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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of the Oxford Botanic Garden

What is the Oxford Botanic Garden?

The Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in the UK. It was founded in the 17th century.

Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Garden History

Luscious greenery, the hot scented air of the greenhouse, majestic flowers in bloom, the slow meditative lap of the river… walk into Oxford’s Botanic Garden, and you’ve walked into something close to paradise. Gracing the east end of the city, the garden is a beautiful, relaxing, urban haven.

Founded over 400 years ago, in July 1621, as the Oxford Physic Garden, the Botanic Garden is the oldest of its kind in the country. It was established by Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, who contributed £5,000 (over £5 million in today’s money) to set up a physic garden for ‘the glorification of the works of God and for the furtherance of learning’.

Its original purpose was to grow medicinal herbs for the instruction of medical students at the university. In the 17th century, medical knowledge centred around natural remedies and research into effective plant-based cures. The garden provided the perfect space to grow and cultivate such plants, and its founding signified the birth of botanical sciences at Oxford.

The entrance is one of the garden’s best-known features. It’s a highly ornate arch, known as the Danby Gate, named after the garden’s founder. While architectural fashions in the 1600s were tending towards the clean classical lines of the Italianate Palladian style, the arch’s designer, Nicholas Stone, instead created an elaborate decorative structure considered one of the first instances of the Baroque style in England.

Upon entering the garden, you’ll find teeming plant life, grown in a wide variety of environments. Enter the humidity of the hothouses, and you’ll be treated to the sight of tropical lilies, sugar cane, bananas, cacti and even sweet potatoes. In the walled garden, you’ll find the legacy of the garden’s medicinal origins. Here, beds are classified according to the ailments the plants can be used to treat. There are plots for cardiology, oncology and dermatology, amongst others.

The garden also boasts a literary heritage. It’s mentioned in many books about Oxford. Most famously, in Philip Pullman's trilogy of novels His Dark Materials, a bench at the back is one of the locations that stand parallel in the two different worlds inhabited by protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. In the last chapter of the trilogy, Lyra and Will promise to sit on the bench for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s Day every year so that they may feel each other’s presence. The bench is now a place of pilgrimage for Pullman’s fans and has been decorated with commemorative graffiti.

Today, the garden remains true to its original purpose and continues to grow medicinal plants. However, it also aids the wellbeing of the general public in other ways. It runs yoga and meditation sessions in the grounds, as well as watercolour painting classes and workshops on botany and growing your own plants.

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