Published: 08 October 2014
Oxford Botanic Garden
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is set amid some of the most famous seats of learning in the world
Founded as a Physic Garden in 1621 to grow plants for medical research it is now the oldest botanic garden in Britain. This haven of horticultural tranquillity and learning still plays an essential role in the study of plants with many graduates and students from the cities universities and colleges accessing its resources to carrying out pioneering research in order to complete their studies at different academic levels.
The wonderfully divers collections of plants also have quit a history to them; the ‘Family Beds’ set in the main lawn areas represent nearly four hundred years of unbroken history and have been at the forefront of plant science and research throughout this period. At present they are having a major makeover, not only with the planting content but also their realignment and new steel edging

Dr Alison foster, Acting Director told me that ‘Over a period of time the routine maintenance and edging of the beds had resulted in many being out of line with each other, the current work will bring back the crisp lines that are particularly noticeable in winter when there is less foliage over hanging the lawns’ 
She also added that the existing plants will be lifted, many will be divided, cleaned up and then replanted. ‘However, some borders nearer the visitor entrance will be planted to give a higher visual impact while still using plants within the same botanical family.’  This particular aspect of keeping a botanic garden true to its main purpose while still being attractive to visitors is a real challenge; it takes good plant knowledge to make a botanical bed of the Brassica family look appealing to visitors throughout the tourist season!

The planting schemes that make up the many different and diverse collections not only demonstrate the variations within botanical families but also highlight plants from different geographical regions of the world. The garden also has the National collection of Euphorbia with over one hundred and forty species in cultivation.
Students and visitors can see both ornamental and edible plant species with some of the most spectacular growing in the range of glasshouses overlooking the river that forms a boundary to the gardens.
The Victoria cruziana water lily in flower
I asked Dr Alison Foster about the relevance of a botanic garden in today’s high tec, fast moving world, her reply was, ’We have here a beautiful, well documented living resources of great teaching and research value. Subjects being studied include our future bio security, plant classification, medicinal plant studies and it is a place to come and enjoy seeing and engaging with the diversity of plants, as well as a great shop window for the university work here in Oxford'.
The iconic Black Pine, Pinus nigra lost two major limbs in July 2014, the serious damage inflicted to the main tree has necessitated its felling. It is proposed that the main trunk be left in place and carved into a large scale sculpture feature.
A very important department at the garden is the Herbarium, here the preserved plant specimens are stored as an incredibly useful reference library for accurate plant identification, historical cross referencing with plant collectors and other collections held globally as part of important research programs. To celebrate the forthcoming 400 years anniversary in July 2021 there is an ongoing project to highlight 400 different plants. Over each of the four hundred weeks leading up to this date staff will produce a four hundred word fact sheet with key facts and images relating to each plant. This amazing reference material can be seen at the garden and also online. This is a wonderful initiative to highlight some plants with a history or that play an important role today plus celebrating an historic milestone in the gardens history.
Garden visitors can also learn more about the gardens and collections by borrowing any of the themed audio players as they walk around the site, younger visitors can follow the back-pack trails to discover the wonders of the plant world.
The garden also offers horticultural trainee and garden volunteer programmes, talks and lecture series plus an active Friends group; details are available on the website. [see below]     

The Botanic Garden also has another site six miles south of Oxford. The Harcourt Arboretum has one of the finest collections of trees in Oxfordshire and plays an equally important role in the education and research programs as well as being a great place to walk and see the seasonal changes and an abundance of wildlife.

The Morton Borders are filled with flowering plants native to South Africa, North America and the Mediterranean regions. All have been grown from a high density sowing of seed and now look well established in their third year, they demonstrate only a fraction of the rich diversity of plant species from these different geographical areas of seasonally dry grasslands.
The plant species selected show a greater tolerance to climate changes, especially the warmer, dryer summers predicted for the future. Despite the borders being flooded by river water, followed by drought and poor growing seasons these plants are now flourishing in the gardens and show just how adaptable plants really are, perhaps there is an evolutionary story here too!
The high number of insects attracted to these flowering plants also proves the important relationships between plants and insects, especially the pollinating species.

These lawns have been scarified in preparation for sowing seed of native wildflower seeds in order to create meadows. The first sowing will be of Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor, this plant is semi parasitic with its roots fixing to the roots of invasive grasses nearby and sapping their energy and so reducing the competition for space, light, water and nutrients, allowing other flowering species to establish and colonise the area quicker.

The botanic garden has had many illustrious patrons, members and admires during its long and distinguished history; one such being a past scholar in the city and a poet laureate. Sir John Betjeman wrote the following verses in fond memory of the garden in his poem called ‘Church of England thoughts occasioned by hearing the bells of Magdalen tower from the Botanic Garden, Oxford’
I see the urn against the yew,
The sunlit urn of sculptured stone,
I see its shapely shadow fall
On this enormous garden wall
Which makes a kingdom of its own.
A grass kingdom sweet to view
With tiger lilies still in flower
And beds of umbelliferae
Ranged in beds of Linnaean symmetry
All in the sound of Magdalen tower
If I was asked to sum up my thoughts about this very important horticultural masterpiece I would have to say that this plot of land within the city of Oxford puts the art and profession of horticulture in its rightful place at the centre of learning. Long may it continue to evolve yet still be such an inspiring place to visit.
Further information about the garden and arboretum can be found on their websites:
Reported by Chris Allen  

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