Dronken en huis kwijt

Een 18-jarige dronken student heeft in de nacht van dinsdag op woensdag de boel flink op stelten gezet. Hij belde meerdere malen aan bij een woning aan de Julianalaan. Volgens de politie verkeerde hij in de veronderstelling dat hij bij zijn eigen woning voor de deur stond, kennelijk zijn sleutel kwijt was en toch naar binnen wilde.

De student was echter zó dronken, dat hij zich vergist had in de straat. De bewoners van het huis waar hij lawaai maakte belden de politie. Agenten hebben de student op het juiste adres afgeleverd, compleet met een proces-verbaal voor openbare dronkenschap.

Tucked away behind the Kluyver Laboratory of Biotechnology, TU Delft’s Botanical Garden endures as a verdant oasis of plant life with a remarkable story to tell. While touring the garden with Bert van der Meijden, who works at the garden, he stops to point out a huge tree. “Look”, he says, “this is a Canadian poplar, certainly old enough to have seen the very beginning of the garden.” Of that beginning, Dr Lesley Robertson has much to tell; she is the curator of the garden’s Beijerinck archive.

“Professor Gerrit van Iterson can be credited with having started the garden”, Robertson explains. “He did his doctorate on biological mathematics under the supervision of the famous professor of microbiology, Martinus Beijerinck.”
Soon after completing his PhD in 1907, Van Iterson became a professor of a new discipline: microscopical anatomy. As a new professor, Van Iterson realized he needed a large garden for his research and lessons, and by 1917, the garden was finally ready, greenhouses and all. The early years of the twentieth century was the Netherlands’ colonial period, and thus the country had many contacts with the Dutch East Indies, from where many tropical plants were imported. Van Iterson worked on the development of rubber, fibres and other plants with technical applications. He called this study ‘Applied Botany’.

Robertson continues: “Van Iterson loved teaching and his lessons on botany were very popular.” She shows me a book with pictures, explaining that Van Iterson took a photo of his class every year. Men in suits stare at the camera from behind microscopes, while Van Iterson stands in the back of the class, which was characteristic, Robertson explains, as the professor was a humble man. This is a reason why his PhD supervisor, Beijerinck, and one of his later PhD students, Albert Jan Kluyver, are much more famous today. Robertson regrets this: “Van Iterson deserves just as much respect as the other two.”
As our tour continues, there is much to see of Van Iterson’s past: his microscopes, beautiful drawings of plants and a copy of his doctoral thesis. “This copy was owned by Kluyver”, Robertson adds, and indeed Kluyver’s signature is on the first page. This garden’s history is interesting enough to fill a museum.

Endangered species
During the Second World War, parts of the botanical garden were used to grow food. After the war, the Dutch East Indies gained independence, and as such cooperation between the garden and the colonies diminished. Like a tree shedding its leaves in winter, the garden was there, but wasn’t really used, and for a while it wasn’t connected to research conducted at the university.
In the 1980s, the situation worsened: nearly half the garden – some two hectares – was sold to Rijkswaterstaat, a govermental water agency, and ugly buildings occupied the land. In 2000 however the garden began to flourish again, thanks to common efforts led by Professor Karel Luyben, and a new director for the garden was appointed: Bob Ursem.
“He’s not just a good scientist, but a businessman as well”, says Van der Meijden. “TU Delft’s botanical garden is now one of the Netherlands’ most sustainable gardens.”

Today, the garden’s activities are divided into three parts: research, education and the preservation of plant species.
As our tour continues, Van der Meijden points to several research projects. Near the greenhouses are concrete panels covered with vegetation. The panels are part of Marc Ottele’s PhD research at the faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences’ materials and environment section. Ottele is searching for methods to grow plants directly on building materials. “They can be used to make sound reducing walls, or tunnel entrances more appealing”, Van der Meijden explains, adding that the panels have already had commercial success. “Some companies are interested in them, and prototypes are being built.”
In addition to their decorative element, the panels help to clean the air of particulates. Ottele: “We’re now studying how many particulates the plants can actually extract from the air.”

One of the garden’s new educational activities is an annual exhibition held in the Orangery, where ten panels about plant-related subjects are exhibited. Morever, this year the garden is hosting an exhibition about Darwin’s life and work, and consequently the Orangery is filled with various exotic African plants.
Van der Meijden is now preparing the 2010 exhibition, which will focus on biodiversity, presenting concise impressions of organic life: species, ecosystems, landscapes and more. “The world is losing its diversity, which is a really bad thing”, says Van der Meijden, adding that exhibition will also include lectures and educational tours for primary school students. “We try to offer activities for a broad audience.”

Another recent activity is the preservation of endangered plant species of the Netherlands. Because botanical gardens have limited capacities, every garden in the Netherlands must preserve certain families of plants. A large national database contains all these families and gardens send seeds to each other. In Delft’s botanical garden, many plants have technical applications, yet looking at the small blue signs dotting the garden, other plant families are also present, like nutmeg.
So the garden is doing well now, but what about its future? “In a few years the biotechnology department will move to a new building,” Van der Meijden says, “and then the present building – which is inseparable from the garden – will be vacant. Developers had planned to use this opportunity to build a parking garage under the garden, but luckily this will not happen.
“The botanical garden isn’t just meant for science,” Van der Meijden continues. “It’s the largest green place in Delft, and people come here just to walk and relax.” He points knowingly to a bush with pretty white flowers: “This is a prunus subhirtella, which has flowers all winter. When it freezes the flowers die, but when temperature rises again, new flowers bloom.”  

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