden by the Regent Dom Pedro I in 1819 and opened to the public in 1822.”  So to be fair, it had only been a botanical garden for about 10 years when Darwin visited it in 1832.

Orchid Conservancy in the Botanical Garden (from the Digital Journal)
Orchid concervancy

Today the site is a major attraction in Rio, as well as being a significant research center – housing over 6,500 species of tropical and subtropical plants, and a botanical library with over 32,000 books.

The Avenue of Royal Palms – leading to the entrance of the gardens.  This is a stereographic photo of the palms taken by the photographer William Bell in 1882. If you have a knack for such things, you can make the image pop out in 3D.  (It takes some practice.)

Avenue of Royal Palms - William Bell

All the palms on the Avenue are descendants of a single palm tree – called the Palma Mater.

Several online tourist sites rank the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens at 4-to-5 stars (out of 5).  Random comments include:  “The variety of trees and plants is amazing, and the gardens are large enough so that you can forget you’re in such a large city. ” and “Not to be missed!”  Almost 200 years later and people are still talking about it – that says something! (RJV)

PS – More pictures in this article from the Digital Journal.


  1. […] Bell, stopped over in Rio for a little while during the trip and visited the Botanical Garden (see Gunpowder and Breadfruit: Rio’s Botanical Garden for a picture Bell took while on the Transit […]

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