From research garden to arboreal paradise
Arboretum De Dreijen is a peaceful, green enclave in Wageningen and has an eventful history. During its 116 years the garden has had a variety of functions and seen areas added as well as taken away. The garden’s rich cultural history lends true added value to this living plant collection.
It is difficult to make an accurate reconstruction of what De Dreijen looked like over a century ago. The best reference we have is a sketch, published by the famous landscape gardener Leonard Springer (1855-1940) in 1896. On 3 October of that year, the then Minister of the Interior Samuel van Houten opened the State Agricultural College and its test garden in Wageningen. At this time the combined principal’s residence and school building, now known to locals as ‘Plantentaxonomie’ or ‘The Building with the Clock’, occupied a more or less central position on the site. The surrounding research and experimental gardens occupied almost five hectares of land. The western boundary extended beyond the present Arboretumlaan as far as Delhorstpad, the border of the former cemetery. The garden complex lay on the outskirts of Wageningen and was surrounded by a thick hedge to offer protection from northerly winds.
The layout of the grounds reflects Springer’s philosophy. He felt that a thorough knowledge of plants, trees and shrubs was necessary to elevate horticulture to a higher level. Every aspect of horticulture was represented on the site: a vegetable plot, a geometric rosarium, a pomological garden or orchard, glasshouses for grapes and peaches, a fern garden with a water pool for indigenous water plants and a flower garden with several conservatories and nurseries for trees, bulb and tuberous plants, annuals and perennials. There was also space allocated as a test garden for mosaic cultivation and for an arboretum or test park with woody plants.
For this arboretum Springer reserved almost a hectare of land on the eastern side of the site along Rijksstraatweg, the present Generaal Foulkesweg. The tree garden was laid out in landscape style to allow students to study the natural shape of various trees and shrubs. This wooded corner clearly made a great impression on the public, as the nearby bus stop has been known for years as ‘Tuinbouw-Arboretum’.
In the journal Tijdschrift voor Tuinbouw of 1876, Springer describes the twofold purpose of the test park: “First of all, it serves as an arboretum that will include as many varieties as possible of trees and shrubs which are suited to our climate and our parks. This will not be a place of learning for our students only, but also for other interested persons who wish to assure themselves of the name of a particular tree or shrub. Here the students will also receive education in how to maintain parks and estates, how to treat trees and shrubs and how to appreciate their true beauty, for which there is seldom opportunity in the nurseries.”
Louise Baas Becking
Thirty years later, in 1906, the garden complex became part of the National Higher College of Agriculture, Horticulture and Forestry (Rijks Hogere Land-, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool) and in 1918 the National Agricultural College (Landbouwhogeschool). In 1913 the complex was extended slightly on its northern boundary. By then the wooded area contained around 1200 varieties, with deciduous trees such as oak, beech, elm, poplar and walnut primarily along the main road, and the coniferous varieties in a more central area to the northwest. Curator Louise Baas Becking, who designed the formal garden surrounding the central pond, reported in 1918 that the original plan to plant three examples of every variety had been abandoned: “It is still being carried out for the smaller plants. The larger plants (and in particular the trees) must be removed as soon as they reach a certain point in their development”, she wrote in the Notices of the Rijks Hoogere Land-, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool.
In the 1930s the garden shrank slightly to accommodate the new Botanical Laboratory buildings. The construction of Arboretumlaan led to the loss of the thus separated western strip to housing construction. The coming of the Agricultural College’s department of Plant Systematics and Plant Geography to the building with the clock in 1925 signalled a shift from practical horticulture and forestry to the more botanical aspects of plants. Work in the gardens and greenhouses was focused on education and research.
Six thousand varieties
Fuel shortages during the Second World War led to the loss of a large part of the tropical collection. Because Wageningen was in the front lines from 1944, the buildings, greenhouses and gardens suffered much damage from grenades. After the war, the gardens soon began to outgrow their site, so in 1951 the directors of the Agricultural College decided to purchase the badly damaged hillside estate ‘Belmonte’ for 75,000 guilders. Several trees were transported by horse and cart from De Dreijen to the 17-hectare Belmonte Arboretum.
In the post-war period, botanical gardens flourished as never before thanks to the cross-pollination between breeders and botanists. When the botanical gardens celebrated their 75th anniversary in 1971 they had a staff of 16 gardeners tending a collection of six thousand varieties and cultivars distributed over both sites. The research focused on the two important themes of chromosome studies and taxonomy, while the commercial sector showed a great deal of interest in ornamental plant trials. Teaching and research were followed by public information as a third important focus, and recreational visits also grew in popularity.
A Garden of Delights for Linnaeus
The construction of a new herbarium building and a large tropical greenhouse in 1985 signalled the heyday of the post-war blossoming of botany in Wageningen. After this point, the emergence of new methods and scientific fields led to a gradual diminishing of the importance of the collections for teaching and research. Moreover, universities slowly but surely began to lack the resources for their heritage task. This is illustrated by the complaint of curator Jan Just Bos in the Wagenings Universiteitsblad of 1994. “Leiden and Wageningen are the only places where the students still have contact with plants. They still do identification. The others have given up on this and are solely engaged in molecular technology; it won’t be long before they think that that yucky green slime in their test tube is a plant”, he complained.
The shrinking team of gardeners did their best to compensate for their dwindling academic role by placing more emphasis on their public function. In 2001 the Wageningen gardens were designated a ‘Registered Museum’. They are used increasingly often for public events. For example, between 1976 and 2009 the Belmonte Arboretum hosted the sculpture exhibition Beelden op de Berg nine times, and in 2007 the entire garden of De Dreijen was transformed into a veritable Garden of Delights, the Lusthof voor Linnaeus.
In the light of this history, and bearing in mind the University’s decision to concentrate its activities from now on at its North Wageningen Campus, it seems only logical that Sculpture Gallery Het Depot should have taken over the management of the gardens. The former test garden can now, in combination with the equally beautiful garden surrounding Villa Hinkeloord, continue to develop into a lovely garden for walking. That its function as a test garden is not completely gone can be seen from the numerous labels by the plants: today’s visitors wishing to “assure themselves of the name of a certain tree or shrub”, to quote Springer, can still find such information in Arboretum De Dreijen.
Gert van Maanen
See also www.botanischetuinen.wur.nl/dreijen
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