The Physic GardenBotanical Oasis
Deeper in the undergrowth, the air is heady with the presence of edible and medicinal specimens.
As the Cherwell River skirts past Christchurch Meadows, the familiar skyline of Oxford comes to a gentle halt. Limestone university facades give way to a lattice of steel and glass, where flaxen church spires morph into fierce talons of cacti. Beyond, an ochre archway frames a pair of Chinese windmill palms; beneath them, a gaggle of lemon trees bask outdoors for the summer.
This unique sanctuary is Oxford’s Botanic Garden. Established in 1621, the garden is the oldest of its kind in the UK. Extending over five acres, it spans walled gardens, herbaceous borders and vegetable beds — not omitting lily ponds, a wildflower meadow and a rockery, all in the company of seven 18th century glasshouses. Just off Oxford’s High Street, a classical archway signals the garden’s original entrance: the Danby Arch, remembering founder Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby. Overhead, a Latin inscription dated 1633 declares its founding role as a physic garden, ‘To promote learning and glorify the work of God’, through the cultivation of medicinal plants. It would go on to become a venerated source of botanical knowledge and inspiration. The world’s first lectures on plant diversity were given here in 1670 by Robert Morison, Oxford University’s inaugural professor of botany. Since 1983, the garden has been a National Collection Holder of euphorbia, with over 2,000 species in its care, none rarer than euphorbia stygiana, native to the Azores. Citrus plants are amongst its other rare collections and have been nurtured since the 1600s, originally in the temperate conservatory, which resembles a grand stable. In the early days, these tender plants were kept warm with the help of hot coals, pulled on trolleys through the building at night. When conditions are right, the plants bear simultaneous displays of flowers and fruit throughout much of the year.
Indeed, the Oxford Botanic Garden provides its university city with a year-round oasis. From late spring, the conservatory is cocooned in the fragrance of citrus and hyacinth awaiting the vibrant borders of summer, when giant ‘pie-tin’ water lilies will also bloom. Come autumn, the Walled Garden is a chorus of late-flowering perennials amongst flaming redwood. In winter, grey days are brightened by the dense panorama of the Rainforest House: lush, humid and inescapably green, all but for a burst of pink bananas. Deeper in the undergrowth, the air is heady with the presence of edible and medicinal specimens, from rosy periwinkle (used in the treatment of leukaemia), to glossy coffee plants, swathes of sugarcane, and gnarly cocoa trees complete with amber tear-drop pods.
A walk through the glasshouses offers not only a respite from the British weather, but a miraculous journey through seven diverse habitats, from jungle to swamp, desert to alpine pasture. The Water Lily House, dating from 1851, was specifically built to house the giant Amazonian water lily; today its inky pond is still sprinkled with lilies and sacred lotuses, and bordered by rice plants. Next door, in the Cloud Forest, Nepenthes pitcher plants — carnivorous and lurid lime green — thrive amidst numerous species of fern perched on dangling branches. More unique adaptations follow in the Alpine House, where sandy beds offer consistent cool for their alpine specimens, a requirement even in an English summer. The finale is the Arid House: a desert landscape of succulents, agaves, aloes, and euphorbia whose splayed branches soar six metres skyward, reflecting the steel tracery overhead.
Since its modest beginnings as a physic garden, Oxford Botanic Garden’s founding principles have remained a hardy constant. When, in the 1640s, the Garden’s first Horti Praefectus (or director), Jacob Bobart the Elder, arrived from Germany, he set about to catalogue — for the first time — each of the 1,600 plants in his care. Remarkably, a single male yew tree from the original inventory still survives. In 2021, marking its 400th anniversary, the garden has pledged to grow over 400 trees from seed in and around the city. Run in tandem with the garden’s sister arboretum, Harcourt, the 400 Trees initiative champions four native UK species — oak, hazel, field maple and hornbeam — encouraging each of us to collect and sow seeds on our own turf. At a time when our world stands on the precipice of losing great swathes of its precious biodiversity, there can be a no more wholesome or humbling call to action. Whether through its far-reaching work in the fields of botanical conservation, research and teaching, or through its honourable local efforts to protect native species, the garden’s focus and vision have never been more critical.
- words: Louise Long
- photos: Sam Wright