How The World in a Garden Became an Exhibit


In the summer of 1947, when future Smith College Emeritus Professor of Biology John Burk was eleven years old, he read an article in National Geographic Magazine, entitled “The World in Your Garden,” featuring paintings of familiar garden plants growing in their native regions around the world. At this time the United Nations was in its infancy, and this article illustrated that, despite the recent carnage or World War II, plants had been living together peacefully in our gardens all along.

“The World in Your Garden” became a part of Professor Burk’s botanical subconscious, and he recalled it at once when he saw his first bulb show in the Lyman Plant House at Smith College in the spring of 1962. Here in a single greenhouse were crocuses, snowdrops, and fritillaries from Alpine meadows, hyacinths from the shores of the Mediterranean, and tulips from Turkey. The sight of all these plants originating from distant regions, assembled and thriving together at winter’s end, seemed extraordinary to him then, as it still does today.

The beautifully illustrated old botanical texts found in Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room provided further inspiration for this exhibition. An essential resource for teaching, particularly in discussions of the development of the science of botany and the art of botanical illustration, these books provide a historical record of plants brought back from the travels of exploration and discovery of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — plants from Asia, Africa, and the New World. Professor Burk was further inspired by his own visits to other botanic gardens, where a common focus is the display of plant life from different continents and biogeographic regions. This fascination with exotic species can easily be seen in many of our home gardens, which today are filled with species originating from around the globe.

Sixty years after his encounter with the July 1947 issue of National Geographic, Professor Burk revisited this inspiration through The World in a Garden exhibit.