The Top 10 ‘first’ botanic gardens (Plant Portrait XVIII*)


Roger Spencer and Rob Cross, in a recent article in the scientific journal Muelleria, document the origins of botanic gardens (and more). They confirm that the ‘oldest existing [my emphasis] botanic gardens date back to the early modern period, to the educational physic gardens associated with the medical faculties of universities in 16th-century Renaissance Italy’. This is generally accepted, although there is some debate – alluded to in Spencer and Cross’s article – around the ‘first botanic garden’. Some of this is a minor quibble about continuity: the first botanic garden built in Italy was in Pisa, in 1544, but in 1591 the entire garden was moved a few blocks away from the river, making the botanic garden of Padua (apparently early in 1545; closely followed by Florence in December 1545) the oldest botanic gardens continuing in the same location.

More interesting but ultimately unresolvable (except through precision of definition) is whether there were botanic gardens, or things like them, in antiquity. The closest match, as Spencer and Cross document, is the 4th-century BCE garden at the Lyceum in Athens. It certainly contained a collection of plants used at least in part for scientific observation. To my knowledge the plants were not labelled in any way, a characteristic inevitably included as any definition of a botanic garden, and the landscape and horticulture were probably not particularly ‘ornamental’. Spence and Cross quite rightly argue that contemporary botanic gardens generally include ornamental horticulture as part of their ‘mix of science and education, art and utility’. There are further nuances in this debate. The botanic garden in Leiden (1587) may have been the first garden with ornamental and scientific values, and not just growing plants for their medicinal use. And if medicinal gardens are allowed into the club, there were some established outside of Europe in the 16th-century, such as the one established by the Portuguese in Goa (now India).

In the next century, the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens (1621) and the Chelsea Physic Garden (1673) were established, well before Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London (1759). Somewhere in between, in 1718, Jardin de Plantes in Paris changed its emphasis, and name, from medicinal plants to plants more generally. In the US, The Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, established in 1859, describes itself as ‘the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation’. So too does the U.S. Botanic Garden, in Washington DC, which opened in 1850: ‘the oldest continuously operated botanical garden’. And I‘ve seen Bartam’s Garden in Philadelphia, which started in 1728, called ‘the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America’.

What about in the Southern Hemisphere? I’ve often said, for reasons I can longer remember, that the Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, established in 1808, is the oldest south of the equator, followed by Sydney in Australia (1816) and Bogor in Indonesia (1817). I may have been a little parochial, having visited all three and being Director of the middle one for a while. In any case, Spencer and Cross designate the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden in Mauritius, established in 1736, or more formally as a botanic garden in 1767. Then there is the Company Garden in Cape Town, begun in 1652 and already, according to Spencer and Cross, ‘an exceptional botanic garden’ by 1680. I visited the Company Garden in 2005, and while now outside the botanic garden network in South Africa, it could still be technically considered a botanic garden.

It’s a complicated business tracking down when a garden begins and even harder, perhaps, to determine when it begins to be a botanic garden. All botanic gardens will be a little less ‘botanic’ in their early years even if established as such right from the start. The mobility of some makes it even more difficult to nail down when and where they start to function as a botanic garden. Then there is the fundamental question of what makes a garden botanic. There are have many attempts, with these four (including one of my own) representing a progression over the last 50 or so years:

1.        ‘ to the public and in which the plants are labelled’ (International Association of Botanic Gardens 1963)
2.       ‘A garden with (noting that this list does not constitute a comprehensive summary of the activities undertaken by botanic gardens):
          adequate labelling of the plants
          an underlying scientific basis for the collections
          communication of information to other gardens, institutions, organisations and the public
          exchange of seeds or other materials with other botanic gardens, arboreta or research stations (within the guidelines of international conventions and national laws and customs regulations)
          long term commitment to, and responsibility for, the maintenance of plant collections
          maintenance of research programmes in plant taxonomy in associated herbaria
          monitoring of the plants in the collection
          open to the public
          promoting conservation through extension and environmental education activities
          proper documentation of the collections, including wild origin
          undertaking scientific or technical research on plants in the collections’
(IUCN-Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy 1989)
3.       ‘…institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education.’ (International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation 2000)
And most recently, a definition I proposed at the 6th Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Geneva in 2017 for what I called 4th generation botanic gardens (the standard we should be seeking in the modern era):

4.       ‘…a scientifically managed and inspiring landscape of documented plant collections, where every plant and setting has a purpose’ (Entwisle 2017)

So do any of these definitions help to create our chronological listicle? The commonality of them all is the need for documented, or slightly more limited labelled, collections. Apart from the first definition, the plants planted have some purpose. Being open (and welcoming?) to the public is important implied rather than explicit in the latter two definitions but a given. The role of ornamental horticulture comes through in the last two as display in number 3, and in number 4 a reference to inspiring landscape plus the addition of the word setting as well as plants when it comes to purpose.

While I like my aspirational definition for a modern botanic garden (number 4) I don’t see it an exclusive one. More helpfully for our listicle I would suggest:
  • A documented collection of plants to some purpose
  • An ornamental and purposeful landscape
  • Open and welcoming to the ‘public’
  • A scientific (or if you prefer, evidence-based) approach to their management and use
These points will not please everyone (and I’m sure they could be improved) but using them, albeit subjectively, one can create a list of firsts, or nearly firsts. Being first says nothing, of course, about the quality of the botanic garden, then or now. I’ve decided to adopt the need for the botanic garden to stay in the same place, more or less (that is, with at least some common ground throughout its history). Otherwise we need to examine the current scope and concept of the organisation running a garden, and in some cases trace back cobwebby threads to botanic-like garden in history. As to botanic gardens that existed once but not now, they are simply too hard to document and review (although such a list I would admit has equal validity as mine). The nomenclature for the organisation, the city and the country are as used today, with the geographic location in English. Those in italics I don’t think meet all the criteria above but have some claim to being botanical-like gardens.

So, here then is my list of the Top 10 first botanic gardens, with apologies to all the countries and regions left out.

First on Earth
1545       Orto Botanico di Padova; Padua, Italy
1545       Orto Botanico di Firenze (Giardino dei Semplici); Florence, Italy
First on Earth with strong scientific and ornamental values
1587       Hortus Botanicus; Leiden, The Netherlands
First in the United Kingdom
1621       University of Oxford Botanic Garden; Oxford, UK
First in the Southern Hemisphere
1652       The Company Garden; Cape Town, South Africa
1736       Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden; Pamplemousses Mauritius
First in the Americas
1850       U.S. Botanic Garden; Washington, USA
1859       Missouri Botanical Garden; St Louis, USA
First in China
1860       Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Park; Hong Kong, China
1929       Nanjing Botanical Garden Memorial Sun Yat-sen; Nanjing, China

Oh, and the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney was began life in 1816, making it the first in Australia. We don’t talk about this much at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (1846).

Images: Padua, Oxford, Florence, Leiden (a little faded, from a 1997 slide) and Melbourne.

Postscript: There is plenty here to debate and question, and I'm sure many 'firsts' I've missed. I'll list here feedback that comes in on that score...
Peter Teese (via Facebook, 13 March 2018): Penang Botanical Garden about 133 years old & Perdana 1880s in K L might be of some interest. 1876 Sri Lanka Gampaha Botanical Garden, first rubber from South America.
Ann Harding (via comment on this Blog, 14 march 2018):Saint Vincene, West Indies, has a very old botanic garden but I don't see any mention. Very nice collection including spice trees.

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed. In my case, it could be that every story has a plant to tell... 


Ann Harding said…
Saint Vincene, West Indies, has a very old botanic garden but I don't see any mention. Very nice collection including spice trees.
Tim Entwisle said…
Thanks Ann. I'll add it to my list. Not sure of its pedigree but will have to return to this topic to chase up a few leads... Best wishes, Tim