Gerrit van Iterson and the Dutch East Indies

The history of the Botanical Gardens TU Delft is intimately connected to the agriculture of our largest colony, the Dutch East Indies, and to the man, Gerrit van Iterson Jr. (1878-1972), who was in charge of the Delft garden from 1917 to 1948. During the period from 1880 to 1910 scientific interest in tropical agriculture increased greatly. Spreading from the famous botanical garden in Buitenzorg (now Bogor), a network of testing stations emerged, where a broad range of scientific research took place. It especially targeted the large-scaled crops, coffee, sugar, tobacco, rubber, and tea. Under influence of an increasing ‘ethical colonial political policy’, the crops that the native population traditionally had cultivated, were also given scientific attention.
In 1901, precisely during the period of increasing interest in tropical botany, Van Iterson got his first degree from what was then still called the Polytechnical School. In addition to the usual course material he took two subjects which brought him into contact with two illustrious Delft professors. They were M.W. Beijerinck, the founder of modern microbiology, and H. Behrens, who taught the subject of microchemistry.
Van Iterson got an assistantship with Beijerinck in 1902, and six years later got his PhD cum laude from him on a dissertation strongly characterized by higher mathematics. It received excellent reviews and continued to be cited even in the seventies of the past century.

Gerrit van Iterson

First still Old Delft 81

M.W. Beijerinck, who had received his own laboratory and residence from the Poly-technical School in 1905, on the Nieuwe Laan, had high hopes for his brilliant graduate. He used his influence and saw to it that Van Iterson became professor in 1907 in a subject new to Delft, microscopic anatomy. In Beijererinck’s laboratory Van Iterson was given the required space for his lectures. He was also permitted to utilise the garden and its plants.

Microscopic anatomy was not a required subject at Delft. Van Iterson’s lectures at the Nieuwe Laan were nevertheless extremely popular. As a result, the laboratory at the Nieuwe Laan became too small for both studies. In the summer of 1908 the young professor was given a place of his own, the old Magistrate Court building, no.81, canal Old Delft. The building also had a garden, made suitable for raising plants necessary for teaching and research. In so doing Van Iterson preferred plants which could be used in technology, and in this way he laid the basis for the study which he would later call ‘Technical Botany’.

M.W. Beijerinck in het laboratorium

The need for a new garden

The building on the Old Delft, but especially its garden, were too small for the research Van Iterson had in mind. He strongly insisted, hardly a year later, that he be given a laboratory specifically equipped for his specialization.

In 1908 Van Iterson formulated the necessity for such a garden himself as follows:
“If the future engineer wants to be able to understand fully the processes which are required to obtain the so important products from the world of plants, he will have to be given the opportunity to study the plants in question mostly as they are presented to technology, that is, alive… Of course it is true that such a garden at a Technological University does not have to be of a tremendous size, but it must nevertheless be of such dimensions that when it proves to be desirable for certain processes to be studied, that the crop can be planted on a somewhat extended scale.”

M.W.Beijerinck in the laboratory The curators of the University supported Van Iterson’s request to the minister, to whom they presented the building of a new laboratory as ’urgent’. Under the conservative governments in those days, the proposal had little chance. A few changes were made to the house; the government made an additional piece of land available behind the house, and a small greenhouse was built in the garden.

The students eventually made the difference

Permission for building a new laboratory and its experimental garden was put off again and again. That changed when Van Iterson was made a tempting offer to become director of the testing station for the Java sugar industry at Pasoeroean. When he began to consider this very seriously, both the profs and the students took action together. They jointly asked the Minister to see to it that Van Iterson and his research would not be lost for Delft. Later the minister declared that it was especially the request of the students that finally convinced him.

After still hesitating for a moment or so, Van Iterson decided to stay in Delft. He did so, however, on condition that he would get his own institute for teaching and research very soon. This was indeed agreed to, but the actual realization of this promise, took some doing.

Studenten in laboratorium

The territory for the garden

Before his experimental garden came into being, Van Iterson had to be very, very patient. Civil servants just naturally operate slowly. When he proposed to look abroad for someone to possibly build and design the new laboratory, he met with resistance from the ministry. After a great deal of squabbling, it was permitted in as modest a form as possible. The decision to buy a piece of ground was also delayed endlessly. Not until April, 1914 did the Technical University finally receive some land at its disposal for the garden.

It was probably not exactly what Van Iterson had had in mind for his new botanical garden. The terrain lay south of the Schie, in what is still called the Wip polder today, and was about 3 hectares. It lay low, and consisted of soggy meadow. After investigating, the wetness proved to be a result of an impenetrable layer of clay not far below the surface. To make this meadow suitable for planting, it would have to be improved drastically, particularly the drainage, after which the level of the soil would have to be raised considerably.

In addition, certain restrictions for use were imposed. On the Kanaalweg (Canal Road), bordering on the garden, the Poly-technical School had constructed a characteristic building for geodesy, with a dome housing a telescope. For the students to be able to continue surveying the land, no high trees were allowed to be planted in part of the garden.

De Botanische Tuin omstreeks 1930

The necessary ground improvements

In 1913 and 1914 the city of Delft had a number of streets laid in the Wip polder by a firm from Scheveningen. In order to keep costs down for improving the ground as much as possible, the Technical School asked this firm to do the job at a reasonable price.

The firm accepted the assignment and got to work. The first 30 to 40 centimeters of the upper layer were removed from the meadow. In the impenetrable layer of clay below this, twelve ditches were dug down to the water table. These were filled with clean dune sand. The intent was to be able to control the water balance and manage it properly. A thick layer of clean dune sand was placed on the clay, and on top of that, the original layer of meadow soil. As a result, the surface of the soil was now one meter higher than before, along what is now the Julianalaan. From this point on, the garden ran sloping down to the Kanaalweg.

Whether or not the costs were low is the question. The entire project, raising the ground level, the lay-out, building the greenhouses and a residence for the gardener cost almost 90 000 guilders, a considerable amount in those days. A good portion of it consisted of the costs of the drainage and the elevation of the ground.

Overzicht van de Botanische Tuin

The Garden becomes structured

After the preparatory work was done, constructing the garden itself could begin. Meanwhile the building of the Laboratory for Technical Botany had also begun, on Julianalaan. It was designed by the well known architect, J.A.W. Vrijman, who had, among others, also designed the old central library of the university. In October of 1917 the new laboratory was ready for use by students and staff.

Around the laboratory there were about 2 hectares available for the garden. The basic design was rendered and executed by the firm, T. Koeslag & Zn from Delft. The first curator of the garden, E.H.J. Cunaeus, made a plan in 1917 for the rest of the plants to be put in. The grounds were divided into three sections. The northern as well as the southern sections were high relative to the lower western part. The greenhouses were placed in the northern section and the imposing trees with winding paths in the southern.

The most western part of the garden initially received the least attention. Large amounts of annuals and biennials were to be planted there as testing material for the laboratory. To elevate this part, sand was not used, but earth from digging a pond. In this part a different, functional landscape architecture was used, rectangular beds divided by straight paths.

Overzicht van de Botanische Tuin

Construction of the greenhouses

One of the establishments that Van Iterson had visited during his orientation trip abroad was the botanical garden in Munchen-Nymphenburg. He was so impressed by what he had seen there, that the six greenhouses in the Delft garden were designed and constructed by the German firm, Gustave Roder, which had built the greenhouses in Munchen between1910 and 1912.

On the garden map it can be seen that one of the glasshouses, the one which gives access to the entire complex, has been built in East-Westerly direction, and that the other five are at right angles (in North-Southerly direction). Because a number of glasshouses consist of different sections, which can be closed off, it is possible to raise plants from different climates in the same glasshouse. In the tallest glasshouse, where the vegetation is planted directly into the ground, tropical plants are able to attain their natural size.

From the beginning, the greenhouses were mostly used for raising subtropical and tropical species of economic significance. Among others this included the coconut palm, oil palm, date palm, rice, sugar cane, tea, coffee, and the cinchona tree. The greenhouses in the garden were a great success, even though some of the plants became much larger than originally thought. One older member of staff sighed, “Here the strong urge to economize on all plans proposed has avenged itself.”

De kassen

Rapid expansion

Another result of economizing was that the Orangery, where the not-hardy container plants could survive the winters safely, had high priority on the wish list, but was not built until much, much later. It was finally built in the seventies.

For a botanical garden, the area of two hectares was a bit cramped. Bordering the garden was a leather tanning firm, Roes & Zn. In addition to the tanning buildings, the firm also had a piece of land on which Delft pharmacies had built a herb garden. Their intention was to be able to show plants important to the pharmacy. In December, 1917, their herb garden, which had been raised with fertile slush from Provincial Navigation, was bought for the botanical garden by the national government.

The name ‘Herb Garden’ remained, but its purpose changed. The new Herb Garden was divided into beds with annuals or perennials, and especially for ‘useful’ plants. Every bed had its own specialization.There were those with medicinal plants, those with plants yielding useful fibers, those with plants for making colored pigments, and, of course, plants for pleasure.

In de kas

Herbarium and seed collection

Not just living plants were important. A herbarium in which dried and scientifically described plants are safely kept is a very important part of botany. A part of the dried material had an archive function; it made it much simpler to determine the name of newly arrived plants. Another part could, if there were no fresh plants available, be used for lecture demonstrations. The herbarium of the garden grew considerably during the period between the two world wars. This was especially due to the efforts of Dr. A. Kleinhoonte, as it was she who was responsible for the taxonomy of the garden during this period.

Besides the dried plants, the seeds also play an important part, firstly to reduce the cost of purchasing seeds for new plants from others. Because every botanical garden acquires such a collection of their own seeds, eventually a complete international circuit developed in which seeds and sometimes cuttings were interchanged without costs. Yearly, throughout the world, lists are sent round with available material. In the early sixties more than 500 botanical gardens from all over the world participated. The Botanical Garden of Delft sent 5000 seeds annually during that period.

In troubled waters

After the Second World War the Botanical Garden of Delft fell into difficulties. The increasing independence of our most important colony and the chilly relationship after that between our country and the young state of Indonesia were largely responsible. After all, traditionally Delft’s teaching and research had always been centered on tropical agriculture. In the economically difficult postwar period maintaining the collection received priority.

As to education and research at Delft, general and technical biology, the successor of technical botany, lost ground rapidly. Microbiology and microchemistry became increasingly important. That had consequences for the garden. The national restructuring of scientific education also affected Delft. The agricultural university of Wageningen took over some scientific education as well as research of tropical plants and crops.

Luchtfoto omstreeks 1970

The garden became smaller

During the fifties there was a temporary revival. Professor P.A. Roelofsens succeeded in having the greenhouses radically renovated. However, after his death in 1966, his chair was not filled again for a long ten years. The garden now faced real danger. A proposal to use the ground for new buildings was stopped at the nick of time. In the eighties the faculty in charge of the garden merged with another, and as a result the garden lost its direct connection with education and research.

The consequences became soon apparent. Having lost its function, the herbarium was transferred in its entirety to the National Herbarium at Leiden, now known as the National Herbarium Netherlands. The same thing happened with the collection of taxonomy books. The collection tropical products assembled by Van Iterson, went to the Technical Exhibit Centre, now Technical Museum, of the university. In 1988 the collection was split up, a part going to the Delft Museum Nusantara, and the zoological specimen slides to the National Museum for Natural History, now called Museum Naturalis in Leiden. Only the samples of tropical products stayed in Delft. The garden itself also became a good bit smaller, and when the Surveying Service of the National Water Board (‘Rijkswaterstaat’) bought the building on Canal Road, formerly belonging to the faculty of Geodesy, the testing garden was lost as well.

Lesmateriaal uit Van Iterson's tijd, plantmodellen

National Plant Collection

Not only was the botanical garden of Delft threatened, but during the same period other botanical gardens in the Netherlands as well. In order to prevent duplications, those collections threatened, began to attune to each other. In addition to research, the botanical gardens adopted a new function, that of keeping a living national botanical archive.

In order to give the existing co-operation a formal basis, the Society Dutch Gardens (SNP) was established in 1988. This name was subsequently legally altered to Society National Plant Collection.

The initiative of the SNP was remarkably successful. More than 20 botanical gardens, both individual and university, Have been working together in satisfactory harmony for years. The National Plant Collection is divided among the participants. The SNP sees to it that gaps in the collection as well as overlaps are avoided as much as possible.

Again, botanical gardens did not just lose functions, they also gained some. Horticultural schools, specialised nurserymen, and those just interested, regularly ask for their expertise and experience. Educative work of nature and the environment combined with information given to a broader public became more and more important.

New fervour

In order to strengthen the relationship to agrarian education, the garden’s collection of ornamental plants was broadened. Various nature and environmental projects were begun. As a result of the co-operation between the municipal nature-and-environment centre The Poppy, and the Delft garden, pupils of the primary schools visit the botanical garden regularly. Additionally, there are activities such as mini-expositions, plant-exchange festivities, and concerts.

The registration and accessibility of the collection was to be considerably improved during the coming years. In 1997 the then Secretary of State, Nuis, made a subsidy available for the preservation of academic heritage material. This heritage included the botanical gardens of Amsterdam, Delft, Leiden, Utrecht, and Wageningen. The idea was to make the collections of the botanical gardens accessible via Internet, to make searching for localities of specific plants simpler, and to keep descriptions of the collections up to date. For the botanical garden in Delft this constituted very welcome support.

The ties with the university were also again strengthened. In 1999 a policy plan was written and proposals were made for improving the financial position of the garden. From the science side interest arose again regarding the possibilities that the botanical garden could offer. Various institutions, such as the Institute of Hydraulic Engineering, began to look into it. Sometimes results are quite surprising, such as the sensational experiments of engineer Dr. J. Marijnissen. He succeeded in developing a new method of extracting Baccatin-III, a substance which plays an important role in cancer research, from the needles of Taxus baccata, the English yew. For this research additional yew trees were planted in the Delft botanical garden. Meanwhile, research programs have been started in co-operation with various departments of TU Delft as well as with other universities and botanical gardens in the Netherlands. The function of the garden for teaching science was also strengthened. Finally, there are designs in the making for improved facilities, including for the general public. And, there is a new enthusiasm in the Botanical Garden TU Delft, an oasis of green and peacefulness, a valuable scientific resource, and an important cultural heritage.

Recente foto van een Taxus baccata in het Arboretum, geplant in de beginperiode van de Botanische Tuin