Charles Curtis (botanist) - Penang Botanic Gardens

Penang Botanic Gardens

In mid-1884, following a recommendation from Kew Gardens, Curtis was appointed to the position as Assistant Superintendent of Forests and Gardens under the Straits Settlements administration. Curtis reported to a Superintendent, Nathaniel Cantley, who was also the Curator of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Curtis was placed in charge of the Penang region of the Forest and Gardens Department, which included the "Waterfall Gardens", together with some 3,575 ha of forest reserves. The forest reserves included areas reserved for recreational, fuel, forestry harvesting and protection purposes, mostly on Penang Island. The Forests and Gardens Department was initially engaged mainly in the cultivation of essential commercial plants, inspecting crops and advising the planting community.

When the department's work in connection with economic crops and forestry was taken over by the Agriculture and Forestry Departments, Curtis was appointed the first superintendent of the newly re-created Penang Botanic Gardens, responsible for the layout of the gardens, and their transformation from an old granite quarry site. The Gardens, as distinct from the Forest Reserves, became Curtis' passion. Curtis was presented with a tropical valley, including a nutmeg plantation with associated structures, and a prominent location on the trail to and at the foot of the "Great Waterfall". While an avid and acknowledged botanist and plant collector, he proved himself to be a creative landscape designer in crafting the design and development of the Gardens.

On accepting the position, Curtis proposed a long term strategy as to the development of the gardens and its potential role as a botanical repository and clearing house. Curtis' immediate actions were to develop a plant nursery and undertake a programme of works to create a pleasurable recreational and botanical garden in the valley. This vision was spelt out in detail in his 1885 annual report to Cantley as part of the Department's Annual Report. This included proposals to extend and develop the existing "Waterfall Gardens", the construction of road circuits, the erection of plant-houses for the propagation and cultivation of various species, and the provision of recreational venues.

His immediate steps in 1885–86 were focussed upon increasing the area of the Gardens in the valley together with improving road and pedestrian access. In his 1885 report, Curtis commented on "the poor gravelly soil in the valley" which required that considerable attention should be given to the preparation of the ground for tree planting. However, the "natural advantages of the surroundings, from a landscape gardening point of view, ... in a great measure compensate for this defect."

From the outset, Curtis introduced aesthetic considerations into the design of the Gardens, through the strategic placement of trees and the clearance of jungle. The circular road circuits he had constructed carefully weave through the valley opening up views, framing vantage points, and providing surprises to the visitor. Curtis' design was motivated by his objective to take advantage of and exploit the natural landscape in the first instance, and then locate plantings in functional or species family associations. A later curator, Frederick Sydney Banfield, observed of the planting design structure established by Curtis that: "There is little systematic arrangement even in the botanical sections, the principal aim having been to arrange the plants in such a way as to enhance the natural beauty of the Gardens".

On short leaves of absence he made collections of both living and herbarium specimens at Penang, Burma and neighbouring coastal areas. On some of the trips he was accompanied by Henry Nicholas Ridley, superintendent of The Singapore Botanic Gardens. Both men were interested in the development of the rubber industry, and experiments they made in Penang proved exceedingly valuable to planters.

Curtis' health began to deteriorate from 1890 onwards. He took leave of absence from Penang "on account of ill-health" from 26 January to 25 December 1891. Curtis blamed his ill-health on the quality and location of the accommodation made available to him. Returning in December 1891, Curtis spent another five months at the quarters "during which the health of myself and family suffered severely from fever" forcing him to vacate the house and rent accommodation elsewhere.

His 1892 Annual Report includes "A list of the more important Plants and Trees flowered in the Botanic Gardens, Penang, 1892", and provides an extensive review of the flowering species in the Gardens' collection. Two years later he published "An Extensive Catalogue of Flowering Plants and Ferns Found Growing Wild in the island of Penang" in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society: containing 1,971 species of 793 genera and 129 natural orders, it is a significant record of Malaysian flora.

Curtis also maintained his professional association with the Veitch family during his tenure as Assistant Superintendent. Often forwarding specimens to their nursery, he always visited them while on leave in England, and James Herbert Veitch reported on the Gardens during a visit in 1896, as part of an extensive tour of inspection of South East Asian and Australasian botanic gardens and public gardens, in his "Traveller's Notes" (1896).

In March 1903, Curtis took early long service leave due to a "complete breakdown in February" from fever. Walter Fox was appointed Superintendent on 7 December 1903, "the date of Mr Curtis's retirement".

Following his appointment, Fox reflected that Curtis' administration was one of important developments in Penang:

"In Curtis's retirement the Government loses an able conscientious and hardworking officer. It falls to the lot of few men on their retirement to leave their life's work in so visible and concrete a form. Eighteen years ago the site of the present beautiful Gardens was practically a waste ground. It is now the pride of the Colony and the admiration of all who visit it".

Ridley recorded in 1910 that "Mr Curtis was a man full of energy and skill as a landscape gardener and was not to be daunted by difficulties".

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