by Charles Salas
© all rights reserved
Bursting leaves of date palms grab the attention first and bring to mind the desert oasis. Beneath them stands a man wearing fez, tunic and seroual. And behind, the stiff leaves of drought-resistant dragon trees. A desert garden? That impression lasts only a moment, for then we are everywhere at once: on the right we have tropical plants (perhaps papaya), Cycas revolutas (or sago palms from Japan and China ) and Eucalyptus, and on the left Yuccas from South America, bougainvillea, and a soaring Norfolk Island pine. In fact, while not far from the Sahara, this is no desert. This is the Jardin d’Essai in Algiers.
The Jardin d’Essai is a botanical garden – an experiment in the adaptation of foreign plants to the region undertaken by the French in 1832. Judging from the height of the Norfolk Island pine, the scene dates from the 1870s. The photograph was taken by a professional photographer – unknown – and purchased by a French traveller – also unknown. It was pasted into a late-nineteenth-century album entitled D’Alger à Tunis, now in the special collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (94.R.51). The album served to illustrate a North African trip in much the same way people today show slides of the places they have seen on vacation. And the Jardin d’Essai was one of the ‘must sees’ of any visit to the area. Of course, if you were a Vanderbilt, a mere photograph wasn’t souvenir enough. In 1892 George Vanderbilt chose to remember his North African visit by purchasing a painting of the Jardin, by Renoir. The photograph, no less than the painting, is a very Western representation of a supposedly exotic site that is, in fact, a very Western creation. The figure in dress native to Algiers (the fez seems to be a checheya) posed amidst an Orientalist profusion of exotic plants has likely been placed there by the photographer to provide a sense of the picturesque as well as scale. The picturesque was on Edith Wharton’s mind when she visited the Jardin in 1888. She writes (in her newly published diary, Cruise of the Vanadis, New York : Rizzoli, 2004):
Mustapha, though quite as pretty as any of the suburbs near Cannes or Nice, lacks the neatness and garden-like look which we associate with the Riviera ; but perhaps the general air of slovenliness is atoned for, to many eyes, by the picturesque populace filling the untidy streets. And nowhere in Europe could one see anything so Oriental as the little arcaded café at Mustapha, where white-robed Algerines sit crouched on the terrace, drinking their coffee under a group of plane-trees. We passed the summer palace of the Governor, getting a glimpse of well-kept gardens through the gateways, and then drove through the Vallon de la Femme Sauvage... This wild little ravine led us to the Sahel ; and here we found the Jardin d’Essai which I was particularly anxious to see.
We walked under avenues of India-rubber trees as large as oaks, and between quarter called Mustapha Inférieur, lying near the sea on the lower slope of trellises of tea-roses in bloom, and high clumps ofArundo donax, but a cold wind sweeping through the long alleys made the scene cheerless in spite of this southern vegetation. It was, however, a bad time to visit the Jardin d’Essai, for it had been very cold for some days in Europe, and we heard afterwards that there was snow at Avignon and skating near Marseilles, while we were shivering under the India-rubber trees of Algiers. Perhaps it may have been owing to the exceptional weather that all the more delicate palms such as Lantana borbonica, Phoenix, Cycas revoluta, etc, were sheltered by tents of matting.
The French invaded Algeria in 1830 and within two years set to work on the Jardin d’Essai. Agriculture was crucial to successful colonisation, and the experimental testing ground of the Jardin was part of the conquête des terres. The most successful experiment of them all came from Australia : the Eucalyptus tree, which thrived in its new setting. The Eucalyptus proved especially useful alongside vineyards, and today it is everywhere; so much so, that Algerians think of it as native.
In the Gardens conference last December at the Getty, I learned that Chinese and Japanese gardens were devoted in part to facilitating erotic trysts. This, I figured, this would not apply to desert gardens, with their cactus needles and spikey blades, hardly conducive to erotic get-togethers – unless you are a lizard. But I was wrong. Algerian society provided few opportunities for young people to meet one another, and the Jardin d’Essai, as a public garden and the finest promenade in the city, was one such opportunity. André Gide in his notorious Nourritures Terrestres celebrated the fruits of the Jardin d’Essai which he had never tasted before. The reputation of the Jardin as a place to find forbidden fruit darkened toward century’s end. Since the 1980s, unless you were walking with children and thus clearly en famille, you might be harassed by Islamic fundamentalists or even by Jardin employees, who suspected singles and couples of hetero- or homosexual intentions. In the last two years, it appears that the Government, as part of its campaign against the Fundamentalists, has asked employees in public gardens to use a lighter touch.
The Jardin was not segregated during the colonial period to the degree that other parts of the city were. Nor was there much obviously ‘French’ architecture in the Jardin that might have been off-putting to Algerians. As a result, the Jardin ‘s complicity in colonisation has been largely overlooked. The four star Sofitel Alger, which adjoins the Jardin, praises it as ‘one of the six most beautiful botanical gardens in the world’ and guidebooks refer to it as one of the pearls of the city. Like the Eucalyptus – it is considered very much Algerian. In that sense, it is itself a success story in the world of adaptation.
Charles Salas is the Head of Research and Education at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
My thanks go to Catherine Phillips and her colleagues at the Huntington Botanical Gardens for their help in identifying the plants in the photograph, and to my colleagues at the Getty Research Institute, Frances Terpak and Tatiana Senkevitch who together with Catherine Phillips provided everything I’ve given the impression here of knowing about the Jardin d’Essai.