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An obscured Magdalen Tower, pictured here from the Walled Garden, which houses the important scientific collections.

The University of Oxford Botanic Garden

Peter Holthusen on the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world
Among the regular summer visitors to the gardens are the Kingfisher, pictured here beside the River Cherwell.

"A source of inspiration"

Surrounded as it is by the dreaming spires of Oxford and in the very heart of this vibrant, historic city you will discover one of England's most secluded natural treasures, the hauntingly beautiful, gracefully symmetric University of Oxford Botanic Garden.

 

Located on the banks of the River Cherwell at the northeast corner of Christ Church Meadow, it is the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world.

Perhaps Daubeny’s most remarkable achievement at the Botanic Garden was the creation of The Lily House with its huge tank, in which he successfully grew and flowered the ‘Victoria amazonica’, or Giant water lily in 1851 and then charged the people of Oxford a shilling to come and have a look.

 

The Garden was founded in 1621 when Sir Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, contributed five thousand pounds (equivalent to £3.5 million today) to set up a physic garden for "the glorification of God and for the furtherance of learning". Today, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden is still committed "to promoting learning and glorifying nature", and contains over 5,000 different plant species on 1.8 hectares (4½ acres) of land, belonging to Magdalen College.

Four thousand cartloads of "mucke and dunge" were needed to raise the land above the flood-plain of the River Cherwell before the gardens were first planted. The walls and arches were built on such a grand scale that by the time they were finished in 1633 all the money had been spent and there was nothing left to pay for the running of the Garden. The walls are a perfect legacy as they enable the botanists to grow a large range of plants from all over the world and have not been significantly changed or modified since they were completed almost 380 years ago.

In 1642 the Garden gained its first Curator, Jacob Bobart. For the first seven years the University failed to pay his salary, so during this time he helped to make ends meet by selling fruit grown in the garden. Among these fruits was the medlar (Mespilus germanica) that is listed in the garden's first catalogue of plants published in 1648.

The oldest tree in the Garden is an English yew (Taxus baccata) that was planted by Bobart in 1645. Although at the time they were not planted for their medicinal properties, yew trees now provide the raw material for two important cancer drugs, paclitaxel (taxol) and docetaxel (taxotere). How appropriate that the oldest plant in a former physic garden is now providing us with life-saving medicines.

Bobart was succeeded as Curator by his son, Jacob, who also took on the role of Professor of Botany at the University. During his time at the Garden, Bobart the Younger compiled a list of species from which he had collected seeds. This list was sent to other botanic gardens with the suggestion that seeds could be exchanged for mutual benefit. This was the forerunner of the annual seed lists that are now published and circulated by botanic gardens all over the world.

Many of the plants growing in the Garden today have come to them through this International Seed Exchange. When Bobart the Younger retired in 1719 the Garden fell into disrepair. The man who saved the Garden was William Sherard. He had been an undergraduate at Oxford and had then travelled extensively, collecting plants from around the world. He recognised the unfulfilled potential of the Garden and when he died in 1728 he left money to the University to endow a professorial chair in Botany. Today's Sherardian Professor of Botany is Liam Dolan who leads an international research group in the University and yet continues to be Keeper of the Botanic Garden.

Sherard attached a series of conditions to his donation. The most important being that the University should give £150 each year towards the running of the Garden, thus ensuring that the Botanic Garden received an annual budget. This continues today, although the sum is somewhat more significant.

In 1787 John Sibthorp was appointed Sherardian Professor at the Botanic Garden following the resignation of his father Humphry Sibthorp, who began the catalogue of the plants of the Garden, 'Catalogus Plantarum Horti Botanici Oxoniensis'.

John Sibthorp was the original workaholic (unlike his father) and he travelled widely in Greece and the Aegean. However, it was on his travels through Northern Europe in 1790 that he collected the seed of the black pine tree (Pinus nigra var. nigra) that is now one of the largest trees in the Garden. He sent the seed back to his head gardener, John Foreman. The resulting sapling was planted out in 1800 by James Benwell making it the oldest specimen of this species in Britain. It has grown into a magnificent tree. It was the favourite tree of J.R.R. Tolkein and more recently it provided inspiration for Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy.

Like many of the places and people of Oxford, the Botanic Garden was a source of inspiration for Lewis Carroll's stories in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', who made frequent visits to the site in the 1860's with the Liddell children. In the Evelyn Waugh novel 'Brideshead Revisited', Lord Sebastian Flyte takes Charles Ryder "to see the ivy" soon after they first meet.

The arrival of Charles Daubeny as Sherardian Professor of Botany in 1834 saw another major change in the Garden's fortunes. Daubeny was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, a passionate scientist and a very wealthy man. Perhaps Daubeny's most remarkable achievement at the Botanic Garden was the creation of The Lily House with its huge tank. In 1849 the Duke of Devonshire invited Daubeny to join a party of eminent botanists and horticulturalists at Chatsworth House to come and see their plant of 'Victoria amazonica'. This was the first time that the Victoria or Giant water lily had flowered in this country.

As soon as Daubeny saw the plant he stated he simply must have one and he returned to Oxford to build The Lily House and the tank. He successfully grew and flowered the Victoria in 1851 and then charged the people of Oxford a shilling to come and have a look. However, the public not only stayed away but also wrote aggrieved letters expressing their concern at paying to see just one single plant. By 1859 they had stopped growing Victoria and the plant was not grown at the Garden again for almost 150 years. Today they grow 'Victoria cruziana' enabling visitors of all ages to marvel at the large round 'pie dish' like leaves, strong enough to support a sitting child.

The University of Oxford Botanic Garden consists of both outside areas (The Gardens) and inside areas (The Glasshouses). In total the site covers nearly 2 hectares and is bounded to the north by the High Street, to the east by the River Cherwell, to the west by the aptly-named Rose Lane and to the south by Christ Church Meadow.

The Danby Gateway to the Botanic Garden is one of three entrances designed by Nicholas Stone between 1632 and 1633. It is one of the earliest structures in Oxford to use classical, indeed early Baroque style, preceding his new entrance porch for the University Church of St Mary the Virgin of 1637, and contemporary with Canterbury Quad at St John's College by others. In this highly ornate arch, Stone ignored the new simple classical Palladian style currently fashionable, which had just been introduced to England from Italy by Inigo Jones, and drew his inspiration from an illustration in Sebastiano Serlio's book of archways.

This imposing gateway consists of three bays, each with a pediment. The largest and central bay, containing the segmented arch is recessed, causing its larger pediment to be partially hidden by the flanking smaller pediments of the projecting lateral bays. The stone work is heavily decorated being bands of alternating vermicelli rustication and plain dressed stone. The pediments of the lateral bays are seemingly supported by circular columns which frame niches containing statues of Charles I and Charles II in classical pose. The tympanum of the central pediment contains a segmented niche containing a bust of the Garden's founder, the Earl of Danby.

The Garden comprises three main sections: the Walled Garden and The Lower Garden, surrounded by the original 17th century stonework and home to the Garden's oldest tree, the English yew. The Glasshouses, which allow the cultivation of plants needing protection from the extremes of British weather; and the zone outside the walled area between the Walled Garden and the River Cherwell.

The range of plantings throughout these areas means there is always something interesting to see, whatever the season. The Walled Garden houses the scientific collections; The Lower Garden contains the ornamental collections. A satellite site, the Harcourt Arboretum, is located six miles (10 km) south of Oxford.

Guided tours are available throughout the year and there are many family-friendly free activities to choose from when you visit the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, including drop-in holiday activities, family backpacks and insight trails.

Spring flowering plants are making their appearance slightly early this year – already the Fern Border is awash with snowdrops and winter aconites, who beam a golden glow into the garden at a time when the sun rarely breaks through the clouds. So as we bid farewell to the chilling grasp of winter, you will be well rewarded for charting a course to Rose Lane and the wonders of nature at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden.

 

- Peter Holthusen

 

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