Anthony Lambert celebrates the British passion for all things green and growing
WHAT is a botanic garden exactly? Definitions have changed over time and they can sound off-putting. A contemporary one — ‘‘ institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education’’ — doesn’t begin to convey the pleasure they can offer to non-botanists.
It’s the remarkable characteristic of botanic gardens that they can be enjoyed in many different ways by the most knowledgeable plant taxonomists as well as by people who can’t tell an azalea from a rhododendron.
Little regard was originally given to the aesthetic arrangement of plants, but many botanic gardens now devote as much effort to presentation as do countryhouse gardens. For gardeners, botanic gardens are like a living catalogue; future generations will be thankful for their work in creating seed banks. Most botanic gardens are in or near urban areas and provide spectacular green lungs and space for residents and visitors; many also gently educate in the importance of the natural world. The first botanic gardens were narrowly functional: known as physic gardens, they were intended to provide plants that could be used in medicine. The first was founded in Pisa in 1543, and they can be seen as a development of the monastic garden, in which all manner of plants were grown, whether or not their use was known. (It was thought that all plants must be of use to man.) Which was the first in the British Isles? The oldest is Oxford Botanic Garden, founded in 1621 by Henry Danvers, first earl of Danby, whose portrait by Anthony van Dyck hangs in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. He leased from Magdalen College 1.8ha of riverside land and gave £5000 (more than $8 million today) ‘‘ for the glorification of God and for the furtherance of learning’’.
The land was soon ringed by the high stone walls that stand today, enclosing the traditional borders and glasshouses for lilies, orchids and palms; outside the walls are the Water Garden and Rock Garden. The garden contains more than 8000 plant species, some laid out in beds to illustrate their uses, such as thorn apple, which is being tested for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. The garden has provided inspiration for various writers, from Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien (who would sit under his favourite tree, the enormous Ent-like black pine, or Pinus nigra , from Austria) to Philip Pullman, who used the wooden bench at the back of the garden in TheAmberSpyglass . Open daily; www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk. Are there any traditional physic gardens left? The best known is London’s Chelsea Physic Garden established in 1673 as the apothecaries’ garden. Thanks to Dr Hans Sloane (after whom nearby Sloane Square is named), the 1.4ha garden is held on a lease of £5 a year in perpetuity. Its early seed-exchange program helped introduce cotton into the US state of Georgia. It’s tucked away behind tall brick walls on Royal Hospital Road and has been open to visitors only since 1983. It’s secluded and intimate and the heat-trapping walls help to grow some trees rare in Britain, such as the most northerly outdoor grapefruit and the largest fruiting olive. Open Wednesdays to Fridays and Sundays; www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk.
The Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden was established on its present 27.9ha site in the 1820s, yet it dates from a garden set up in 1670 to teach the medicinal use of plants to medical students. It’s renowned for the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside China, for its vast rock garden of moraines and streams with more than 5000 alpine plants, and for the Scottish Heath Garden, which re-creates the landscape of the Highlands. Open daily; www.rbge.org.uk. Why is there often a queue for Kew? With more than 1.3 million visitors a year, the Royal Botanic Gardens can be busy on sunny days at key times of the year for colour, but there are four entrances and frequent visitors may find it worth becoming a Friend, which allows unlimited admission (and no queuing). Covering more than 121.4ha beside the Thames at Kew in southwest London, it is the largest and most important botanic garden in Britain. Along with the jointly managed Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, it has probably the largest and most diverse living collection in the world. Kew has been developed from two adjacent royal gardens landscaped by some of Britain’s finest landscape designers, such as Capability Brown and William Chambers, who in 1761, as a surprise for Princess Augusta, designed the 10-storey Great Pagoda that dominates the southeast corner; he also designed the Orangery and three temples.
Two years earlier, a 3.6ha botanic garden was founded, marking the beginning of the garden’s scientific purpose, though its earlier history has helped Kew retain its artistically pleasing design and plantings. It is impossible to see everything in one visit but, to find tranquillity even on a busy day, head for the southwestern corner around the cottage ornee (created for Queen Charlotte, wife of George III), in the oldest area of continuous woodland in the garden. The cottage was used for the occasional meal and the natural state of the bluebell woods is thanks to a stipulation by Queen Victoria; though her request was not entirely honoured after her death, it remains the wildest part of the garden. Open daily; www.kew.org. Is there anything new at Kew for the 21st-century botanic traveller? A new gallery devoted to botanical drawing and painting (the world’s first) has opened. The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art kicks off with an exhibition showing the scope and richness of Kew’s and Sherwood’s collections, with many of the pictures on public display for the first time.
Kew has one of the world’s greatest collections of botanical art, more than 200,000 items by masters such as G. D. Ehret, the Bauer brothers and Pierre-Joseph Redoute alongside 19th-century artists such as Walter Hood Fitch, one of the most prolific botanical artists.
Besides its size and scope, the importance of Kew’s collection lies in having the only surviving record of some extinct species. Sherwood’s complementary collection of contemporary botanical art by more than 200 artists from 30 countries is also on long loan to Kew. The striking new glass building is linked with the nearby Marianne North Gallery, a permanent display of 832 botanical and landscape paintings by that redoubtable Victorian traveller and artist.
Many of the pictures are astonishingly beautiful, and the remarkable detail and subtlety make it easy to appreciate why photography has not killed botanical art, even for scientific research. The opening exhibition runs until October 19, to be followed by an exhibition of tree subjects from November 1. Anything else? Botanic gardens can also transport visitors by recreating different climates. It was in this arena that Victorian ingenuity really came to the fore. New materials made available by the industrial revolution allowed the construction of huge buildings with an uninterrupted floor area. Shipbuilding technology was used to create buildings that look like upturned hulls.
The precursor of the palm houses that became so popular in botanic gardens was Joseph Paxton’s Great Stove at Chatsworth, erected in 1836-40. It was destroyed in 1920, so the oldest surviving palm house is in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, begun in 1839; www.belfastcity.gov.uk.
Probably the finest example in the world, however, is the Grade I-listed wrought-iron and cast-iron palm house at Kew, built in 1844-8 to a design by Decimus Burton and Richard Turner. It was originally heated by coal-fired boilers, whose smoke was fed through underground pipes to the Italianate campanile chimney that still stands by the Victoria Gate Centre. The temperate house, twice as large as the palm house, is the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence.
The purpose of these buildings was to create a climate in which exotic flora could flourish, giving a sense of what tropical rainforest looked, smelled, and (if birds were introduced) sounded like. They also illustrated the use of plants by showing products made from them.
Splendid display: Palm House, Kew Gardens Any other great iron glasshouses? The first glasshouse at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, predates Kew and remains the tallest, at almost 22m; the tropical palm house was built in 1834 and extended in 1862 by adding a temperate palm house. Visitors can experience 10 distinct climatic zones.
Also combining various climatic habitats within a single building is the 1930s Glasshouse Range at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Made partly of teak, the range has a replanting program that explores how plants have evolved to survive in different environments, from icy mountains to desert and jungle. Covering 16.1ha, the garden is an oasis of tranquillity, popular for lunchtime sandwiches away from the office. It was begun in 1831 by John Henslow, the teacher of Charles Darwin, and opened in 1846. Henslow regarded trees as the most important plants, and they form the framework of the garden, though there are more than 10,000 plant species, notably (and ironically for the Fens) alpine plants and lavenders. Open daily; www.botanic.cam.ac.uk. What about specific species? Some botanic gardens focus on local plants or on a particular species, sometimes holding the national collection of a particular plant, which means that it’s the most comprehensive in Britain. Cambridge University Botanic Garden does both. It works to conserve and propagate rare plants of the Fens and sandy Brecklands, as well as holding nine national collections. Oxford Botanic Garden has the national collection of euphorbias, while Bedgebury National Pinetum, in Kent has 608 species of conifers, the world’s most comprehensive collection. Open daily; www.botanic.cam.ac.uk; www.bedgeburypinetum.org.uk. For inspiration? One of Britain’s most visited gardens is Wisley, in Surrey, which has been looked after by the Royal Horticultural Society since 1903. The 97ha estate incorporates numerous formal and informal decorative gardens, several glasshouses, an extensive arboretum, small-scale model gardens and a trials field where new cultivars are assessed. Open Monday to Friday (and at weekends from March to October); www.rhs.org.uk. And when I’ve seen enough plants? There are plenty of diversions in York Museum Gardens, with 4500 plants and trees in the centre of York. Covering a little more than 4ha of the former grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, it is home to the remains of the Roman fort of Eboracum and the Yorkshire Museum, with its octagonal observatory. Open daily; www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk.
At Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, a narrow-gauge steam railway takes you around the woodland garden, known for its rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. Open daily; www.exbury.co.uk. Any new botanic gardens? The most ambitious recent creation is the Eden Project in Cornwall. The three domes in the china-clay pits mimic three environments: the tropics, a warm temperate zone and the Mediterranean. The first is the largest greenhouse in the world, 1.5ha of banana trees, coffee and rubber plants. Olives and grapevines fill the temperate biome. Its huge education centre, the Core, aims to communicate the project’s central message, about the symbiotic relationship between people and plants. Open daily; www.edenproject.com. What if I prefer trees to flowers? Some arboretums are part of botanic gardens, others merely the result of a private passion for trees. One of the first surrounded the bishop of London’s palace at Fulham, with North American specimens sent back (starting in 1675) from the relatively new colony in Virginia; some of them survive in what is now a municipal park.
The National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire is renowned for its autumn colours, thanks to what is expected to become the world’s finest collection of maples. Covering 243ha, it has more than 3000 species, with a substantial collection of oaks. Open daily; www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt.
In complete contrast to the Oxford Botanic Garden is its arboretum at Harcourt, to the south of the city. The best time of year is May and June, when the azaleas and rhododendrons are ablaze, or October, when the Japanese maples are at their best. In summer there is the all-too-rare sight of a wild flower meadow; www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk. Where can I find out more? The Botanic Gardens Conservation International links 2500 institutions in 120 countries, working together to preserve and promote plant diversity; www.bgci.org. The Independent
Some gardens are closed in winter; check websites for full details. The Great British Heritage Pass offers access to 600 castles, stately homes and gardens in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and saves about 40 per cent on admission fees. From $70 for a four-day pass to $175 for a month-long pass. More: www.visitbritain.com.au. The Incidental Tourist — Page 7