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Floral tourism: seeing but not hearing the tropics?

By Abril Nuñez

Nunez Greenhouse.jpeg

In the nineteenth century, Americans and Europeans were increasingly interested in importing exotic seeds from other continents. A study by historian Robin Veder shows that advances in greenhouse management allowed gardeners to cultivate these plants indoor, growing the plants outside their indigenous climate and environment. People may have grown exotic seeds to glimpse faraway places that were otherwise out of reach. This could be a form of travel for people who did have the resources to visit these places by ship. Cultivators may enjoyed the novelty and adventure of growing exotic seeds, or wanted to show off their horticultural skills and knowledge. Finally, some may have grown exotic seeds simply to display their beauty and to bring variety to their own gardens.

Pittsburghers encountered flowers from all different parts of the world when the Fricks opened their greenhouse to the public for flower shows. In this setting, people could see and smell the flowers, but could not hear the sounds of the ecosystem where that plant originated. The greenhouse, therefore, was very similar to the zoo, where animals were displayed outside their natural habitat. One of the more popular seeds in the late nineteenth century was Canna. The related species Canna Indica grows naturally in my home country Venezuela, where is called “capacho.” In the following clip, you will hear the natural environment where the capacho grows. Compare this with the sounds you hear in the greenhouse.  

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Field recording by Indriani Gadaleta and Pablo Nuñez 

My mother recorded this sound clip next to a capacho in her yard. For me, this is what home sounds like. In the morning breeze, you can hear the commotion of the yellow-crowned amazon parrots calling to each other while they feed on the tender fruit seeds of the  mountain immortelle pods, the coconut palm fruits, and juicy mangoes. Then, they continue with their noisy journey in flocks. You can hear the speckled gray Boucard's wren calling cheerfully. Despite its small size and its feathers, it trills to defend its territory and communicate with its partner.  The silver-beaked tanager, with its more discreet tweet, contrasts with its striking black and carmine red plumage with silver bands illuminating its beak. 

Hearing the capacho surrounded by the sounds of its ecosystem, we are reminded that plants provide essential food and shelter for animals, insects, and other organisms. For example, caterpillars feed on the leaves of the capacho. They also enclose themselves in the plant's foliage by stitching themselves up with their silk. In addition, people have developed traditions around the use of plants. For instance, the seeds of the capacho fruits are used to fill maracas, an important percussive instrument used in the folk music of Venezuela and other countries in South America. In the video, you can hear the percussive sounds of the seeds. When a plant is in a greenhouse, however, we mostly notice its smell and its appearance, but we cannot hear its place in the ecosystem or its social uses.

In the 19th and 20th century, the Frick’s greenhouse was a unique place that gave visitors the opportunity to see and smell exotic plants from different parts of the world. However, in many ways, they were viewing plants in captivity which do not contribute to the ecosystem or to human society in the same way that they do in their natural environment. Today, botanical gardens and greenhouses do more to remind us of the importance of plants in the natural environment and in human society. Floral tourism provides us with an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of plants, while also bringing attention to the importance of preserving natural environments and the traditional uses of plants.

Field recording by Indriani Gadaleta and Pablo Nuñez  


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Brown, Eliza. A History of the Landscape at Clayton: The Evolution of an Urban Estate. June 2006. Prepared for The Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, PA. With Funding from The Garden Club of Allegheny County.

Veder, Robin, How gardening pays: Leisure, labor and luxury in nineteenth-century transatlantic culture. College of William and Mary, Dissertation, 2000. 

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