Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

In Brief

Next to the Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin lies another beautifully tended expanse of open land, the Botanic Gardens. In Lotus Eaters Bloom imagines the steamy air in the "Hothouse in Botanic gardens" as a local slice of Ceylon, source of fine teas and "the garden of the world." In Hades he thinks of the gardens in connection with the adjacent cemetery and with the "Mount Jerome" Protestant cemetery, which lies on the south side of Dublin in Harold's Cross. In Ithaca he dreams about having botanical wonders on his own property.

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After the Irish Parliament in 1790 appropriated funds to the Dublin Society for the founding of a public garden, one was established on 48 acres (19.5 hectares) of Glasnevin floodplain between the River Tolka and what later became the Prospect Cemetery (124 acres/50 hectares). The mission of the gardens was, and is, to promote horticultural knowledge useful to agriculture, medicine, and industry and to provide visitors access to sites of tranquil beauty—admission is free even today. In addition to many thousands of living species, millions of dried specimens are stored on site. During the famine years of the 1840s, researchers at the Botanic Gardens identified the fungus responsible for the potato blight and labored to arrest its progress.

The grounds feature a number of architecturally striking Victorian greenhouses. When Bloom thinks of the "Hothouse," he probably is recalling a visit to the Great Palm House, a white iron-and-glass structure built to house plants collected from warm regions of the Empire. Constructed in 1883 after a violent storm damaged an earlier wooden version, the new building was designed by Richard Turner, a Dublin-born iron founder who had already built the Curvilinear Range of glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens, as well as similar grand structures in Belfast and the Kew Gardens outside of London. The Palm House contains tropical and subtropical species large and small, and an adjacent building houses hundreds of varieties of orchids. In an excellent evocation of the experience of walking through such greenhouses Bloom thinks, "Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air."

"Sensitive plants" suggests how vulnerable tropical plants are to a northern climate, but it may also refer to one particular plant, the Mimosa pudica. This plant, which is native to tropical regions in Asia and the Americas, has leaves that close up along their central midrib when touched and unfold again a few minutes later. The phrase may also possibly refer to "The Sensitive Plant," a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a supposition strengthened by the fact that "Flowers of idleness," four sentences earlier, appears to recall the title of a book of Byron's poems, Hours of Idleness.

Bloom may also be aware of another Botanic Gardens facility in County Wicklow. In Eumaeus he expresses a desire to escape "the grind of city life in the summertime for choice when dame Nature is at her spectacular best constituting nothing short of a new lease of life. There were equally excellent opportunities for vacationists in the home island, delightful sylvan spots for rejuvenation, offering a plethora of attractions as well as a bracing tonic for the system in and around Dublin and its picturesque environs even, Poulaphouca to which there was a steamtram, but also farther away from the madding crowd in Wicklow, rightly termed the garden of Ireland." The Botanic Gardens manages a second facility at Kilmacurragh, about 40 miles south of Dublin, where a milder winter climate and more acidic soil permit outdoor cultivation of a wider range of plants. The arboretum and gardens there, on 52 acres surrounding a Queen Anne-style house (now derelict), were established in 1712 and expanded in the 19th century through association with the Botanic Gardens. In addition to this national treasure, County Wicklow has magnificent country estate gardens at Mount Usher (laid out in 1868), Powerscourt (likewise mostly late 19th century), and Kilruddery House near Bray Head (mostly designed in the late 17th century).

Standing in the lushly planted and well-tended Prospect cemetery in Hades, Bloom thinks that it and the Protestant cemetery in Harold's Cross deserve to be called gardens: "And very neat he keeps it too: trim grass and edgings. His garden Major Gamble calls Mount Jerome. Well, so it is. Ought to be flowers of sleep. Chinese cemeteries with giant poppies growing produce the best opium Mastiansky told me. The Botanic Gardens are just over there. It's the blood sinking in the earth gives new life." Bloom seems to have very little gardening experience, but he likes to consider the kinds of nutrients that plants would appreciate. At the end of Calypso his thoughts center on excrement. In the passage just cited from Hades they turn more macabre. Channeling Jonathan Swift, he whimsically ponders the possibilities for marketing human flesh as compost: "Well preserved fat corpse, gentleman, epicure, invaluable for fruit garden. A bargain. By carcass of William Wilkinson, auditor and accountant, lately deceased, three pounds thirteen and six. With thanks." As an "epicure," Mr. Wilkinson will himself have been well supplied with nutrients, so the plants are bound to respond well to his remains.

Bloom's fantasies of lush gardens reach their apogee in Ithaca, when he imagines coming into possession of a rich country estate. The property will be called "Flowerville," and its grounds will contain "a shrubbery, a glass summerhouse with tropical palms, equipped in the best botanical manner, a rockery with waterspray, a beehive arranged on humane principles, oval flowerbeds in rectangular grassplots set with eccentric ellipses of scarlet and chrome tulips, blue scillas, crocuses, polyanthus, sweet William, sweet pea, lily of the valley (bulbs obtainable from sir James W. Mackey (Limited) wholesale and retail seed and bulb merchants and nurserymen, agents for chemical manures, 23 Sackville street, upper), an orchard, kitchen garden and vinery, protected against illegal trespassers by glasstopped mural enclosures, a lumbershed with padlock for various inventoried implements." In time, Bloom thinks, he may add "A rabbitry and fowlrun, a dovecote, a botanical conservatory, 2 hammocks (lady’s and gentleman’s), a sundial shaded and sheltered by laburnum or lilac trees, an exotically harmonically accorded Japanese tinkle gatebell affixed to left lateral gatepost, a capacious waterbutt, a lawnmower with side delivery and grassbox, a lawnsprinkler with hydraulic hose."

Various features of this fantasy seem to have been inspired by visits to the Botanical Gardens. The "glass summerhouse with tropical palms, equipped in the best botanical manner" certainly recalls the Palm House, and the "botanical conservatory" alludes to the scientific facilities encyclopedically stocked with specimens. The grounds of the Botanic Gardens have probably inspired many of his outdoor plantings as well. Features as diverse as "a rockery" and geometrically arranged flowerbeds can be found there, and, according to a Catalogue of Plants in the Dublin Society's Botanic Garden, at Glasnevin (1802), the plantings include all of the flowers mentioned in Ithaca: tulips, scillas, crocuses, polyanthus, sweet William, sweet pea, and lily of the valley.

Asking itself whether Bloom of 7 Eccles Street could foresee Bloom of Flowerville, Ithaca's narrative answers its question with a picture worthy of a clothing catalogue: "In loose allwool garments with Harris tweed cap, price 8/6, and useful garden boots with elastic gussets and wateringcan, planting aligned young firtrees, syringing, pruning, staking, sowing hayseed, trundling a weedladen wheelbarrow without excessive fatigue at sunset amid the scent of newmown hay, ameliorating the soil, multiplying wisdom, achieving longevity."

The novel makes at least one more tacit reference to the Botanic Gardens in Circe when Mrs. Bellingham testifies against Bloom. In addition to his heinous sexual crimes, even Bloom's tender romantic overtures have, upon scientific inspection, proved to be damnably false: "Subsequently he enclosed a bloom of edelweiss culled on the heights, as he said, in my honour. I had it examined by a botanical expert and elicited the information that it was a blossom of the homegrown potato plant purloined from a forcingcase of the model farm."

Allusions gloriously intertwine here. Edelweiss is a short-blooming flower found sparsely scattered on steep, rocky alpine slopes. The devoted Bloom has purportedly traveled abroad and trudged to some rugged, icy peak to bring back a "bloom" of this exotic plant for his dearly beloved. (Folk traditions in the Alps prescribe exactly such shows of devotion.) But his beloved, motivated by deep distrust and perhaps aided by her aristocratic people's connections in the Castle, has taken the flower to be examined by a government-salaried scientist at the Botanical Gardens, and that "expert," possessing a deep familiarity with the "homegrown potato plant" by virtue of his facility's work on the fungal blight, has instantly spotted the fraud. Moreover, the scientist has somehow determined that this particular potato flower was stolen from a tray of specimens on a "model farm," presumably the one "at Kinnereth on the lakeshore of Tiberias" that Bloom has read about in Calypso.

Once more, then, Leopold Bloom has been exposed as a shameless and total fraud. His purported knowledge of matters horticultural (not to mention his capacity for romantic tenderness) is as baseless as his social respectability, his literary authorship, his service in Her Majesty's armed forces, his messianic wisdom, his Christianity, his kindness to animals, and all other virtues which unprincipled defenders can think to enumerate.

JH 2019
2008 photograph by Folks at 137 of the Great Palm House, a greenhouse in the Botanic Gardens designed by Richard Turner. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Tropical plants inside the Palm House. Source:
2008 photograph by Folks at 137 of the Curvilinear Range, also designed by Richard Turner. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Outdoor flower plantings in the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin. Source:
Steel bridge over waterlilies in the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens. Source:
One of the many magnificent scenes surrounding the house at Kilmacurragh, in County Wicklow. Source:
Rhododendrons in bloom at the Kilmacurragh arboretum. Source:
Rockery plantings in the Glasnevin Botanic Gardens. Source: