Published: 14 August 2013
Botanical Gardens
Peter Thoday shares some thoughts on Botanic Gardens.

Botanic Gardens are one of our most valuable horticultural inheritances. Their origins go back to the sixteenth century when their role, within a university, was as a resource for the study and teaching of medicine and the classification of plants. These early establishments were joined around the world by state supported regionally, nationally or indeed royal botanic gardens.

Their work broadened to include a wider study of plants and, in our case within the UK, the challenge was cultivating species new to Europe. All these interests contributed to botanic gardens assembling huge “Living Collections” ranging from trees to tiny alpines and, with the development of glasshouses, specimens from across the world.

The Temperate House at Ventnor Botanic Garden.

Clearly such a diverse assemblage called for skilled gardeners and botanic gardens round the world have been instrumental in the education and training of many of the most knowledgeable horticulturalists. All these objectives could have been achieved by growing the subjects in blocks of well ordered rows as indeed specific kinds are in today’s research stations. Fortunately for us past fashions dictated a different approach and the collections were amassed within garden settings resulting in the marvellous combination of a beautiful setting accommodating the wonderful diversity of the world’s flora.

Global planting schemes are often seen in many botanical gardens.

In the British Isles botanic gardens have been open to the public from their foundation although in the early days more as a concession than an encouragement. Today things are very different the gardens not only welcome the public but make a huge effort to cater for them.

So what have these academic centres for the study of the plant kingdom got to offer the private gardener?  I would still put at the top of my list the opportunity to see and appreciate correctly named specimens most of which are mature and have been allowed to develop their natural form. They are a living catalogue to learn and select from before visiting a nursery or garden centre.

An opportunity to see plants suitable for your own garden.

Most people in Britain have a botanic garden within fifty miles of home which means its local climate may well be similar to where they live and so can often serve as a guide to plants that should do well in one’s own garden; and the great advantage is that everything you fancy is named. But remember these botanic gardens try to grow a very wide range of subjects including those the textbooks call half-hardy so if you see any form of winter protection being used take note and be warned!  The specimens come from geographically different zones and are hence grown in a wide range of diverse habitats.

Some you may have at home and think of as “difficult” such as the dry shade beneath trees. Taking note of what the experts plant, and where may give you ideas. So can noting the names of some of the most outstanding kinds flourishing in the garden’s ponds, bog gardens and rock gardens. Most botanic gardens have retained their “Systematic Beds where related plants are grouped together. This sounds like a highly technical area of the garden but don’t be put off it can provide the home gardener with ideas for interesting, beautiful and unusual kinds of perennial and annual flowers.

Formal borders are an established method for displaying living plant collections.

Above and beyond this living crib-sheet botanic gardens provide the opportunity to learn about what David Attenborough called “The Secret Life of Plants” starting with the information on the label such as where the subject grows wild and what family it belongs to. Today there are more explanatory or interpretation boards introducing the visitor to topics as diverse as “Plants attractive to bees” or “The genetics of our crop plants”.

Other beds could be arranged to show when specific garden plants were first grown in this country or the recreation and planting of local habitats to help people to know what to look out for on country walks. Alongside the chance to enrich your knowledge of the local flora many people visit their local botanic garden either before or, more often, after an overseas holiday to find the names of plants that impressed them. 

The tropical plantings at Ventnor Botanic Gardens, a reminder of holiday adventures.

From the start botanic gardens have existed to serve professional botanists but they are also a wonderful part of our horticultural heritage deserving of their place at the very top of any list of great gardens. These notes are intended to introduce the reader to their riches, value and enjoyment; most have their “Friends” clubs where one can meet with fellow enthusiasts and gain access to enjoy more of the riches these unique places hold.

Reported by Peter Thoday  

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