I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh followed by one in London and needless to say, visiting herbaria was among my aims. In future series, I’ll describe some of what I learned, but this series will be more general, about the experience of being in a land that cherishes plants. Admittedly, autumn is not the best time to visit British gardens especially in a year with record heat and drought. Still, I saw a number of them that looked wonderful despite these travails. I was particularly thrilled to be in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), since I had read about it and followed its Twitter feed for some time. I knew about the rebuilding of the Botanic Cottage and couldn’t wait to see it. The cottage, completed on May 10, 1766, stood at the entrance to the former site of the RBGE in Leith Walk about a mile from the present garden (see photo above). When it was threatened with demolition a few years ago, it was moved to the present site with reconstruction completed last year. My timing again was off, the cottage wasn’t open on the days I was there so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside. This building adds a great deal to the garden’s atmosphere and made me realize that though we go to gardens to see plants, the structures there can impact experience.
The same thought struck me a few days later at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I had visited before, but still it was great to see its pagoda, newly refurbished Temperate Plant House, and Kew Palace, where George III and Queen Charlotte lived during the summer months. I also discovered a hot house of Bonsai trees including a profusely blooming apple (see photo above). The long flower beds lining what is called the Broad Walk were spectacular, though more with seed pods than flowers. My favorite experience was walking through wooded areas of Kew to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, where she would retreat for quiet time. It wasn’t open on the day I visited but sitting, looking at its Tudor brick and lumber work and thatched roof was wonderful for someone who only sees later reproduction Tudor architecture at home (see photo below).
Two days later, I was at another famous British garden with a long history, Chelsea Physic Garden. While Kew has a lot of real estate and can spread out its collections creating long vistas, Chelsea is quite literally stuffed with plants, but in the most engaging way. It was founded by apothecaries in 1673 as a resource for the profession, and its future was secured by the support of the physician Hans Sloane, who bought the property and permanently leased it to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for an annual payment of £5. For 75 years, the society also contributed, at Sloane’s request, 50 herbarium specimens a year (Stungo, 1993). This herbarium-as-rent was considered evidence that the garden was still being used as originally intended, to grow medicinal plants. The buildings I found most memorable here were the small hothouses with their brick foundations; these too are full of plants. Because of its scale, visitors are more apparent at Chelsea than at Kew so there is a more social flavor to the garden giving it a festive touch, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon as when I visited.
The next day I was at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, founded as a physic garden in 1621. Its most imposing architectural feature is the entry gate (see photo above), named in honor of the Earl of Danby, Edward Danvers whose funded the botanical garden, the oldest in Britain (Harris, 2017). At the moment, the gate is completely covered in scaffolding, but the rest of the garden is flourishing, with over 8,000 species in a mere 4.5 acres. Because of its old walls and position on the River Cherwell, it is easy to imagine Jacob Bobart, the elder and the younger, working here. They were early superintendents of the garden and the younger also taught botany at Oxford, where the herbarium houses his specimens and manuscripts.
The final garden I saw in Britain is one of four belonging to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Wisley is also where the RHS has its herbarium, which I’ll touch on in the next post. I was lucky enough to have the keeper of the herbarium, Yvette Harvey, lead me to a Franklinia alatamaha in bloom because she thought I would like to see an American plant that had been discovered by John Bartram. She also pointed out that Wisley is not a botanic garden so it has a different flavor, with more emphasis put on cultivars rather than on systematic botany. While Kew and Oxford are magnificent, Wisley has a slightly different feel; it seems more about beauty and pleasure. Yes, the plants are labeled, but the way the garden is laid out to lure visitors further and further into its depths to see more and more extraordinary plants. There is also great architecture here as well, with the centerpiece being an Arts-and-Crafts style building from the early 20th century that, at least for an American, is a perfect fit for the surrounding garden’s massive herbaceous borders, trellised paths, and a rock garden (see photo above). In the gardens I was lucky enough to visit, I got at least some hint of why the British are so in love with flowers and how they express that love so beautifully.
Harris, S. A. (2017). Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum: A Brief History. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.
Stungo, R. (1993). The Royal Society specimens from the Chelsea Physic Garden 1722-1799. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 47(2), 213-224.