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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam

What is Hortus Botanicus?

Hortus Botanicus is a Botanical garden in Amsterdam that was founded in the 17th century and offers over 4,000 plant species.

Hortus Botanicus

Zxempire, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

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Hortus Botanicus History

Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Founded by the Amsterdam City Council in 1638 as a physic garden for doctors and apothecaries (it was originally called the Hortus Medicus), it has spent over 375 years researching, cultivating, and protecting plants.

In the 17th century, medicinal herbs were vital to the health of Amsterdam’s citizens, and thus the garden was a deeply important centre of knowledge and botanical riches. In 1646, Johannes Snippendaal was appointed director of the Hortus Medicus and managed to catalogue the entire collection in his first year, counting 796 different plant species, most of which were medicinal. Today, you’ll still find many of the species used by the doctors and apothecaries of the 17th century in the Snippendaal Garden. This initial collection was largely amassed via the Dutch East India Company (or VOC from its Dutch acronym), which would bring back novel herbs, foreign ornamental plants, and commercially significant – known as economic – specimens like coffee plants or oil palms. Benefitting from overseas collecting and local appreciation, this 17th-century plant collection has been called ‘the pharmacopoeia of Amsterdam’.

The Hortus currently subdivides its key collections into medicinal plants, South African plants, carnivorous plants, cycads, palms, container plants, and trees. The South African plants, first brought to Amsterdam by the VOC, include things like the scented geranium, Clivia, African lily, Gerbera, and silver trees. Many of these can be found in the subtropical section of the Three-Climate Greenhouse. The Hortus collaborates with the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden to maintain the national collection of carnivorous plants (plants that catch and eat insects), which can be found both in the outdoor beds and the greenhouses. Cycads are a group of primitive plants that evolved over 300 million years ago. Present-day cycad species like those in the Hortus date back ‘just’ 12 million years. These endangered and protected plants are displayed throughout the garden, although the largest (including a 300-year-old Eastern Cape Giant Cycad) are to be found in the Palm Greenhouse. Palms can of course also be found there, but most of them are nowadays located in the tropical part of the Three-Climate Greenhouse. Container plants such as olive and lemon trees are so-called because they need to be moved indoors (in their containers) in the winter, to survive the Dutch climate. The traditional place to keep these plants during cold weather is an orangery, but today that of the Hortus is a charming café and the container plants find spots in the greenhouses.

In this idyllic place you can find a peaceful retreat and enjoy a green outlook within the city. During the winter months, entering the warm tropical air of the greenhouses, with their towering palms and gently floating lily pads, feels dreamlike. The garden arranges tours, as well as walking routes – their Tree Route is particularly enjoyable – but it’s just as pleasant to wander at will in any direction.

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