Right in the centre of the bustling university city of Oxford there is an extraordinary oasis of biodiversity. Beside the beautiful 18th-century Magdalen Bridge, nestling at the foot of the High Street, the Oxford Botanic Garden is home to almost seven thousand plant species from around the world. Four hundred years old this year, the gardens, the oldest in Britain, occupy just 1.8 hectares, but house the most compact yet diverse collection of plants in the world.
In 1621, Henry Danvers, Earl of Derby, decided to fund a physic garden a herb garden with medicinal plants — in Oxford for “the glorification of the works of God and for the furtherance of learning.” He chose a site beside the River Cherwell in Magdalen College. An incredible four thousand cartloads of muck and dung raised the land above the floodplain of the river. Danvers invested an impressive (for those days) £5,000 in the project, but most of the money went on the magnificent walls surrounding the land — one hundred metres long and five metres high — and little was left for the plants! The walls offered protection from the wind and created a very valuable micro-climate.
The original purpose of the Physic Garden was to grow medicinal plants used to teach the university’s medical students. In 1830, it became known as the Oxford Botanic Garden to reflect its role in experimental botany. Over the following years this role changed and diversified, becoming one of educating people in the importance of plants, conserving plants from around the world and supporting research and teaching in the university and beyond. The botanical garden may be one of the oldest in the world, but it was one of the first to adopt a DNA-based classification system for its plant collections.
the dead man’s walk
Part of the land – now the Rose Garden - had been a Jewish cemetery from 1177 until 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England. Oxford’s medieval Jewish quarter was linked to the cemetery by an ancient footpath called the Dead Man’s Walk, as it was illegal for Jews to carry their dead through the city. There are two plaques in the gardens commemorating the men, women and children buried in those less tolerant times.
The Garden actually has three separate sections. The Walled Garden, the oldest part, is surrounded by the original stone wall and is home to the garden’s oldest tree, an English yew planted in 1654 by the first curator, Jacob Bobart. This yew is really just a teenager. Yews can live for up to three thousand years and are not considered ancient until they reach the age of nine hundred! The Walled Garden also has the medicinal beds, the garden’s core collection. Each of the eight beds has plants used to treat a particular disease or illness, and they cover areas such as cardiology, infectious diseases, dermatology and neurology. One of the rarest plants in the collection is Euphorbia stygiana — there are now only aroundtwenty in the world. Just don’t tread on it!
The second section is the glasshouses. These glass constructions date back to the time of Queen Victoria, when the scientists of those days introduced the idea of a winter garden, a place specially constructed to display the newly-discovered tropical plants brought back from Britain’s constantly-expanding empire. The curators created a variety of global climatic conditions, ranging from tropical to alpine. The glasshouses include an Insectivorous House, with carnivorous plants, and a Water Lily House — the Victoria cruziana lilies here have enormous pie dish leaves, or pads, which can support the weight of a small child!
Perfect Picnic Place
The Herbarium Room is a global cultural resource of approximately one million dried plant specimens, founded in the 17th-century, the oldest herbarium in the UK. Finally, there is the Lower Garden, situated between the Walled Garden and the River Cherwell, and a perfect spot for picnics. The collections here include the Rock Garden, with medical species, the Plants that Changed the World beds, and the Gin Border, with plants used in the production of gin. You can buy the Botanic Garden’s own Physic Gin online. Four hundred years after its birth, the Botanic Garden continues to blossom and grow. It never rests on its laurels.
The Oxford Botanic Garden has attracted millions of visitors over the years. That number has included several figures from the literary world. The novelist Lewis Carroll is said to have used it as inspiration for his book Alice in Wonderland. The Water Lily House features in one of the book’s famous illustrations, The Queen’s Croquet-Ground. JRR Tolkien spent much of his time in Oxford sitting and smoking his pipe under his favourite tree, Pinus Nigra, which may have been the inspiration for the Ents (walking, talking tree people) in The Lord of the Rings.