Some of the oldest surviving botanical gardens in Europe

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Katerina Bulovska
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Since the dawn of civilization, gardens have played a significant role in everyday life. When and who created the first garden is hard to tell. Which is the oldest garden in the world is another question that has multiple answers. According to one of the greatest ancient literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh it is the ‘Garden of the gods,’ the Bible says it is the Garden of Eden, while archaeological excavations offer more than one answer.

In Europe, the first flower, fruits, and vegetable gardens were most likely cultivated in the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. The first Europeans to develop the concept of gardening were the ancient Greeks that would later spread across the continent. Unfortunately, not many of the centuries-old gardens have stood the test of time.

The oldest surviving botanical garden not only in Europe but, also in the world, is Orto Botanico Di Padova (Botanical Garden of Padua) in Italy. It was created in 1545 to grow medicinal plants, whose benefits would be examined by the medical students that attended the University of Padua. Later it also cultivated many exotic plants. Having in mind that we are only familiar with 10% of the world’s plant species, the laboratories in the garden are still actively researching new species.

Orto Botanico Di Padova; aquatic plants and the greenhouse of the “Palma de Goethe”

Nowadays, there are approximately 7,000 plant species in the garden, among them plants that are more than a hundred years old, the oldest being the Palm of St. Peter (Chamaerops humilis var. arborescens). It was planted in 1585 and today grows safely in one of the glasshouses of the garden. The palm is also famously known as the “Goethe palm.” The well known German author included his observations of the tree in his essay on Metamorphosis of Plants, published in 1790.

Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier. Author: Demeester. CC BY-SA 3.0

Another garden that followed the example of the Botanical Gaden in Padua is Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier, which dates back to 1593. It was founded as a medicinal garden, but with time it developed, and today the garden hosts many exotic plants, among them beautiful orchids, bamboo trees, large water lilies and a remarkable collection of cacti. In France, the garden is the oldest of its kind and is in possession of the University of Montpellier. The oldest living tree in the garden is a green olive tree planted in the 18th century.

A photograph of Autumn foliage in Oxford’s Botanic Garden. Author: Toby Ord. CC BY-SA 2.5

One of the oldest universities in Britain established its own medicinal garden in 1621. Today it is known as the oldest botanical garden in Britain, and its plants continue to fulfill their original purpose. Over the years, the Oxford Botanic garden was enriched with different species, and greenhouses were built for the exotic plants that couldn’t survive the cold winter. The blooming rose garden was a later addition, planted to celebrate the development of penicillin which involved the Oxford’s scientists.

Giardino dei Semplici; Central fountain, with a copy of Verrocchio’s Putto with a Dolphin. Author: Daderot. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici was a big supporter of the natural sciences and wished to have his medicinal garden in Florence. For the purpose, in 1545, he commissioned the Italian artist Niccolò known as “il Tribolo” and established Giardino dei Semplici (the Botanical Garden of Florence). In the following years, exotic plants and rare species were planted for the first time in the garden. The oldest surviving plant is the yew tree planted in 1720 next to the bust of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing.

The Royal Botanic garden of Edinburgh. Author: Amanda Slater. CC BY 2.0

Scotland got its first botanical garden in 1670 created near the center of Edinburgh. The Royal Botanic garden of Edinburgh is the second oldest in Britain. Besides the incredible and exotic flowers and plants, it also offers a panoramic view of the city. In the impressive glasshouses, more than 3,000 exotic plants are cultivated, including a palm tree planted in the 18th century. Perhaps the most popular parts of the botanical garden are the Rock Garden and the Woodland Garden with its famous Giant Redwood tree. These historic botanic gardens are an important part of European cultural heritage and annually are visited by many tourists that recognize their true value.