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Botanic gardens


This article is an adaptation of part of a paper ‘The origins of botanic gardens and their relation to plant science with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy‘ by R. Spencer and R. Cross published in Muelleria 35: 43-94 in 2017.
Today’s botanical gardens explore the connections between plants, people and our planet in all its richness and complexity (Spencer & Cross 2017, p. 91).

This modern characterization of botanic gardens does not, however, take account the historical evolution of botanic gardens which emerged out of our human dependence and fascination with plants. This profound connection to the plant world has been a biological and cultural coevolution that has given rise to the globally interconnected world we know today.

There is a continuity of tradition and function that runs from the landscaped palace gardens, medicinal plant collections, and libraries of antiquity to the monastic physic gardens of medieval Christian scholastics, and the apothecaries and botanical professors of the early modern university botanic gardens of Renaissance Italy. But only with the Lyceum teaching garden in classical Athens did this tradition take a brief but crucial turn into what we can now regard as the science of plants, the thread that holds this tradition together.

Botanic gardens of the early modern period, often regarded as the first botanic gardens, were limited in their content, objectives and audience. Their content was medicinal plants, their objectives were instructive and scientific, and their audience was the students of university medical faculties. Over time these gardens, though some retained the old formal layout, would become broader in scope until today their collections might include any member of the plant kingdom. Their objectives have extended beyond the narrow goals of science and education to include a wide range of additional aesthetic and utilitarian considerations. The audience is no longer the specialized physician (university student) but the general public whose diverse interests have resulted in gardens that are more oriented towards relaxation, ornamental display, and entertainment.


Palm House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – 25 July 2009

The gardens at Kew are a celebration of the plant kingdom – both its beauty and utility

Kew Gardens rose to international prominence under the direction of Enlightenment figure Sir Joseph Banks who amassed here the world’s largest collections of both living and dried plants. Banks’s vision combined economic and descriptive botany with a love of horticulture. In 1840, due to the efforts of the Royal Horticultural Society, ownership of Kew passed to the nation. During the directorships of William Hooker and his son Joseph Hooker (from 1841 to 1885) at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian era, the Kew grounds and plant collections expanded, presenting the plant kingdom to the world through its gardens, herbarium, and economic museum. Kew has retained its respected position of pre-eminence to the present day. The Palm House, a centrepiece displaying the plant spoils of empire, was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering. Created by architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner between 1844 and 1848 it was the first and still the world’s most ambitious large-scale structural use of wrought iron and glass. Today Kew leads efforts to protect the plants and landscapes that it helped to create.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Just as the character of botanic gardens has changed over time, so too has the character and role of the people in charge of the plants. There is a loose historical path and connection between shaman-medicine-man, priest, physician, philosopher, herbalist, apothecary, pharmacist, professor of botany, the intellectually curious man of means and leisure, professional botanist . . . to general managers with botanical, horticultural or other administrative background.

Academic interest in plants probably dates back to hunter-gatherer curiosity about the medicinal properties of plants and their use in the ’magical’ treatment of individual ailments. rituals associated with the spiritual and With the advent of urban civilizations we can imagine how the shaman or medicine man is transformed into the temple priest administering to the spiritual needs of the community in an atmosphere of incense.

This impression is supported by the first plant records found on the papyri of ancient Egypt – lists of plants and their medicinal properties. Though food plants must have played a major role in peoples’ lives it was the medicinal plants that captured attention. This is as true of the ancient civilizations of China and India as it is of those in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.

Botanic gardens play a key role in the history of the human relationship with plants because it is from ‘botanic gardens’ that we see the emergence of plant science in all its manifestations (especially plant taxonomy and plant domestication), including the economic botany that played such an important role in social and cultural development and global-scale cultivated plant geography.

The birth of plant science, the historical time when botany emerged as a distinct academic discipline, is generally located in the early modern period when ‘plant professors’ (the chairs were titled Lector simplicium or Professor simplicium) were appointed to the medical faculties of the Italian Renaissance Universities of Padua, Pisa, and Bologna. The first such position was proposed by Francesco Bonafede at the University of Padua where he was teaching medicine in 1533. He was invited by the senate of the Republic of Venice (which dominated the spice trade at this time) to fill the chair. Meanwhile Luca Ghini was appointed Lector simplicium at Bologna and, four years later, Professor simplicium (he had commenced teaching in the medical faculty in 1527). Part of the responsibility of the professor was to manage a medicinal garden. Bonafede’s request for the construction of a herbarium and Hortus simplicium (medicinal garden) came to fruition in 1545. Though of little practical consequence, a second kind of botanical chair, the Ostensor simplicium was founded in Padua in 1561. In principle the ostensor taught students the botanical characteristics of the plants while the lector taught the medicinal properties. With this in mind the ostensor was the true forerunner of the professor of botany although in practice the jobs were usually combined. This leaves us with 1533 as a date for the initiation of modern plant science and 1545 for the  foundation of the first modern era Botanic garden (Morton 1981, pp. 121-3, 152).

Through the 19th century the economic botany that had inspired the establishment of colonial botanic gardens diminished in importance as other interests, like ornamental horticulture, came to the fore. Then, from the 1960s, as human population growth accelerated along with its environmental impacts, an international environmental movement gathered momentum and botanic gardens contributed to environmental management by developing strategies for plant conservation and sustainability. Together with a period of interest in garden history, it is these themes that have been of common interest to the world’s botanic gardens since the 1970s as their roles have changed through a time of accelerating globalization.

This articletraces ancient influences on the early modern botanic garden derived mainly from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome pointing out the crucial importance of Theophrastus who succeeded Aristotle as Head of the Lyceum, an educational institution in ancient Athens. The article suggests the Lyceum as an appropriate starting point for plant science and it compares the aims and objectives of this institution with those of botanic gardens today.

Botanic gardens are versatile institutions whose objectives depend on both local circumstances and the more general social, economic and environmental needs and concerns of the day. As they are diverse and evolving institutions the desire to provide a precise and prescriptive definition becomes both difficult to achieve and of doubtful value.

The oldest existing botanic gardens date back to the early modern period, to the educational physic gardens associated with the medical faculties of universities in sixteenth century Renaissance Italy. Modern botanic gardens have little to do with these early and highly specialised medicinal gardens whose narrow academic and scientific goals and formal designs have subsequently absorbed additional economic, environmental, aesthetic, and other values. Collectively the world’s botanical gardens have come to reflect the many-sided relationship between humans and plants. Though science provides a common underlying theme it generally competes with many other objectives.

Our approach is to examine the evolving family of shared characteristics that have, over time, drawn botanic gardens into a global community. We see today’s botanic gardens as having much in common with the ornamental and utilitarian gardens of ancient civilizations and the first truly scientific garden established in ancient Athens. The characteristics associated with today’s botanic gardens include: public plant displays labelled and thematically arranged in designed landscapes; the presence of some kind of botanical institution; the emphasis on a diversity of plants grown for their utility, beauty, rarity, curiosity, and scientific value; and the connection with plant knowledge and education (BGCI 2015). Many of these factors, and more, relate to general garden history that pre-dates the European Renaissance.

In this paper we define cultivated plant taxonomy as the scientific study of the classification of plants modified by humans and, for convenience, we define horticultural botany as a special occupation that helps distinguish botanic gardens from other gardens.

To understand today’s cultural landscapes in general, and botanic gardens in particular, we must go back to the very beginnings of plant cultivation and the origins of domesticated plants. What were the social forces that gave rise to our present-day configuration of urban and rural space, the familiar everyday cultivated surroundings of gardens, parks, and fields?


The scientific process of observation and experiment applied to plants must go back to the dawn of our species and the long process of determining the effect of different plants on our bodies – which plants were safe to eat, which had medicinal properties, and which affected our minds in some way. And somebody needed to know where these plants grew. This plant knowledge was precious, it could be a matter of life and death, and it would have been a part of traditional tribal knowledge handed from one generation to the next, perhaps by experienced tribal elders or maybe a shaman-like medicine man. And all this would have happened long before plants were first cultivated.

Beginnings of plant domestication

However, we know that there must have been a time, many millennia ago, when tending plants became more than the simple husbandry of plants growing naturally in the wild – although we can only speculate about the humble character and reasons for the first Palaeolithic spaces dedicated to plants and their cultivation. Certainly there was the need for food, but beyond that lay more indefinite cultural factors.

A simple distinction can be made between plants that served physical needs and those that related in some special way to mental life. Some plants nourished the body: others nourished the soul.

But first there was the need for food. In all likelihood discarded pips and other plant remnants left over from feasting around camp fires sprouted into food plants that could be harvested when sites were revisited. Plants could be grown easily enough in special areas dedicated to their cultivation, as either transplants or cuttings. Grown from seed the process of continuous selection from plants with desirable characteristics would eventually give rise to new kinds of plants with combinations of characters not found in their wild ancestors.

The large-scale domestication of animals and plants that we call agriculture did not arise from a single region and tradition. Archaeological evidence suggests that agriculture arose independently in at least 11 major centres across the world over a period spanning about 6000 years and referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. The earliest of these centres occurred in the Ancient Near East dating back about 12,000 years, probably a product of the conducive climate and growing conditions in this region after the last Ice Age and the presence of both animals and plants amenable to domestication, although the precise reasons are disputed (Rindos 1986; Smith 1986; Diamond 1997; Tudge 2003). In Europe the Agricultural Revolution gradually spread from the Ancient Near East, taking about 8000 years to reach the British Isles in the north-west (Cunliffe 2013).

Most of the larger agriculture-based population centres in Europe were situated in river valleys with a ready source of water and fertile sedimentary soils. However, world-wide it appears that there were many different kinds of proto-farming on the way to the fields and pastures that we are familiar with today, all this still being a matter of keen academic debate (Holmes 2015). In New Guinea, for example, a form of shifting agriculture was practiced while in Australia food plants were managed in many different ways (Clarke 2007): there was not only the careful burning of natural vegetation to drive out animals and induce the formation of succulent new shoots using the method now known as ‘firestick farming’ (Jones 1969, Gammage 2011) but wild cereals were also harvested in situ (Gerritsen 2008) and wild yams and other plants were propagated and managed in a horticulture-like manner (Gott 2002).
Agriculture provides the big-picture backdrop to the history of botanic gardens not only because it now underpins all human existence as a source of sustenance but because it produced the surplus wealth that facilitated the urbanization and civilization from which botanic gardens would emerge.

Less certain is the way plants nourished the ‘soul’. What were the attitudes and beliefs of our ancestors and how did these influence their plant management?

So far as we know, societies in prehistory attributed nature with human characteristics, it was anthropomorphised, and the spiritual world was one of temporal continuity, extending through past, present, and future through ancestors, the living, and the afterlife. Underlying the human relationship to plants would have been innate and universal factors: our fascination with their beauty, novelty, utility, and the way they teased our intellectual curiosity. But the plant world of our ancestors would have been far richer in symbolism, mystery, and religious meaning than that of today.
Hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands within nature. They were a part of nature itself, much as non-human primates are a part of nature today; they depended on unpredictable weather and other uncertain environmental factors to secure their seasonal sources of food. Their fate, they believed, depended on spiritual forces from an unseen world and it was probably this spiritual realm that dictated plant practices. Perhaps special attention was given to those plants growing in areas set aside for ceremony and ritual, especially areas associated with ancestors and the dead – maybe around a burial mound, sacred tree, sacred grove, or a shrine of some kind. Simple shrines dedicated to local deities are found the world over. When Roman garrisons landed in Britain and the written history of these islands began, Druid shrines were recorded at sites of special significance within the landscape: at the crossing of major pathways, on hilltops, headlands, beside sources of fresh water, or associated with some other natural feature. Romans would have been familiar with shrines like these from their own country, knowing that they dated back into prehistory (Hooke 2010; Nielsen 2013; Turner 2013).

We must look to early human settlements to tell us more about the developmental path that led to today’s cultivated spaces and the particular plant interests that would later become the special concerns of botanic gardens.

Agriculture and early civilization

Living together in ever-increasing numbers required the careful management of both people and physical space as more and more land was appropriated from nature for human use.

The Agricultural Revolution changed for all time the relationship between humans and nature in at least three critical ways that have dramatically changed the relationship between humans and plants: it changed the human evolutionary environment; it created a world consisting of new physical spaces (including gardens, parks, and fields) with a corresponding new world of associated words and ideas that emphasised a distinction between nature and culture; and it produced the conditions needed for the emergence of new forms of social organisation and development.

Human-plant coevolution

The natural forces of evolutionary selection that had forged human bodies and minds were being replaced by human-derived selective forces: humans had moved out of their environment of evolutionary origin into an environment of their own making. From this time on, changes in human social circumstances would, for the most part, be a consequence of rapid cultural change, rather than slow biological change.

Paradoxically, though humans were the domesticators it is as though they were themselves being domesticated. And insofar as agricultural crops were determining lifestyles then humans were being domesticated by plants. The coevolution of humans and plants had entered a new phase.


The formation of ever larger sedentary communities sustained by agriculture led to increasing social organization and eventually large interconnected cities with division of labour drawing on the advantages of scale. It is in Bronze Age cities that gardens first emerged.

Urbanization – physical and mental space

City dwellers now lived behind walls that both separated and protected them from what lay beyond. The distinction between nature and culture (as civic space) had been literally set in stone. Though nature was accessible outside city walls, plant cultivation in urban surroundings would become more and more the way of engaging with nature and the natural seasonal biological rhythm of growth, maturation, death, decay and renewal.

Even in the earliest phases of urbanization we can recognise at least six kinds of special human spaces – all potentially containing cultivated plants and all with counterparts today. These are structural or bounded spaces that suggest values as well as functions:

• space for domesticated plants and animals as grazing land and cereal crops, also orchards, vegetable plots, and vineyards
• space for domestic housing
• communal space: a city square or forum for discussion generally including a place for trade, places for recreation, relaxation, and entertainment
• an administrative centre, usually the ruler’s palace and its grounds
• religious space for temples and various monuments associated with the dead
• connecting space for the passage of people and goods

What is not so obvious is that urbanization created not only functional physical enclosures but an associated conceptual world of words and ideas comprising categories and distinctions relating to these spaces and to the distinction between human space and natural space – categories that were absent from the Palaeolithic mind. The new mental categories, though hardly exclusive boundaries of separation were certainly assertions of difference expressed as a dialectic between objects of nature and objects of culture. Those relating directly to plants included: natural/man-made, wild/cultivated, urban (town)/rural (country). Other distinctions that related to cultivated plants were public/private, formal/informal, sacred/secular, work/pleasure, utility/luxury. As cities grew, so too did the corresponding agricultural space needed to feed them and this produced a trichotomy urban/rural/wild in which enclosure, a feature of urban space, would become of increasing significance in rural space.

All these contraries, and more, are generally subsumed under the all-embracing contrarian theme of nature/culture that arose largely as a consequence of agriculture.

Social organization

Social order among large numbers of people was maintained with effective government based on strong social hierarchies. The community was usually headed by a single, often religiously-sanctioned, god-like ruler. Matters of state were then overseen by the ruler and court from a royal palace. Spiritual matters were the concern of a priest class operating from a temple. Palace and temple precincts were used to gain the support of the gods, to inspire citizen pride, and to instil visitors with both admiration and fear. The management of space would become critical as legal systems defined public and private places, systems of ownership, and acceptable social behaviour. Cities were an opportunity to produce the best a society could offer, to specialize, compete and excel, in architecture and sculpture, engineering, trade, warfare, and so on. Demonstrations of civic pride would include the acquisition and display of exceptional and interesting curios from nature including impressive collections of animals and plants.

Agriculture catalyzed the process of social and economic development that accelerated human control of nature. Cities thrive and grow on the resources provided by trade, fostered through political interaction with other cultures. Warfare generated the competition and conquest that would benefit victors. With urban growth came not only an increase in population but an increase in social complexity and organisation that could take advantage of the benefits of scale and specialization that permit the development of more elaborate technologies, larger armies, and so forth. It is this faltering but inexorable cycle of growth that has created today’s global economic community as, in 2007, UNESCO announced that world-wide city dwellers outnumbered people living in the country and that by 2030 nearly two thirds of the world population would be living in urban areas (United Nations 2006, 2007). The human journey from early cities like Uruk in Mesopotamia in about 4500 BCE to the modern megalopolis has taken about 6,500 years.

It was during the phase of city-building facilitated by agriculture that the category ‘garden’ comes to us as an enclosed (sometimes sacred) and cherished artificial space dedicated to cultivated plants. Classics professor and garden historian Katherine von Stackelberg (2013, p. 120) suggests that it was in the Bronze Age interaction of trade, diplomacy, and military conquest that occurred between Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Aegean during the third to second millennia BCE that ‘… gardens emerge as distinctly meaningful spaces’. These ancient civilizations all had cities with imposing royal gardens and artistically-inspired religious precincts. Here we see the first large-scale parks and gardens associated with royal palaces, temples, and tombs.

Bronze Age gardens gardens were bounded plant spaces, both public and private, for nature, beauty, food and medicine, but few would justify the title ‘botanic garden’. Like civilisation itself, modern botanic gardens are ultimately an outcome of the social organization made possible by the harnessing of plant energy. Their origin, role and function has been a mainly a product of Western culture and it occurred with the accelerating social transformation that began in Agraria. Though botanic garden history is usually dated from the modern era, some of their themes hark back to antiquity and the dawn of the written record when it was medicinal rather than food plants that appeared in plant lists of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Maintenance of these plant records was the responsibility of an educated and literate elite in a tradition probably dating back to the pre-literate shaman/medicine man of Natura before this role was assumed by ancient academics, the Bronze Age priests and scribes. Respect for medicinal gardens continued through the classical era and the subsequent medieval monastic physic gardens that were attended by the apothecaries and physicians of the late Middle Ages, and the professors who presided over the new discipline of botany in the university medicinal gardens of the early modern period (Spencer & Cross 2017)

A brief account of some grand ancient gardens provides us with an insight into factors that have fostered the differentiation between gardens and botanic gardens.


In ancient Egypt, built on the fertile soil of the Nile river, there is evidence for an academic interest in the medicinal use of plants that dates back to at least the Third Dynasty pharaoh Imhotep (2667-2648 BCE) revered as the founder of Egyptian medicine, the first great physician and worshipped as a god. Later ancient Greek physicians would identify him with Asklepios, the God of Greek medicine, and they would use his Egyptian temples as learning centres for trainee Greek physicians (Osler 1913).

We know about Egyptian medicine via famous papyrus manuscripts such as the Hearst Papyrus (c. 2000 BCE), Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE), Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE), and London Medical Papyrus (c. 1325 BCE). The best-known is the Ebers Papyrus which dates from the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep I (c. 1534 BCE). The Egyptian Ebers papyrus is a 110-page scroll about 20 metres long and likely copied from earlier texts. It is one of the oldest preserved medical documents and is probably the world’s earliest surviving list of medicinal plants. Some 30 herbal remedies inscribed on this scroll suggest herbs and spices that are in common use today (Bryan 1930).

Egyptian medicine set a precedent for civilizations that followed. Homer’s Odyssey written in about 800 BCE states that ‘In Egypt the men are skilled in medicine than any of human kind … and any other art’, a view confirmed by Greek historian Herodotus in about 440 BCE. The herbal remedies written on these papyri are a mix of empirical medicine, magical formulas, incantations, and inhalations. No doubt the strong aromas and flavours of herbs and spices had attracted spiritual associations and these were a legacy of prehistory handed on to the ancient Egyptians. Herbs and spices had many uses. Cinnamon, especially, from today’s Sri Lanka, was used for embalming. The Egyptian tradition of matching plant and animal characteristics to the symptoms of the patient simila similibus (similar with similar) has passed down history, most obviously in the Medieval Doctrine of Signatures.

Ancient fascination with spices might seem curious to us today but herbs and spices were mostly very light and effective in small quantities making them easy to dry, store, and transport over long distances: there was therefore the potential for substantial profits. They were of course considered an integral part of health and medicine and a supplement that made food much more interesting and palatable. But there were other alluring qualities beyond the economic, medicinal, and culinary. There was the mystery of their origin in foreign lands. Then the aromas intimated at mystical properties (many were considered aphrodisiacs or substances that could enhance fertility) – the religious and spiritual associations were strong, no doubt a legacy from prehistory, and it was commonly believed that their fragrance awoke the senses of the gods, thereby facilitating communication with the divine in a tradition that continues today as the burning of incense. Of course their rarity made them prohibitively expensive so, like gold and precious jewels, spices were associated with the social elite which made them a luxurious and much-coveted symbol of social status. We also know that by 1000 BCE medical systems also existed in the great civilizations of China (notably the legendary founder of Chinese medicine Shen Nung and his purported herbal), India, and Korea (Purseglove 1981, pp. 1-2, 101).
Pharoahs sometimes appointed several learned and specialist physicians to manage their ailments. Their knowledge would include familiarity with the properties, dosages, and general administration of herbs and spices.

Egyptian trading expeditions to Punt (in the region of Ethiopia, Somalia, or Arabian Peninsula) are recorded from the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty c. 2400 BCE with other forays following in the sixth, eleventh, and twelfth dynasties (Leslie & Hunt 2013). Reliefs depicting men working in orchards and vegetable plots date to the Sixth Dynasty at Saqqara (2345-2181 BCE) and tomb paintings from el-Bersheh and Ben hasan dating to c. 1800 BCE show square vegetable patches with raised edges tended by men gathering lettuces and onions (Wilkinson 2001, p. 417).

In the period of the New Kingdom from 1500-1250 BCE the Nile floodplain allowed year-round irrigation for vegetables, palms, and fruit trees. Design elements in cities at this time included complex enclosed estates, elaborate architecture, groves of trees, pavilions, temples, and pools for lotus and birds. From about 1500 BCE ‘native trees and flowers were being steadily augmented by foreign introductions from the east and south-east of the Mediterranean‘ they included the pomegranate, Punica granatum, from the Caspian Sea region, also Cornflower, Centaurea depressa, and Poppy, Papaver rhoes, from the eastern Mediterranean (Hobhouse 1994, p. 12).
Von Stackelberg (2013) describes the highly influential gardens of Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BCE) the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty and her successor Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BCE). Religious precincts of this period contained temples dedicated to various gods and these were frequently decorated with formally designed gardens.

Hatshepsut was a much-revered and progressive pharaoh. The temple constructed in her reign is recognised today as a masterpiece of landscape architecture. She restored former trade with Punt which was a source of gold, aromatic resins, African blackwood, ebony, ivory, slaves, and wild animals. One expedition to Punt consisted of five ships and a complement of over 200 men including 30 rowers, each ship about 21 m long with several sails. The expedition returned with 31 live myrrh trees stored with their roots in baskets as well as some people from Punt itself. This appears to be the first recorded transplantation of trees from a foreign expedition. Hatshepsut planted the trees in the courtyard of the Deir el-Bahari tomb complex which she dedicated to the god Amun. Soon after the Punt expedition Hatshepsut sent raiding parties to Byblos and Sinai and early in her reign initiated successful military forays into Nubia, the Levant, and Syria (von Stackelberg, pp. 122-123).

Hatshepsut’s successor was Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BCE) who, in his reign of nearly 54 years, waged 17 military campaigns to create Egypt’s greatest empire extending from northern Syria to the fourth waterfall down the Nile. His military victories were celebrated by the construction of a Festival Hall at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, its entrance carved with a list of conquered territories in Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. On a wall in a sacred space at the back of the Hall is a finely detailed relief, known as the ‘botanic garden’ depicting native Egyptian plants like figs, dates, vines and lotus, but also plants from Syria and Palestine such as Iris, Arum and Kalanchoe, presumably trophies of war, taken for their medicinal and religious significance as well as their natural beauty (von Stackelberg 2013).

The garden of wealthy official Sennufer who lived in the reign of Amenophis III (1450-1425 BCE) was illustrated on the wall of his funerary chapel. This painting is now destroyed but a copy remains as the most famous painting of an Egyptian garden. It is a walled garden that was probably situated near the Temple of Karnak in Eastern Thebes. Visitors arrived by boat along a canal lined with an avenue of trees, they then walked through a gated lodge into a central vine-shaded courtyard with trellised arbours, awned pavilions, and shady colonnaded courtyards. Garden pools were stocked with fish and ducks and decorated with flowering plants including poolside potted lotus (Hobhouse 1994, p. 32).
In the reign of pharaoh Akhenaten (1352-1336 BCE) a garden city was built at el-Amarna in Middle Egypt, the city-centre with sunken gardens which had decorative tiles illustrating individual plants (perhaps a guide to identification) and a vineyard, while just outside the city centre was a sacred area, Maru-Aten, with a central lake, avenues of trees, garden beds and temples. Wealthy citizens and important officials lived in walled villa estates, often situated outside the city limits as a retreat from the trials of daily life. Workers lived on the outskirts of the city, growing vegetables in their home gardens (Wilkinson 2001, p. 418; Baines & Whitehouse 2006).

Frescoes on the Aegean Island of Thera (today’s Santorini) spanning the period 1700 to 1450 BCE depict landscapes and scenes that include animals and plants from Egypt (von Stackelberg 2013, p. 122) and by 1350 BCE in el Amarna in open areas fronting pools and courtyards there are similar painted wall frescoes. Gardens as sanctuaries now feature in Egyptian art, literature, and poetry, often with strong symbolic associations (Joyce 1989, pp. 7-8).

These accounts from ancient Egypt indicate an intellectual interest in plants of medicinal value and an appreciation of the botanical benefits of trade and conquest. Exploratory voyages yielded plant trophies, often edible or useful, but sometimes also of ornamental value. The skills of plant transportation over long distances were being learned. Parks and gardens were carefully designed public areas with elaborate architecture and other ornamentation; they were used as sanctuaries, public meeting places, or for religious observance. The tradition of home gardens, vegetable patches, market gardening, and luxurious suburban estates as retreats for the wealthy are all well established by 1500 BCE.


In Mesopotamia, a land irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sargon the Great (c. 2333-2279 BCE), founder of the Akkadian dynasty, was the son of a gardener, an association between kings, courts, and horticulture that recurs down the ages. Sargon accumulated exotic plants collected on military campaigns and similar collecting expeditions are recorded for subsequent magnificent palace gardens of the kings Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 BCE), Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), Sargon II (721-704 BCE), Sennacherib (704-681 BCE), and Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE)(Leslie & Hunt 2013).

On stone tablets Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I speaks of his herds of deer, gazelle, ibex, oxen, and asses that he has assembled as trophies of war to stock his park-like hunting grounds along with …’such trees as none among previous kings, my forefathers, had ever planted … I took rare orchard fruit which is not found in my land and filled the orchards of Assyria’ and he lists among his new trees the cedar, box-tree, and Kanish Oak (von Stackelberg 2013, p. 123).

King Assurnasirpal II brought back plants from a military campaign, incorporating them into an elaborate landscape modification:

‘I made gardens in the upper and in the lower town, with the earth’s produce from the mountains and the countries round about, all the spices from the land of the Hittites, myrrh (which grows better in my gardens than in its native land), vines from the hills, fruits from every country; spices and Sirdu-trees have I planted for my subjects. Moreover, I have cut down and levelled mountain and field from the land about the town of Kisiri unto the country near Nineveh, so that the plants may thrive there, and I have made a canal; one and a half hour’s journey from the Chusur river have I brought water to flow in my canal, and between my plantations for their good watering. I have set a pond in the garden to keep water there, and in it I have planted reeds’
Dalley 1993, p. 3

From a library of tablets assembled from all over Mesopotamia, written in cuneiform and curated by King Ashurbanipal II (668-627 BCE) in his royal palace at Nineveh (the tablets now stored in the British Museum) it is clear that medicinal herbs were grown in special gardens, the plants being carefully listed on clay tablets as a materia medica or herbal complete with synonymy and described by botanical historian Alan Morton as ‘the earliest truly botanical work at present known’ (presumably because it deals with taxonomic and nomenclatural issues) (Morton 1981, p. 9). The king’s knowledgeable physicians at Nineveh worked with about 250 different medicinal plants. Records in the library trace the Mesopotamian herbal back to at least the second half of the third millennium BCE (Wallis Budge 2011).

In this record from Mesopotamia we can discern not only advanced horticulture and landscape design but early zoos, the use of water features, and an economic botany that exploited plants from foreign lands, placing special emphasis on spices. As in Egypt there is the specialised study of medicinal plants administered by a class of physicians – ancient academics who pre-date the apothecaries and professors of early modern medicinal gardens by at least 3500 years.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The culmination of horticulture in antiquity was almost certainly the Mesopotamian Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world constructed at the dawn of Mediterranean Classical civilization. Oxford historian Stephanie Dalley (1993) tells us how later Greek and Roman writers such as Strabo (c. 64 BCE-c. 24 CE) and Diodorus Siculus (fl. 60-30 BCE) describe the Hanging Gardens as a vast amphitheatre, reaching toward heaven and terraced in tiers with a cleverly engineered system of irrigation that raised water to the top (probably an Archimedes screw built before Archimedes lived!) – a towering and impressive architectural masterpiece with cool recesses and pavilions for entertainment and a lake at its base.

The precise location of these gardens has only recently been determined by Dalley as being – not at Babylon but at Nineveh or ‘Old Babylon’ located about 400 km to the north where it was constructed about 100 years before King Nebuchadnezzar, during the rule of King Sennacherib (reigned 705 – 681 BCE) (Dalley 1993).

Asia & the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE)

By the 6th and 5th centuries BCE peoples across the world had entered what is now known as the Axial Age, subjecting old beliefs to critical examination and developing new social structures, religions, and philosophies. In this period of intellectual introspection we see the emergence in the East of Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism and Jainism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism. In the Near East there was the Hebrew religion of Judaism that existed before the rise of the later Abrahamic religions Christianity and Islam.

Chinese historical records indicate that interest in plants was, from the earliest times, herbal in character, but in a written tradition that first dates to about the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE). Dictionaries and encyclopaedias included lists of medicinal plants and their properties. When an imperial decree of 659 CE ordered the synthesis of this knowledge the result was what probably constituted the first pharmacopeia of any nation (Morton 1981, p. 11).
Indian Vedic writings have an oral tradition dating back to at least the second millennium BCE referring to the medical and mystical properties of plants but the earliest written texts of any substance appear to be almost exclusively medical in character. The Susruta-Samhita, associated with surgeon Susruta at about the time of the Gauthama Buddha (560-480 BCE) probably derives from much earlier documents and it lists about 700 plants with their medicinal properties. However, botanical features do play some part in their classification (Morton 1981, p. 12).


Following the great ancient empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia there emerged a vast Persian eastern empire that, at its height in about 490 BCE engulfed both Mesopotamia and Egypt in the west and extended to the Himalayas in the east. Persians excelled in hydraulic engineering used to great effect in their carefully constructed gardens that were especially sensitive to climatic conditions. Persians enjoyed thriving trade, luxury, and a strong military. Opulent cities were established in Babylon, Persepolis, Pasagardae (notably those of Cyrus the Great (c. 600 – 530 BCE)), and Susa. Chahar bagh (four gardens) gardens originated during Cyrus’s Achaemenid dynasty of the First Persian Empire. These beautiful formally-designed gardens had deeply impressed the invading army of Macedonian Alexander the Great during the Persian wars of 499-449 BCE when Greece became the new imperial force in the Mediterranean, introducing Hellenic culture to conquered lands as distant as the Indus Valley. Cyrus’s Muslim descendants would later occupied the southern Mediterranean including Moorish Spain, occupied in 711, and Sicily in 878, the garden traditions spreading northwards through Italy to be adapted by the magnificent Medici villa gardens of the Italian Renaissance (Brown 1999, pp. 83-84) that would set the early tone for European Renaissance garden style, and the layout of some of the early modern botanic gardens like that in Padua.

Caliph Abd al-Rahman I (731-788 CE) set out a botanical garden in Cordoba with exotic plants from Syria and Asia and the first date palm to be grown in Spain but only when the Abbasids moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad did the Islamic Golden Age of learning begin associated with an age of travel and trade that extended to Northern Europe, Madagascar, India, and China (Hawks 1928, p. 85).

The ancient Persian word pairidaēza refers to an enclosure, park, or hunting ground (no doubt connected with the hunting parks of the Assyrians and Babylonians) and is related to the later Greek word paradeisos and English ‘paradise’. Persian ideas derived in part from Egypt and Mesopotamia would be incorporated into private and public space in the new Hellenistic Greek Empire that followed Alexander’s military conquests, most notably in the planning of the new city of Alexandria and design of villa retreats built by his generals. It was these villas whose style would be later emulated and embellished by the Roman elite and passed on within the general western gardening tradition.

Later Moghul gardens came to the West via Moorish Spain, the Mediterranean and the Crusades. Sons of Muhammed I created the great gardens of the Alhambra, Generalife, the Alcazar of Seville and palace city of Medina Azahara, all embellished with exotic plants imported from India in sensitive designs that could make Versailles appear clumsy (Brown 1999, p. 38).

Ancient Greece

One western branch of thought that emerged from the melting pot of ideas in the Axial Age was the school of naturalistic pre-Socratic philosophers (c. 624-430 BCE) of Ionia (today’s western Turkey) and the Eleatics of southern Italy. They are regarded as the first natural scientists since they developed explanations for phenomena in nature that did not depend on supernatural causes. This school of thinking would lead to the Golden Age of Greek philosophy we associate with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and his student, friend, and successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus. These men would have a major influence on subsequent western culture and science and it is Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287 BCE) who laid the foundations of today’s plant science, the critical study of plants for their own sake as well as for their utility (Morton 1981; Thanos 2005).

Ancient Greek public gardens were founded on former traditions. A kēpos was a formal temple enclosure while an alsos was a sacred grove as an unbounded natural space like a wildlife reserve where grazing and cutting were forbidden (von Stackleberg 2013, p. 132).

Private gardens of ancient Athens were modest in comparison with the horticultural grandeur of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. According to Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) it was Epicurus (341-270 BCE) who was the first to create a garden in ancient Athens. By ‘garden’ he probably meant something substantial: ‘. . . up to this time it had never been thought of, to dwell in the country in the middle of a town’ (Pliny, Historia Naturae 19, 19). Epicurus had purchased a property which he called The Garden by the main gate into Athens and it had a reputation for great beauty. Here Epicurus and his followers worked on their philosophical ideas. He considered that philosophy was, first and foremost, a form of therapy for life, since ‘philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that cannot cure the body‘ (Usener 1887) and no doubt his garden contributed to a tranquil state of mind.
While Epicurus nurtured his soul with garden beauty, philosopher Theophrastus was feeding his soul in a different way, by indulging his intellectual curiosity in plants.

Theophrastus and the Lyceum

Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle as Head of the Lyceum gymnasium of ancient Athens. A gymnasium was a university-like all-male educational establishment teaching academic subjects, sport, and military training.

During the years 345-342 BCE Aristotle and Theophrastus studied animal and plant life in a lagoon of the Kalloni Gulf on the island of Lesbos where Theophrastus was born (Leroi 2014). Though there is no precise record of this time it seems the two men made a pact: together they would begin a detailed study of the living world. Aristotle specialised in animals, Theophrastus in plants (Thanos 2005). This was a pivotal point in the emergence of modern biological science.

Ancient Greeks had inherited vast catalogues of astronomical observations made by Babylonian and Egyptian astronomers but there was no equivalent interest in biological matters since written records indicate all interest in plants was focused on their medicinal use. Certainly at the outset of their ambitious venture the two men had access to medicinal information and general folk-wisdom but they were effectively starting the scientific discipline of biology from scratch, beginning with Theophrastus’s distinction between plants and animals which were scientifically poorly differentiated at this time. The biological treatises of these two men, Aristotle’s Historia Animalium (Enquiry into animals) and Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum, are, in effect, the first recorded scientific treatises on animals and plants.

Aristotle famously declared that ‘It is not good enough to study the stars no matter how perfect they may be. Rather we must also study the humblest creatures even if they seem repugnant to us’ (Aristotle De Partibus Animalium 645 a15), a statement that launched biological science and which has subsequently become known as ‘The Invitation to Biology’.

The method of teaching used by Theophrastus and Aristotle was known as peripatetic philosophy. Students listened, learned, and discussed while walking around the Lyceum garden. Two kinds of educational talks were given. First the morning research discussions with students (who enrolled at the Lyceum from across the Hellenic world) then later in the day public talks for anyone with a general interest in plants (Leroi 2014, p. 345). Among the plants grown in the garden were medicinal and exotic plants returned to Greece from distant lands, some from exploratory expeditions, a few donated by merchants, and others sent to Athens by soldiers on military campaigns. The Lyceum garden was thought to contain plants collected by the famous military hero Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) who had fought his way to one of the largest empires in ancient history. As a young student Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle and he paid respect to his mentor by returning to the Lyceum garden interesting plants encountered on his military expeditions (Thanos 2005).

Theophrastus had little interest in medicinal plants. The systematization of medicinal plant knowledge in the Athens of his day had been completed efficiently by his contemporary, the physician Diocles of Carystius (c. 375-c. 295 BCE) who Theophrastus respected and whose work, subsequently lost, probably formed the foundation of later lists attributed to Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE) and Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) (Morton 1981, pp. 64-66). Theophrastus regarded many plant remedies, those based on hearsay rather than observation, with great suspicion. He was less concerned with the utility of plants – their human use as medicines, food, fibres and so on – instead his curiosity was focused on the plants themselves, their relationship to one-another, their classification, structure, function, reproduction, interaction with the environment, and geographic distribution. And always his knowledge was based on proven experience, reason, and logic. In fact Theophrastus’s approach hardly differed from that of modern evidence-based plant science. He clearly regarded gardens as potential places for experimentation and the close observation of nature (Morton 1981, pp. 51, 67).

The Lyceum was not an academic ivory tower, it was also affected by affairs of state, and plant utility was not ignored. Theophrastus lived in a time when the independent Greek city-states, following Macedonian Alexander’s conquests, were preparing for possible imperial unification under a Macedonian monarchy so the Lyceum was being used ‘to train the leaders, officials and experts of the new era’ (Morton 1981, p. 49). This would be a costly matter and all possible sources of revenue needed investigation. Theophrastus was the son of a fuller and aware that the Lyceum could improve its public profile by raising revenue and engaging with the world of economics. The kind of economic ambitions he pursued would be remarkably similar to those of colonial Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Theophrastus expressed particular interest in:

‘ … increasing the productivity of agriculture, the study of native and colonial plant resources, the acclimatisation of plants in new habitats, an intense interest in the production of timber and tar for shipbuilding, especially for the navy, linen for sails, charcoal for metallurgy and metal-working’> Morton 1981, p. 29

In sum, the garden at the Lyceum in Athens was associated with an educational institution that had extended its study of plants from that of utility to that of science, to the study of the plants themselves. The living plant collection was the subject of close scientific observation. The garden, set within designed parkland, benefitted from both local plants and those obtained through trade, foreign exploration, and warfare. His plant science took account of the many benefits that could accrue to Athenian citizens from economic botany.

The Lyceum survived until closed in 529 CE by Byzantine Emperor Justinian who considered it a threat to Christianity.

The idea of the Lyceum garden as a place for reflection, education, and science was not forgotten by posterity ‘… the perception of the garden as a suitable location for philosophical investigation became entrenched’ and ‘… philosophers inspired the lasting associative tradition between gardens, classical education, and higher thought that persisted into the eighteenth century’ (von Stackelberg 2013, pp. 131-132). The analytical scientific spirit of the ancient classical world and its search for naturalistic explanations would pervade the thinking of later European Renaissance and Enlightenment intellectuals.

The intellectual and cultural centre of the ancient world passed from Athens to Egyptian Alexandria (founded 331 BCE and named after its conqueror) with its famous library, museum and beautifully designed public space. Alexandria was the centre of Greek intellectual activity from c. 332 BCE until the time of Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) but it too fell into decline in the seventh century CE. After the dissolution of the Classical world, ancient learning and manuscripts, including the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus, were lost to Western Christendom although fortunately preserved and extended in the Arab world through the Middle Ages, mainly in Persia, Syria and Arabia, eventually returning to the west where they were translated from Arabic back into Latin and Greek. Throughout this period academic interest in plants was confined once again to their medicinal properties and a staggering 1200 years would pass before the return of Greek-spirited analytical plant science (Morton 1981, pp. 49, 123).

Middle Ages

The rise of monotheistic Christianity within the polytheistic Roman Empire was met at first with indifference and then antagonism. However Roman Emperor Constantine I (c. 272–337 CE), perhaps surprisingly, adopted the new religion with major historical consequences. With the Edict of Milan in 313 CE Christians were to be treated with respect and by 325 CE Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 330 CE Constantine created an eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire by transferring the capital from Rome to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople after himself. Though, by 476 CE, the western Roman Empire had fallen, the legacy of Christianity flourished, spreading through Europe.

As the old Roman trade routes and institutions crumbled communal life and learning in Europe of the Middle Ages took on its feudal and religious character. Plant interest had now reverted again to the practical concerns of food and herbal medicine and this was a period especially rich in folklore, alchemy, sorcery, witches, potions, magic and the like. Herbal medicine was practised within the family, by local physicians, and in the monasteries which had become community centres and a focus for learning.

Physic gardens

The Hortulan were lowly monastic gardeners who, for about 1000 years, maintained the gardens of monasteries that served as sanctuaries, hospitals, community centres, and schools.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent Reformation divided Europe into Catholics and Protestants. From c. 1530 to 1603 the royal gardening precedent was established with little known about common and everyday gardens. Mary Queen of Scots is said to have brought many plants from France to Scotland (e.g. angelica and French sorrel) (Brown 1999, p. 57).

While Christendom languished the Arab world prospered through an Islamic Golden Age that lasted from the 8th to the 13th centuries. The study of medicinal plants and ornamental gardens flourished in Spain, Turkey, and the Levant. The first capital of the Islamic world was in Damascus during the Umayyad Caliphate of 661 to 750 CE before transfer in the 760s to Baghdad as a trade centre with magnificent gardens, floristry, perfumery, education, and science. In 711 CE Moorish armies had captured Cordoba in Spain, the city rising and it rose to prominence until by 950 CE its universities, libraries, medical schools, vineyards, orchards, gardens, and commercial vibrancy proclaimed it as Europe’s centre of intellectual activity and one of the most populous cities in the world before its role was overtaken by Seville (Morton 1981, pp. 86-89; Lehrman 1986). During this period new crops were introduced and distributed through Muslim gardens managed by leading pharmacists and physicians like Ibn Bassal (fl 11th century) of Toledo and Seville, and Ibn al-Wafid (997-d. c. 1074) of Toledo. Gardens of the Muslim world combined art and ornamental display with economic botany and science, networking in a manner that would not be seen in Christendom for several centuries.

Many of the symbolic and aesthetic aspects of gardens come to us through this tradition. One aspect of the creation of impressive gardens at this time was the evocation of a terrestrial paradise (Prest 1981). Persian gardens especially accentuated fertility, abundance, and beauty. Islamic charbagh gardens, like their Persian predecessors, would also associate gardens with paradise, ‘bagh’ referring to an idealised garden of eternal serenity and bliss, a retreat from civic duty, a heaven on earth, much like the Christian Garden of Eden. They were laid out in a quadripartite formal symbolism typical of the mystical numerology of the times – four directions, four seasons, four elements, four corners of the earth, and the four rivers of Eden, four humours of the body . This four-parted design would later be used in the very first early modern botanic gardens like that in Padua (est. 1544). The world heritage Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan (influenced by the older Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir) were constructed in 1641-1642 and date from a period when the Mughal Empire of India and Pakistan was at its artistic height.

Frankish King Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE, the first emperor of Western Europe since the Roman collapse. One of his decrees was the Capitulare de Villis (On the Management of Estates, c. 771–800) which attempted to revive a Roman villa-type garden- and money-based market economy using the Lords of manorial estates. The document contained detailed recommendations for the construction and contents of gardens (Mobbs et al. 2008). The Capitulare de Villis lists over 70 species of flowers, herbs and vegetables and 16 kinds of fruit and nuts giving us a synoptic account of the commoner cultivated plants at that time (Darryl 2010).

Medicinal plants were cultivated in the monastery gardens where some Roman garden traditions were retained, like the cloisters as a colonnaded peristyle, and enclosed gardens, the Hortus conclusus, itself further divided into garden ‘rooms’. The hortus was a garden used mostly for vegetables while the herbularis or hortus medicus was a physic garden of labelled medicinal plants, the pharmacy of its day as a source of plant remedies for the ailing patients who were being cared for in the monastery dormitories (Holmes 1906). Medicines were administered by learned physicians called apothecaries. An 830 CE architectural plan of the famous Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland shows 16 herb beds in a formal design as precursor to the later university physic gardens.

Education was gradually becoming more secular in character. Universities evolved out of church schools in about the twelfth century with lecturers known as scholastics. The typical Master of Arts degree took six years to complete during which students learned the seven liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric) all in Latin and combined with Aristotelian philosophy. Students were expected to be fluent in Latin which was the international language of scholarship and the reason why today’s plant names are in Latin. Higher education could then be pursued in the disciplines of theology, medicine and law. Bologna University was founded in (1088), Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209), and Padua (1222). Medicinal plant remedies were no doubt studied as a major part of the curriculum in those universities with medical faculties and here, for many years, medical students would be taught what little remained of the honoured work of Classical physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 375 BCE) and Galen (129-c. 216 CE).

In 431 CE Nestorians (a radical Christian sect following the theology of Nestorius (c. 386-450 CE) who admired Greek philosophy, especially that of Aristotle) were driven from Constantinople. Through Persian territory in SE Asia they built monasteries and schools and translating the Greek and Latin classics into Persian and Syriac. The medical school at Edessa (now in today’s al Jazira which encompasses NW Iraq, NE Syria and SE Turkey) served as a prototype for the later Italian schools at Monte Cassino and Salerno, but it closed in 489. Matthaeus Silvaticus (c. 1280 – c. 1342) taught botany and medicine at a school of medicine at Salerno in central Italy that had, from the 9th century, gradually increased its influence. He produced, in about 1317, a large though unoriginal Pandectarum Medicinae (encyclopaedia of medicine) and when this was published in the 16th century it passed into many editions. The frontispiece of the 1526 edition shows Silvaticus teaching students in his physic garden in Salerno two hundred years before the establishment of the university physic gardens in Pisa, Padua, Bologna, and Genoa. The medical school at Montpelier would, in the mid- 16th century, assume the former stature of Salerno. At Montpelier, under the tutelage of the Professor of Medicine William Rondelet (1507-1566) there was the study of ‘simples’ and on travels in Italy Rondelet would eventually meet his contemporary Luigi Ghini. Rondelet’s influence in botany is felt largely through his pupils, most memorably Charles de L’Ecluse (Clusius) but also Matthias de l’Obel (Lobelius) and Jean Bauhin.


Medical School at Salerno Italy

Matthaeus Silvaticus (c. 1280–c. 1342) teaching botany at the Benedictine physic garden attached to the medical school at Salerno in southern Italy
From the frontispiece of the 1526 edition of his pharmacopoeia Opus Pandectarum Medicinae which he completed in 1317
Courtesy Wikipedia Commons – Cheung – Accessed 11 Dec. 2017


In the London of 1180 wholesale merchants formed a pepperers’ guild which later merged with the spicers guild and much later still, in 1429, the Grocer’s Company. Pepperers and spicers were the forerunners of the later apothecaries – a term rolling into one the vocations of botanist, chemist, druggist, herbalist, merchant, and physician – but nevertheless indicating the vital role of spices in western medicine (Purseglove et al. 1981, p. 12).

The evolution of the modern botanic garden can now be placed within a broad social context before examining the particular circumstances relating to Australia.


This article is an adaptation of part of a paper botanic gardens and their relation to plant science with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy‘ by R. Spencer and R. Cross published in Muelleria 35: 43-94 in 2017.

Early modern era

The years between the establishment of early modern botanic gardens in Italy and the settlement of Australia, roughly 1550-1800, witnessed a series of momentous interconnected social transitions that were all European in origin but which would become of global significance. They are generally described using a cluster of historical categories: Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Age of Discovery, Enlightenment, Commercial Revolution, Age of Revolutions, and Industrial Revolution. Collectively these social transformations have been referred to as The Great Divergence (Pomeranz 2000). This was a time when the West surged ahead of the rest of the world in political and economic power. Eventually Britain, as centre of the Industrial Revolution and mechanized agriculture, would create the world’s largest ever empire embracing over a quarter of the world’s population as European commerce followed the path of maritime trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Economic power would eventually pass from Britain to America in the twentieth century (Nunn & Qian 2010).

Many of the shared policies and procedures practiced in botanic gardens today arose out of this modern era which, when extended to 1950 to include the first and second Industrial Revolutions, amounted to a remarkable Age of Plants as a time of European-inspired and greatly accelerated environmental, social, and economic change emerging out of our human dependence on plants. Major milestones along the way would include: a spice race to the East and West Indies during the Age of Discovery; the 18th century exploitation of major economic crops; a celebration of plant diversity and beauty; and the 19th century development of the public garden.

Between 1650 and 1800 the world population doubled and European commercial and cultural impetus shifted from the Mediterranean, with its cultural and trading hubs in Egypt, Greece, Italy and the Levant, to the countries and cities of Western Europe. Cities situated on the Atlantic seaboard were geographically ideally situated to reap the economic and political benefits of the maritime expansion into the New World and beyond.

All of these social changes impacted on the objectives and general character of botanic gardens.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution arose in Western Europe during the period 1550 to 1750 before it passed to the rest of the world: it ended the pervasive deference to ancient learning and mounted a major assault on superstition. Expressed crudely it marked a transition from alchemy to chemistry, magic to medicine and botany, astrology to astronomy, and mystical numerology to mathematics.

Science was beginning define its own boundaries. The multiple disciplines of science that we know today arose mainly in the nineteenth century. Up to the seventeenth century educated men were called philosophers, those concerned with living organisms being known as natural philosophers. However, by the seventeenth century ‘natural philosophy’ had become a muddy term that was replaced by the expression ‘natural science’ which, in the nineteenth century was abbreviated to ‘science’. ‘Natural history’ refers more to field science, an expression used in the 16th century by wealthy dilettantes that became more popular during the Enlightenment.

At first, the ‘primary objective of Renaissance intellectuals was to recover the lost culture of the past, not to establish new knowledge of their own’ and ‘… the further back in time one went, the nearer one approached to the truth’ (Wootton 2015, pp. 73, 76). These men looked back to the philosophy of Aristotle and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures as sources of truth. It would take the effrontery of men like scientist-philosopher Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to establish a sense of a progressive forward-looking science that was steadily building on the hard-gained advances of an imperfect past (Wootton 2015, pp. 83-85). Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620) outlined a new scientific method that attacked the Aristotelian emphasis on deductive logic and offered a more practical experimental approach, a strict empiricism backed by inductive logic.

The early scientific revolution is usually associated with astronomers and mathematicians and the replacement of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy with the heliocentrism of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), later supported by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), together with the mathematics and philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650), chemistry of Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and many others who laid the foundations of modern philosophy and science. Towering above them all was the figure of Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and his Principia (1687) in which he formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation just one year after English botanist John Ray published the first modern era botanical synthesis Historia Plantarum.

The gathering network of scholars was given impetus when the Royal Society in London was chartered in 1662, creating a precedent for the formation of many scientific and learned societies across Europe. With the first publication of its journal Philosophical Transactions in 1665 began the tradition of peer-reviewed publication. The Linnean Society, the world’s oldest active biological society, was founded over a century later, the same year as Australian settlement in 1788.

As science was emerging from philosophy so botany was extricating itself from medicine. The botanical component of the scientific revolution is usually ignored but it is substantial and much of it occurred in botanic gardens.

Scientific knowledge fed into new technologies that, in turn, produced social change. The German Gutenberg printing press of 1440 greatly facilitated communication and among the first, most popular, and well-illustrated books were the herbals that, from 1470 to 1670, delivered the information needed for household pharmacy. Improved instrumentation, notably the microscope, launched the discipline of plant anatomy and other precision instruments set experimental physiology in train.

Above all maritime exploration was revolutionised by improved navigational instrumentation that included precision chronometers, telescopes that aided astronomical and other observation, and improved compasses. Sophisticated cartography rapidly expanded the European view of the world while skilled shipbuilding techniques created vessels that sailed faster and further than ever before (Jardine et al. 1996). By far the most evident scientific advance in botany occurred in plant taxonomy as newly-introduced plants poured into European gardens.

One consistent claim of botanic gardens throughout their modern history has been that they are, above all, scientific gardens. What then has been their contribution to science in the period up to the 19th century?

At first botany remained in the thrall of the ancients as herbals were largely popular and derivative compilations of former works. Among these former works were the Hippocratic Corpus, an essential component of the medical library and attributed to Hippocrates of Cos (c. 460–c. 370 BCE): it lists about 230 plants, most of which are included in the 550 plants listed in the two works of Theophrastus (c.371-c. 287 BCE), and many of these again repeated in the massive 37-volume Roman encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and the approximately 600 plants described in De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (40-90 CE), a Greek soldier and physician in the Roman army. The De Materia Medica, itself probably a derivative work, would be slavishly copied again and again for 1500 years up to and including the first printed herbals.

Gradually lists began to include different plants, some from parts of the world unknown to the scholars of antiquity. Botany too was shaking off the cloak of ancient learning.

Much of this new activity in botany required an institutional focus and although the new science was practiced by men of universities and learned societies it was in the associated botanic gardens that this occurred.

Italian Renaissance botanic gardens

Of the many precursors to the modern botanic garden the scientific Lyceum garden of Theophrastus is certainly a contender although, in retrospect, it seems highly likely that ornamental horticulture would also, eventually, become part of a botanic garden mix of science and education, art and utility. But, for a while, it would be medicine that would still hold sway.

Renaissance intellectuals recovering the ancient literature of the Greco-Roman world would have been impressed by descriptions of ancient royal gardens, carefully designed, maintained and irrigated in an urban setting. They would also have been aware of the continuity between the Greek and Roman cultures.

Romans created magnificent gardens that incorporated architectural and design elements of the past and then added more. The gardens of Roman general Lucius Lucullus (118 – c. 56 BCE) were laid out in about 60 BCE as a patrician villa, a terraced and architectural garden on Rome’s Pincian Hill and are noted for their opulent Persian style being filled with art objects confiscated on his military campaigns. Lucullus had led an army into Mesopotamia and Persia, destroying the royal palaces but expressing admiration for the magnificent gardens. Lucullus constructed extravagant garden retreats in the Tusculum hills and also at Naples with associated libraries and works of art.

Pliny (HN 19.4.19) regarded the Greek Lyceum garden and gymnasium as a model for the gardens of the Roman upper class (Nielsen 2013, p. 53). Cicero (106-43 BCE), one of Rome’s greatest orators and chroniclers, owned a Tuscan villa that boasted two gymnasia that were named, following the Greeks, the Lyceum and Academy (the Academy was the name of Plato’s gymnasium in Athens). In the second century CE Emperor Hadrian’s retreat, the Villa Adriana at Tibur (Tivoli) combines features of Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture including an ‘Academy’, to create a sacred landscape (Littlewood & von Stackelberg 2013, p. 149). It is now a World Heritage work of art.

Influential Renaissance figures persisted with the Greek theme of philosophers’ gardens. The fourteenth century Florentine Medici family dynasty initiated a new era of wealthy private villa gardens. Cosimo de Medici ‘The Elder’ (1389-1464) had made a fortune as a banker and became a famous patron of the arts and learning during the Italian Renaissance. In 1439, he too named one of his gardens the Academy.

The origin of botanic gardens is usually dated to the early modern Italian Renaissance of the sixteenth century. These botanic gardens arose at a time when science itself was in its infancy. Theophrastus’s works, written in Greek and probably derived from copies in the libraries of Alexandria and Byzantium, were held in the Vatican library and, on the instruction of Pope Nicholas V, they were translated into Latin by Theodore Gaza (Morton 1981, p. 100). This pope also, in 1447, set out a medicinal garden in the grounds of the Vatican where students were taught the rudiments of botany (Hyams & MacQuitty 1969, p. 16).

Appointments to university chairs as professors of botany were often combined with a botanic garden directorship as these medicinal gardens were maintained as educational adjuncts to the medical faculties of universities. The first university chair in botany, styled Professor Simplicium (professor of medicinal plants or ‘simples’), was instituted at Padua in 1533 and the first botanic garden was founded by a different Medici, Cosimo I de Medici, in Pisa in 1544. The establishment of botanic gardens was thus linked to the appointment of professional chairs in botany.


Padua BG

Orto Botanico di Padova – 1545
Unknown Reprinted in ‘L’Orto botanico di Padova nell’ anno 1842′ by Roberto De Visiani (1842)
Showing quadripartite design within a circular wall
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Shyamal – Accessed 28 August 2018


Botanical gardens were founded at Pisa, Padua, and Florence in the 1540s (Hyams & MacQuitty 1969, pp. 19-23; Hepper 1986, p.67; Morton 1981, pp. 120-121). Then, from northern Italy the institution of the botanic garden spread to northern and western Europe taking from about thirty-five to a hundred years to do so as traced through the foundation dates of major city botanic gardens: Pisa est. 1544, Padua 1545, Bologna 1567, Valencia 1567, Montpellier 1593, Leiden 1587, Leipzig 1597, Oxford 1621, Paris 1635, Berlin 1646, Uppsala 1655, Edinburgh 1670, Chelsea Physic Garden 1673, Amsterdam 1682 (Stearn 1971).


In the late 15th century Western European lists of medicinal plants appeared for the first time, not in copied manuscript form, but as printed herbals.

From Spain and Portugal came the herbals of de Orta (1490-1570), Monardes (1493-1588), and Hernandez (1514-1580) and mention of plants from the New World and Asia. From Germany the works of Brunfels (1489-1534), Bock (1498-1554), and Fuchs (1501-1566), from the Low Countries Dodoens (1517-1585) appointed Professor of Medicine in Leiden in 1582, Lobel (1538-1616), and Clusius (1526-1609). From Italy Mattioli (1501-1577) who studied at the University of Padua in 1523 and Alpino (1553-1617) who assisted the establishment of the botanic garden at this university in 1545. From England came the herbals of Turner (c.1508-1568), Gerard (1545–1612), Parkinson (1567–1650), and Culpeper (1616–1654).

John Parkinson (1567–1650) was physician to James I and Charles I and an outstanding botanist awarded the title Botanicus Regius Primarius (King’s First Botanist). His Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629) described over 1,000 plants, many of these being new introductions, the descriptions embellished with woodcut illustrations. In his later years Parkinson was neighbour to John Tradescant (the Elder) (c. 1570s-1638) another eminent collector of Lambeth, London. Tradescant travelled to the Low Countries, Russia and North Africa, exciting public interest in plant collection. He wrote to the Secretary of the British Admiralty requesting that British merchants should ‘procure all manner of curiosities from abroad’ (Drayton 2000, p. 34). John the Elder also exchanged plants and seed with Parisian gardener Jean Robin (1550-1629) curator of the Jardin du Roi (later named the Jardin des Plantes in 1626) for Henry III, Henry IV and Louis XIII. Robin probably introduced to Europe the first Robinia (named in his honour by Linnaeus a century later), planted in either the Place Dauphine or the small botanical Garden of the School of Medicine on the Rue de la Woodcutterie which he managed from 1597 until it closed in 1617. He also tended the garden of Catherine de Medici created for the Palais des Tuileries. His son Vespasian (1579-1662) planted another Robinia in the King’s Garden (Tyler Whittle 1970, French Wikipedia entry for Jean Robin). The nursery of John the Elder produced an impressive plant catalogue in 1634 and his son John (the Younger) (1608-1662) continued the tradition by collecting in Barbados and Virginia (Arber 1986). The father and son business named their collection of travel curios The Ark, which became the first public museum in England. These collectables passed to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. John ‘The Eder’ was an advisor to the gardens of England’s nobility and received the title Royal Gardener. He is regarded as the forefather of English gardening, his last project undertaken a year before he died being the creation of a Physic Garden at Oxford. The church at Lambeth where the Tradescants worshipped, with the family tomb in the grounds, was converted into a Garden Museum in the 1970s and, after refurbishment will house a new gallery called The Ark, probably including some of the original collection (Emma House, pers. comm.).

In England spice dealers became known as apothecaries. In France today’s grocery is called an épicerie, or spicery, recalling their early history.

Though derivative, the herbals were useful text books for the students of physic gardens and the growing number of wealthy private garden owners: they mark the dawn of organized plant knowledge that was spreading from local centres of learning, the first modern era botanic gardens. Herbals gradually included more and more wild plants collected from ever more distant places including the New World. Over time they exemplified the origins of botany as a discipline distinct from medicine by diverging on the one hand into the medicinal pharmacopeia and, on the other, into the regional descriptive accounts of wild plants that we now know as Floras. Beautiful and increasingly botanically accurate plates also stimulated the art of botanical illustration.


Herbals were an extension of the old world of medicine, but the many new plant introductions resulted in ever longer lists of names and descriptions that cried out for system and order.

Luca Ghini (1490–1556) was a physician who worked at the University of Bologna before becoming the Professor Simplicium in 1538. It was he who was invited by Cosimo 1 de Medici to take the chair of botany at the new botanic garden of Pisa in 1544. And it was also probably he who began the preservation of dried and labelled plant collections (hortus siccus or ‘dried garden’) using a plant press, the specimens shelved systematically in a building called a herbarium. The exchange of dried specimens between botanists became commonplace at this time. This link between descriptive botany, botanic gardens and herbaria – with the active exchange of both live plants, mainly as seed, and as dried herbarium specimens – has persisted to this day (Morton 1981, pp. 120, 153). Most of the taxonomy was based at botanic gardens. Italian Andrea Caesalpino (1519–1603), who also studied at Pisa, was Director of the Botanic Garden from 1554 to 1558, also Gaspard Bauhin (1560-1624) who studied at, among other places, Padua and Montpellier where a Jardin des Plantes was established on the Mediterranean in 1593.

English botanist John Ray (1623–1705), the son of a village blacksmith, worked outside the world of medicine and botanic gardens. He was educated at Cambridge and formed a close association with the Royal Society. His passion for plant inventory led to Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum (1690) essentially the first British Flora, and his travels on the continent and beyond contributed to more widely applicable lists. His interests extended from foundational work in taxonomic theory to interest in the distinction between phenotype and genotype and physiological experimentation. Historia Plantarum (1686) (also the title of one of Theophrastus’s influential botanical works) can be regarded as a synthesis of botanical knowledge to that time. Ray ‘… influenced both the theory and the practice of botany more decisively than any other single person in the latter half of the seventeenth century’ (Morton 1981, p. 195).

It was the desire for precise botanical description and comparable lists that ended the preoccupation with the medicinal properties of plants that had persisted from antiquity. In step with Theophrastus’s exhortation to cast the botanical gaze beyond human utility to the plants themselves the new discipline of botany began by putting order into the world of plants. Prompted by the deluge of new plant introductions in the Age of Discovery there began a phase of identification, classification, nomenclature and description that, in this early modern phase, culminated with the publications of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who was Professor of Medicine and Botany and Director of the botanic garden in Uppsala, Sweden. Though generally remembered for his association with the system of binomial nomenclature Linnaeus’s consummate skill lay in making botany accessible by providing an internationally-acceptable methodology for descriptive plant inventory. His artificial (based on characters of convenience) ‘sexual system’ (1735) of plant classification was easily understood and, by his own admission, would soon be improved – but it got things going.

Linnaeus’s system was resisted by botanists in both England and France where strong independent traditions had developed. Thus the principles and characters used to classify plants came under ever closer scrutiny by the new botanists. The story of the development of plant taxonomy is covered in great detail in student text books but less well known is the institutional and social background to these developments.

French botany, in particular, produced an impressive line of accomplished taxonomists. Pierre Magnol (1638-1715) became Professor of Botany and Director of the Royal Botanic Garden of Montpellier. In Paris Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), who first studied at Montpellier, was appointed Professor of Botany at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1683 and here he was followed by outstanding taxonomists Bernard de Jussieu (1699–1777), Bernard’s nephew Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836), and Michel Adanson (1727–1806). Antoine and Bernard de Jussieu studied under Magnol, and Antoine followed Tournefort as Director of the Jardin des Plantes.

Anatomy and physiology

Bacon’s influence was apparent in the 17th century emergence of experimental botany that accompanied the more descriptive taxonomy. Interest was gathering in plant function, nutrition, and reproduction. The advent of the microscope (1590) that heralded the beginning of anatomy was accompanied by scientific interest taking a physiological turn, this kind of work centred more on the universities than the botanic gardens. Joachim Jung (1587–1657), Professor of Natural Sciences at the Akademisches Gymnasium in Hamburg, was an outstanding taxonomist who also asked tentative questions about plant nutrition as, at the same time, chemists began delving into the chemical contituents of matter by challenging the classical chemical framework of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Robert Hook (1635-1703), closely associated with the Royal Society, published stunning examples of plant microscopy in his Micrographia of 1665 and pioneering work in anatomy was developed by Englishman Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) of Cambridge and Leiden Universities and Italian Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) working at the universities of Bologna and Pisa. Rudolf Camerarius (1665–1721), professor of medicine and director of the botanic garden at Tübingen, Germany, in 1687 was the first to present scientific proof of plant sexuality (Morton 1981, pp. 167-220).

In the 18thcentury plant physiology made major strides. English clergyman Stephen Hales, elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1718, had published pioneering work on the flow of sap and water as well as measurements of the gaseous components of the air and the proposal that they could become ‘fixed’ as solids, his most notable work being his Vegetable Staticks of 1727. Later, the Dutch botanist Jan Ingenhousz demonstrated that it was only the green parts of plants that gave off ‘dephlogisticated air’ (oxygen) and Genevan Jean Senebier (1742-1809) correlated oxygen release with light intensity. Building on this and other work Théodore de Saussure in his Chemical Researches on Vegetation (1804) showed experimentally that carbon dioxide is emitted from plants in the light and the dark (respiration) and that absorption of carbon dioxide results in the ‘fixing’ of carbon and release of oxygen, thus beginning the demystification of photosynthesis (Morton 1981, pp. 246-340).

The Portuguese and Spanish

The search for an eastern sea route to the mysterious Spice Islands really began with the Portuguese and Spanish seizure of islands, notably Madeira, in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa, islands that would establish sugar plantations and become important stop-off points for the Portuguese slave trade. This was followed by the rounding of Africa’s southern cape by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488 and the first direct sea voyage to Asia across the Indian Ocean to India’s spice-rich Kerala west coast where Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498. Beyond, on the Malay Peninsula, lay Malacca, a trading hub visited by ships from India, Persia, Arabia and Egypt from the west, and Sumatra, Java and the Moluccas to the east. Malacca was a vital link in the chain Lisbon-India (Goa)-China-Spice Islands. Accordingly, Malacca was taken by Portuguese forces in 1511, a small fleet of three ships under Antonio de Abreu continuing on to the fabled Banda Islands with their nutmeg and cloves, arriving in 1512 and ending the millennia-old European quest. By 1514 Portugal had ruthlessly gained control of the spice trade on both the western Indian coast and the Moluccas, building forts to ward off competitors (Burnet 2013, pp. 82-96).

Seeking a western route to the Spice Islands, Spaniard Christopher Columbus stumbled into the Bahamas in 1492 thus discovering the Americas, although he was convinced that he had arrived at his intended destination. Columbus held the medieval view that the bible was literally true and that the Garden of Eden existed. On his third voyage of 1498 he was convinced that he had found both the Spice Islands and paradise: and he died believing the same.

An expedition from 1519-1522 sponsored by the Spanish crown and headed by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan eventually rounded South America and completed the first global circumnavigation, although Magellan died in the Philippines and it was Juan Sebastián Elcano who completed the voyage.

Between about 1500 and 1550 Antwerp was the commercial capital of northern Europe, being the trade centre for sugar (known as ‘sweet salt’) grown on the Atlantic islands especially Madeira. It was also the chief emporium for spices, like pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, brought to Europe by the Portuguese fleet – although there was competing trade in Marseilles, Alexandria, and the Italian city-states.

In India the Portuguese cultivated food plants from Brazil like the cashew, pineapple, sweet potato, and cassava, and from the West Indies the custard apple, chili peppers, averrhoa, and groundnut. Influential Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta (c. 1501-1568) established a tropical medicinal garden in the Indian Portuguese colony of Goa, his herbal of 1563 achieving wide acclaim (Ly-Tio-Fane 1996). The history of early Portuguese botany is brief with only a few key figures. de Orta had studied at the universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca in Spain, becoming Professor of Medicine in the University of Coimbra before resigning in 1534 to visit India and China. He worked mainly in Indian Goa where his most famous published work was Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India (1563) which was the earliest treatise on the medicinal and economic plants of India, translated first into Latin by Clusius before appearing in other European languages.

Botanic gardens in Portugal were a much later 18th century addition. There were two Botanic Gardens in Portugal, one at Ajuda near Lisbon (the baroque Jardim Botânico d’Ajuda, the oldest botanical garden in Portugal, est. 1765), and the Botanic Garden of Coimbra est. 1772. Perhaps Portugal’s most famous botanist, Félix de Avelar Brotero (1744 –1828), had fled to France in 1788 to escape the Portuguese Inquisition. In France he published the Compendio de Botanica before returning to Portugal in 1790 where, in 1791 he was appointed professor of botany and agriculture at the University of Coimbra and also superintendent of the Jardim Botânico. His Flora Lusitana (1804) and Phytographia Lusitaniae selectior (1816–1827) constitute the first full account of the Portuguese native flora.

Spain, as a dominant European power, mounted an expedition to the New World in 1570-1577 Hernandez bringing back, among other botanical treasures, pineapples, cocoa, and maize. There were also at this time reports of gardens maintained by the great Incan and Aztec civilizations of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries although little can be told. Cortes conquered the Aztecs of Mexico between 1519 and 1521 and Pizarro the Incas of Peru over the years 1531-1533. Cortes’s own reports along with those of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557 and Hernandez suggest the menageries and botanic gardens surpassed those in Europe. The Historia general y natural de las Indias (1536) contains the first illustrations of maize, pineapple, and prickly pear and first mention of manioc, guava, avocado, calabash, sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), along with Rubber which was used in ball games and which ‘ … are of other material than those used by Christians’ (Hawks & Boulger 1928, p. 120). What we do know is that:

‘Thousands of manuscripts … treasured in great libraries and in the private houses of individuals, were committed to the flames by authorities of the Christian Church or by the Inquisition …’

and that

‘The independent testimony of many contemporary Spanish observers concurs that at the time of the conquest the Mexicans had a number of botanical and zoological gardens, which in extent and arrangement were said to be far in advance of any then existing in Europe’ Morton 1981, p. 13; Granziera 2005.

In 1592 the English captured a Portuguese spice ship off the Azores, it contained: 425 tonnes of pepper, 45 tonnes of cloves, 35 tonnes of cinnamon, 3 tonnes of mace, 3 tonnes of nutmeg, 25 tonnes of cochineal and 2.5 tonnes of benjamin (an aromatic resin), as well as ebony, ivory, pearls and precious jewels. The cargo value of this single ship was estimated at half a million pounds, almost half of England’s treasury at this time (Burnet 2013, pp. 122-123).

Control of the spice trade promised fortunes, nutmeg and cloves acting as a global currency which, at their peak value, rivalled the value of gold. Columbus, Da Gama, and Magellan were spice hunters first and discoverers second.

Establishment of both Spanish and Portuguese trade had created a network of trade routes that spanned the world – the beginnings of today’s global economy. South American gold and silver passed to China and the East Indies while laquered goods, porcelain, silk, spices and other fancy goods flowed into Europe.

The Dutch

Portuguese and Spanish exploration, at first confined to the Atlantic, had shifted to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With changes in European political fortunes there followed a Dutch Golden Age, a flowering of Dutch culture and political influence across the world that lasted from about 1580 to 1670 during which plant collection and the return of plants to botanic gardens began in earnest, only to be eclipsed by the ascendancy of France and Britain in the 18th century.

When Spanish and Portuguese power declined the Dutch began a merciless campaign to wrest the lucrative spice market monopoly from the Portuguese. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) was formed with its colonial headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta) on the north-west coast of today’s Java in Indonesia. The VOC was a vast private enterprise of Amsterdam merchants determined to monopolize the spice trade. At its height the VOC comprised about 50,000 employees, a fleet of 200 ships based in Rotterdam, and an army of 30,000 fighting men (Purseglove et al. 1981). This was an extremely powerful joint stock company (effectively the world’s earliest multinational corporation) with its shares traded on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the world’s first stock market. Between 1605 and 1621 the Portuguese and native traders were driven ruthlessly out of the Spice Islands.

While the VOC was setting up provisioning and trading hubs, sometimes with associated botanic gardens, questions arose concerning the economic potential of the land to the south of Batavia. This prompted the VOC to send out Abel Tasman on two voyages in 1642-3 and 1644 to reconnoitre the mysterious ‘Terra Australis’. Tasman returned from these voyages with a negative report having first inspected the north coast and then circumnavigating Australia in an extremely wide arc that only closed in on land on the north coast and southern tip of today’s Tasmania.

Tasman’s opinion of Australia as an inhospitable land without commercial interest probably delayed for another 180 years the European occupation of the region he called Hollandia Nova (New Holland).

Dutch botany

For over a century, during the Dutch Golden Age, Leiden was the intellectual centre of Europe (Morton 1981, p. 237). Dutch botanists were among the first colonial scientists in an era when strategic colonial outposts were established in the East Indies at Batavia in 1619, at Cape Town in 1679, in Malabar India, Ceylon, Brazil and elsewhere, all exchanging specimens with Leiden.

Hortus Botanicus Leiden was one of the earliest modern botanic gardens, established in 1587 the first Praefectorius (Curator) being the eminent Flemish physician-botanist Charles de l’Écluse, better known as Carolus Clusius (1526–1609). He had studied at Montpellier before being appointed Prefect to the imperial medical garden in Vienna and subsequently professor at the University of Leiden in 1593. At Leiden he assembled a herbarium of dried specimens and a living collection that included plants returned to Holland by sea captains and his publications included translations of De Orta’s herbal and other Portuguese medicinal works as well as his own research on the floras of Spain, Portugal, Austria and Hungary. His plant catalogue Rariorum plantarum historia (1601), which includes both Spanish and Austrian plants, was a precursor to the many plant compendia to come. The title page of the book is an engraving that depicts the ‘first gardener’, Adam, and the Classical botanical scholars Theophrastus and Dioscorides. In Europe he was well-known for the distribution of bulbs like tulips and hyacinths, and he was closely associated with the fashionable craze known as ‘tulipomania’. In 1605 he published Exoticorum Libri Decem, the first account of plants imported to the Netherlands.


Leiden BG

Hortus Botanicus Leiden in 1610
Engraving of Willem Swanenburgh after Jan Cornelisz Woudanus
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Drehrumbum – Accessed 28 August 2018


Paul Hermann (1646-1695), who was Professor of Botany and director of the gardens from 1680 to 1695, had trained at the medical school in Padua before being employed by the VOC, working in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 1670s where he grew custard apple, guava, cashew nut, capsicum and cotton, all introduced from the Americas (Rice 2010, p. 60). By 1672 he had built up a large herbarium with collections from the Indies, Cape, and America (later acquired by Englishman Hans Sloane). Between 1678 and 1693 he was overseer of van Reede’s 12-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1678-1693) an early tropical flora covering coastal southwest India and published in Amsterdam (Jardine 1999, p. 266).

A Company Garden was established at the Cape by Governor Simon van der Stel and by 1680 it had become an exceptional botanic garden, the VOC employing 54 male and female slaves to maintain crops of exotic fruits and vegetables, a beautifully presented collection of indigenous plants as well as rare and unusual species assembled from Dutch exploration. From 1679 to 1706 it was a popular source of plants for Amsterdam, Leiden and other gardens (Ly-Tio-Fane 1996; Jardine 1999).

At first botanical interest was directed towards the pharmaceutical and therapeutic properties of Asian plants but interest soon moved to garden ornamentals and curiosities as Germans Andreas Cleyer and George Meister (former gardener to the Duke of Saxony) joined forces in Java in 1677 to uncover botanical and horticultural rarities and fruit trees suitable for export to Europe. Travelling to Japan they collected plants that were sent to the Cape botanical garden for acclimatization, Meister returning to Holland with nine chests of trees for the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam (founded by Jan Commelin (1629-1692) in 1682) which was a show-case for plants collected by the VOC including, at one time, over 200 species from the Cape. Imports also included Asian bulbs and hothouse plants (Jardine 1999, pp. 236 & 246).

An insight into the stirrings of colonial botany and horticulture during this period is provided through the life of German-born Rumphius (Georg Rumpf, 1627-1702) who was employed by the VOC to study the flora of the Moluccas, the company presumably expecting some botanical discoveries with commercial benefit. He arrived in Batavia in July 1653, moving to the Ambon archipelago in 1654. In 1657 he became ‘junior merchant’ studying the flora and fauna on Hitu island north of Ambon. His botanical reputation grew and earned him the title Plinius Indicus (Pliny of the Indies). Rumphius is best known for his Herbarium Amboinense (1741-1755), a catalogue of the plants of today’s island of Ambon and a book that is still referred to today. The work was completed before the universal acceptance of Linnaean binomial nomenclature. Despite the vast distance Rumphius maintained communication with scientists in Europe and he was a member of the Scientific Society of Vienna. He provided illustrations and descriptions for several hundred new species (Ly-Tio-Fane 1996). Herbarium Amboinense finally arrived in the Netherlands in 1696 but the VOC considered its contents so economically sensitive, presumably in relation to the spice trade, that it was not published until 1741, after Rumphius’s death (Jardine 1999).

Dutch botany reached its zenith in the early eighteenth century with the international fame of Leiden’s Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) and Amsterdam’s Johannes Burman (1707-1779). Both had living collections close at hand in their botanical gardens which, at that time, contained more plant species that any other European garden. Hermann Boerhaave, by transforming Leiden into Europe’s centre for medical education, became the most influential European physician of the early 18th century. Typical of the times he stated in his Index Alter Plantarum … (1727), a list of plants held at Leiden, ‘practically no captain, whether of a merchant ship or man-of-war, left our harbours without special instructions to collect everywhere seeds, roots, cuttings, and shrubs and bring them back to Holland’. Boerhaave also worked with Joseph II of Austria sending missions to explore the tropics and enhance the natural history collections at the Palace of Schönbrunn.

Dutch influence, and especially that of the VOC, had captured international attention. Russia’s Peter the Great (1672-1725), a progressive leader wishing to reform and modernize Russia, planned a modern navy based at St Petersburg on the Baltic coast. In 1697, with a Russian delegation, he spent 18 months in Europe, four of these in the Netherlands including time spent at the VOC shipyards. In 1714 he founded the Saint Petersburg Botanical Garden (the first botanic garden in Russia), as a medicinal garden, later visiting the Dutch master of scientific medicine Boerhaave in 1716-1717, then following Enlightenment tradition in 1724 he decreed a Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg State University, and Saint Petersburg Academic Gymnasium.

European presence in the Pacific and the Dutch entrepôt at Batavia had heightened interest in the mysterious land mass, Terra Australis, to the south.


By the middle of the 18th century Holland’s botanic gardens at Leiden and Amsterdam were brimming with new plants curated by some of the most brilliant physicians in Europe. Amsterdam was Europe’s publishing centre and Dutch botanists were leading the world in tropical botany and the taxonomy of plants growing beyond Europe’s boundaries. Holland was therefore extremely attractive to the brilliant Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who travelled there to obtain a doctorate and visit the Leiden and Amsterdam botanic gardens. His botanical knowledge deeply impressed Boerhaave and Burman (Stafleu 1971).

On Boerhaave’s recommendation Linnaeus moved temporarily to Holland as a guest of Johannes Burman. He was then employed from 1736 to 1738 as physician to the household of George Clifford. Clifford was a wealthy Dutch merchant banker and a director of the VOC with a keen interest in plants and gardens, possessing a fine plant collection and menagerie at his summer retreat, an estate at Hartekamp. Linnaeus’s task was to make an inventory of the estate’s plants and, while working at Hartekamp, he also managed to complete most of his foundational work in the theory of plant taxonomy. Perhaps the most attractive of Linnaeus’s many publications was the final list of Clifford’s garden plants, Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), illustrated by foremost botanical artist of the day Georg Ehret (1708-1770). Many specimens from Clifford’s garden were studied by Linnaeus in preparation for his magnum opus Species Plantarum (1753), a listing of all the known plants at that time.

The Commercial Revolution

When Constantinople was seized by the Turks in 1453 many artists, intellectuals, and merchants fled from the city to northern Italy. Here they not only headed the revival of learning and translation of ancient manuscripts, they also set up trade networks and banking infrastructure. Portuguese exploration was financed mostly by merchant bankers from Antwerp and the Italian city-states of Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Milan but in the Dutch Golden Age large-scale banking, insurance, and finance moved to Amsterdam with an exchange bank created in 1609 only two years after the establishment of a bourse, and a lending bank opened in 1614. From the nineteenth century business shifted to London which became the financial centre of the British Empire.

With the trade generated from resources of the New World, given impetus by the new science and its technology, European commerce and finance flourished as never before. This was the age of mercantilism, the government control of national commercial interests as a way of increasing state power, especially by maintaining a positive balance of trade. Mercantilism evolved into the global capitalism that flourished during Britain’s Industrial Revolution and colonial empire.
Two private corporations stand out in these times: the British East India Company (est. 1600) and the Dutch East India Company (VOC est. 1602), the former through its trade with India setting Britain on the path to global power, and the latter being the world’s first joint-stock company with steady trade in company stock on the Amsterdam Exchange. These changes would have far-reaching consequences with these companies, at times, controlling international finance and, in the case of the British East India Company even assuming government of India’s Bengal with Calcutta named the capital of British India in 1772. The new buying and selling of shares in joint stock companies, the development of expensive insurance schemes, and the public financing of government debt to fund costly colonial wars was an integral part of imperial conflict and ascendancy, all linked into the world of economic botany.

World trade in plants would transform society by providing new foods, beverages, and distractions, all with their associated economies and social rituals: tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, rubber, sugar, cotton, and more.



This article is an adaptation of part of a paper ‘The origins of botanic gardens and their relation to plant science with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy‘ by R. Spencer and R. Cross published in Muelleria 35: 43-94 in 2017.
Botanical historian William Stearn notes of the eighteenth century, the century of Australian settlement, that:

‘. . . attention is narrowed to the development and influence of a few botanic gardens, since in their history and in the achievements of the men associated with them can be traced most of the botanical history of the 18th century . . . increase in the number and diversity of living plants available for study was the most important single factor affecting eighteenth century botany’

Stearn 1961, p. xliii.


At the start of the eighteenth century the Dutch were occupied with the tropics and Cape, the English with Virginia in America, and the French with the fur trade in Canada, but European attention would soon turn from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to the Pacific.

Political fortunes took another turn as maritime power passed to the French and English, and Enlightenment thinking within the European intelligentsia became preoccupied with science and rational thought. This brought with it the questioning of traditional wisdom, the time-honoured royal and religious social institutions. We associate it with the democratic principles and reforms expressed during the American War of Independence (1775–1783) and the rejection of absolute monarchy that prompted the French Revolution of 1789.

Liberal democracy

The Enlightenment was, in part, an assault on kings and queens, wealth, and privilege. In the latter quarter of the century Europe passed through yet another historical phase, an Age of Revolutions. From 1774 to 1848 revolutionary movements in Europe and the Americas were changing the form of government, from absolute monarchy to constitutional states and republics: the groundwork for western liberal democracy was being laid. This was a social change as never before with political power steadily withdrawn from its former royal base. The world of horticulture and botanic gardens would also be democratized as, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, horticulture would be slowly handed over to the people.

Since the time of the royal dynasties of antiquity there had been an intimate connection between royalty, hierarchy, and gardens. In the eighteenth century this connection would achieve its grandest expression in a final royal gasp of horticultural exuberance by the kings of the two most powerful countries in the world at this time, France and Britain.

In France the eighteenth century kings were Louis XIV, XV, and XVI of the House of Bourbon who reigned from 1638 to 1792. The gardens were at the palace of Versailles and environs where the extravagant opulence of the Sun King Louis XIV, drawing on the genius of landscape architect André Le Nôtre, created what is arguably the world’s greatest ever artistic garden masterpiece. Associated with Versailles was Louis XIV’s retreat, the Grand Trianon, within whose grounds Louis XV later built another garden retreat the Petit Trianon. In Paris, at the medicinal Jardin du Roi, it was learning and not art that was on display. After the Revolution the royal garden was re-named Jardin des Plantes, its goals becoming more scientific and educational, flourishing for many years and producing some of Europe’s most outstanding biologists. Just outside Paris was the royal retreat, the Château de Malmaison.

In England the kings were George I, II, and III of the House of Hanover who reigned from 1713 to 1811. The royal garden of England was at Kew. More modest in scale than royal gardens in France, Kew was a late-developer but it would ultimately have a greater impact on the world than its counterparts in France. The English secret to horticultural ascendancy was the scrupulously organized regime of economic botany promoted by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) in the years 1772 to 1820. The genius of Banks had been built on his early experiences with the internationally-renowned Chelsea Physic Garden and its curator Philip Miller (1691-1771).


From antiquity came the common understanding that rulers linked heaven to Earth.

Royalty set the standards for competitive fashionable society and in the eighteenth century gardens were a place where social competition was at its keenest. The tradition was an old one, the nobility and intelligentsia were intent on keeping up with, and thus gaining the support of, their social superiors. Fashions and fads would then trickle down to the lower orders of society.

Perhaps the Lyceum had an influence on the well-to-do intelligentsia. The opulent estates of Roman Pliny the Younger (61-112 CE) had provided the model for Roman villas and ‘played a part in formulating the principles of seventeenth and eighteenth century landscape gardening’ while his letters ‘… established the tradition, later drawn upon by Renaissance and Enlightenment humanists, whereby a man of letters should also be interested in the content and layout of his garden’ (Littlewood & von Stackelberg 2013, p. 147).

While rich and powerful husbands dealt with affairs of state and other important matters, it was conventional for their wives to manage their estates (like the wives of their Greek and Roman upper class predecessors). Two titled women will serve as examples of royal interest in gardens at this time: in England Mary Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), and in France Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814).

England’s Duchess of Beaufort’s vast family home at Badminton could boast a stove house to rival that of Queen Mary and it was filled with the latest exotic fruits and other novelties collected from the South African Cape, West Indies, Virginia, India, Ceylon, China and Japan, sourced via her botanical contacts including her London neighbor Hans Sloane. Hans Sloane (1660-1753) had joined the Royal Society in 1685, following Newton as President in 1727. He was a society physician, his patients including Queen Mary, George I and George II. He was a wealthy and influential traveler and collector of natural history specimens who had purchased the site of the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1712, hiring it out to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year in perpetuity. Sloane would later found the British Museum based on his vast collection of specimens. The botanical enthusiasm of the Duchess was so great that she had accumulated a personal herbarium that was donated to Sloane and housed in London’s Natural History Museum. There was also a two-volume florilegium of drawings of her favourite garden treasures by Everhardus Lychicus now kept in the library at Badminton. British gardening can thank the Duchess for the introduction of several new plants including the zonal pelargonium, Pelargonium zonale, and passionfruit, Passiflora caerulea (Uglow 2005, p. 109). The Duchess is commemorated in the Australian genus Beaufortia.

In France the Château de Malmaison was an extravagance in grand style. Situated just outside Paris the château was purchased in 1799 by Joséphine while her husband General Napoléon Bonaparte was away fighting an Egyptian Campaign. Napoléon’s Egyptian army, in keeping with Enlightenment ideals, had included a staggering 167 savants (scientists and academics). At Malmaison Empress Josephine competed with the Jardin des Plantes for botanical bounty and any other curiosities returned to France from the Pacific voyages of scientific exploration. The Malmaison menagerie contained Australian animals like the kangaroo (collected on Kangaroo Island during the Baudin expedition) and black swans. There was also on display a collection of ethnographic artefacts purchased from George Bass (Duchess of Hamilton 1998).

The Malmaison garden included Australian plants, some collected by gardener-botanist Félix Delahaye who was assistant to the botanist Labillardière on the D’Entrecasteaux expedition of 1791-1794. From this voyage also came the first ever extended account of the continent’s plants written by the voyage’s botanist Jaques-Julien Labillardière whose 7 kg Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, published between 1804 and 1807, contained 265 black and white engravings by artist Pierre Antoine Poiteau. The subsequent Baudin expedition of 1800-1804 was the best equipped and most ambitious of all the Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration, supported by Napoléon and returning more scientific specimens to Europe than any other expedition, though at great human cost. However, apart from a few plants collected on these voyages the distribution of Australian plants to continental Europe, mostly during the Napoleonic era, was via England (Duchess of Hamilton 1998).

Delahaye had been selected for the expedition from students at the botany school of the Jardin des Plantes by Head Gardener André Thouin and he was the only gardener of this period to survive the voyage to the antipodes. Back in Paris Delahaye eventually became Joséphine’s head gardener. Tasmanian plants cultivated in the Malmaison garden were illustrated by one of the world’s greatest botanical illustrators, Pierre Redouté. Redouté, the ‘Raphael of flowers’ was court artist to Marie Antoinette when Paris was still the fashionable centre of Europe following Louis XIVs reign when, from 1798–1837, botanical illustration was thriving and adding to the excitement of botanophilia.
To Napoléon’s irritation Joséphine communicated with Joseph Banks at Kew and eagerly sought advice and plants from London nurseryman Lewis Kennedy of The Vineyard nursery of Hammersmith, in the development of her Jardin Anglais. Her social standing ensured that her unsurpassed collection of roses would create a revitalised desire for roses that would sweep across Europe.

With gathering political uncertainty the privileged were looking for diversions in their vast gardens. The formal splendour of the French court was the admiration of European high society but in horticulture it was the informal English landscape style that was in vogue. The new fashion in aristocratic gardening arrived in France as Le Jardin Anglais in Germany as Der Englischer Garten and in Italy as Il Giardino Inglese (as at the royal palace of La Reggia at Caserta just north of Naples). Catherine the Great of Russia enthusiastically summarised the new trend as follows: ‘I passionately love gardens in the English style, the curved lines, the gentle slopes, the ponds pretending to be lakes … and I deeply disdain straight lines … I should say my anglomania gets the better of planimetry’ (Hobhouse 1994, p. 190).

The English landscape style, evident in a number of modern botanic gardens, including the RBGV, was an aesthetic statement that combined Classicism and Romanticism. It was a rejection of formalism and a return to the evocation of a terrestrial paradise or sacred garden. As a movement in art it was related to the Greek idea of Arcadia, an ancient Golden Age of man as an idyllic time of peace, harmony, and prosperity that existed either within a garden wilderness or state of pastoral bliss. No doubt it was sources like these that helped promote the idea of a botanic garden as a sanctuary for rest and relaxation (Prest 1981).

Much of English (and therefore ‘western’) garden history falls under royal headings: Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Regency, Edwardian and so on. But the days of royal precedence in horticulture, as in pubic governance, were numbered. Certainly the change from patronage to people would be gradual, but by the 1830s the scale of gardens was diminishing. Garden designers were no longer, like Capability Brown, working on expansive and picturesque gentlemen’s estates; instead they were, like Humphrey Repton, employed on smaller-scale gardenesque country manors. The ‘garden’ was growing again and the ‘park’ shrinking.

As governments became more powerful so royal and wealthy patronage was reduced. It was a combination of royalty, government, and intelligentsia that added science to the usual economic and strategic reasons for colonial expansion. The gardens of kings, the wealthy elite, and intelligentsia would gradually decline under the weight of new taxes. There would never ever be resident ruling kings or queens in North America or Australia and garden traditions named after royalty would go.

Also, the days of vast private enterprises like the VOC commanding vast armies were over – or at least they would have to take a different form. By the time of Empress Victoria in Britain, royal political power had long gone and royal social prestige was on the wane, although the great estates and royal traditions still remain as an echo of past royal horticultural glories adored by the public.

Enlightenment trade generated a new and affluent merchant class, a nouveau riche, to challenge the aristocracy and the lower orders of society could now access a multitude of plants from overseas as they appeared in the proliferating commercial plant nurseries. Western horticulture was on the way from privilege to populism as the many traditions that entrenched social stratification began to break down and social mobility became a possibility: but power over nations and gardens would not be given away lightly.


The development of French and English royal gardens followed very similar paths, starting out as medicinal gardens then becoming involved with science and associated botanical and horticultural education. The gardens of London and Paris provided the gardeners who would collect and care for plants on the great Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration.

The medicinal Jardin du Roi in Paris was founded in 1626 but before too long its botanical interests extended beyond medicine. From 1670 to 1704 the Sun King Louis XIV sent scientific missions to Canada (1670), China (1685), French West Indies (1689). In 1700 botanist Tournefort was sent on a mission to Greece, Asia and Egypt, and a subsequent expedition was sent to Abyssinia in 1704 (Drayton 2000, pp. 16-17). Guy Fagon (1638-1718), who was an important early figure in the development of this garden, became personal physician to Louis XIV in 1669. He was Professor of Botany and Chemistry at the Jardin du Roi and produced a catalogue of its stock, Hortus Regius, in 1665, also instigating a series of exquisite engraved plant illustrations based on its collections, an early example of impressive florilegia associated with botanic gardens (Chalmers 1812). Fagon was elevated to Superintendent of the garden in 1698 and was made an honorary member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1699.

In 1772 Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 to 1774, with the Comte de Buffon began renovation of the Jardin du Roi, adding a botany school. Botanic gardens were now sometimes arranged according to the preferred classification systems of their associated botanists: they were becoming systems gardens. Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system’, first published in 1735, had used artificial (convenient) characters. He acknowledged the taxonomic strength of natural systems but found his artificial system more practical. French and English taxonomists had persisted with their ‘natural’ systems. In 1759 Bernard de Jussieu arranged the plants in the royal garden at Trianon according to his own natural system of classification, then from 1774 to 1787 a new system garden, demonstrating botanical families arranged according to the natural system of Antoine de Jussieu, was established in the Jardin du Roi (Drayton 2000, pp. 19, 77).

During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, between 1715 and 1792 three scientific voyages reached the South Seas and Nouvelle Hollande (Australia). Louis de Bougainville’s expedition (1766-1769) pre-empted James Cook by being the first to circumnavigate the world with professional naturalists and geographers aboard, including the Montpellier-trained botanist Philibert Commerçon (Commerson) but there was only a brief sighting of the Great Barrier Reef. Then followed two ill-fated expeditions, the first by Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1769-1772) sent to the South Pacific in search of Terra Australis Incognita making landfall in Tasmania (hence the eponymous Marion Bay) but later, in New Zealand, Dufresne was killed by the Maori. In 1772 Louis de Saint Aloüarn (1771-1772) was sent in search of new territories for France his ship making a formal claim of French sovereignty over the west coast of Nouvelle Hollande (Cook had only claimed the east coast) before later dying at Port Louis in Mauritius on the way home.

France’s major contribution to the natural history of the Pacific region was the result of three major scientific voyages that occurred between 1785 and 1804 and following the Western Australian route of Saint Aloüarn – by Jean-François de la Pérouse (1785–1788), Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791–1794), and Nicolas Baudin (1800–1804). These expeditions span years when Paris was in the grip of both a revolution and botanophilia.

Gardeners for these expeditions were provided by horticultural botanist André Thouin (1747–1824) who held the position of Head Gardener at the Jardin des Plantes from 1764 to 1793. He was the foremost French horticulturist of the late eighteenth century and he exemplifies well the spirit of the times. The famous Enlightenment figure Jean Jacques Rousseau corresponded with Thouin whose family lead a simple Rousseauesque lifestyle, his family home an annex to the hothouses at the Jardin du Roi (Spary 2000, pp. 40, 49).

Thouin, like other naturalists of his day, built up a wide correspondence and gifting network that included more than 400 people of assorted backgrounds, from botanists to the wealthy elite as part of the ‘The Republic of Letters’ that appeared in the 17th century, extending into the 18th – a community of scholars and literary figures communicating across national and cultural boundaries. His correspondence generally included a Desiderata (list of plants required) accompanied by a catalogue of plants and seed he could offer in exchange. This was an effective way of organising the exchange of plants and seed from around the world for the botanical gardens and their greenhouses now acting as acclimatization centres (Williams 2001, p. 46). Under his charge from 1774 to 1786 the number of taxa sown in the nursery doubled from 1,096 to 2,200 (Spary 2000, p. 58). Thouin prepared journals for his travelling gardeners with detailed instructions for the collection, packaging, preservation and care of specimens. He recommended that they read the works of Linnaeus and various travelogues while on the voyage. French use of miniature glasshouses on board preceded by several decades the British use of the Wardian case (Spary 2000, pp. 86, 120-121).

The botanical-horticultural school produced a generation of Jardin protégés sent on voyages or given senior posts in France’s regional gardens. One gardener, Schweykert, even being posted to the rival Kew Gardens under William Aiton (Spary 2000, p. 95).

Thouin, in the 1790s, became a key figure in French agricultural improvement being appointed Professor of Culture in 1793, his reputation requiring him to give talks to eager landowners and plant lovers at six o’clock in the morning (Spary 2000, pp. 86-87). He was elected to the Académie in 1786 and awarded the cross of the Légion d’Honeur (Williams 2001, p. 152).


Dutch horticultural expertise was brought to Britain in the 17th century when the co-regency of Dutch prince William and Mary acceded to the British throne in 1689. Bemoaning the lack of interesting plants the Dutch collection of potted exotic plants was brought across the English Channel to be displayed formally at the royal residence of Hampton Court where state-of-the-art Dutch hothouses were built using underfloor heating that emulated the hypocaust of Roman baths and buildings. Garden beds in the hothouses were kept warm with manure and tanners bark thus allowing the cultivation of plants from Barbados, Canaries, East Indies and the Cape. The potted warm-climate plants were aired outside in summer (Uglow 2005, p. 120).

Charles II passed Navigation Acts in the 1660s which banned foreign ships from trading with English colonies thus boosting the expansion of the English merchant navy. Many of the newly-introduced plants had found their way into prestigious gardens through the exploits of reckless adventurers. English privateer William Dampier made landfall on the north-west coast of New Holland on 14 January 1688 careening his ship, the Cygnet, and doing repairs in a ‘sandy cove’. These pirates were the first British to set foot on New Holland some 80 years before Cook and his men. Dampier stored the record of his voyage in waterproof bamboo cylinders sealed with wax and when he arrived back in England in 1691 published them as A New Voyage Round the World. Within two years of its first publication in London in 1697 his travelogue had run to four editions, being translated into Dutch (1698), French (1698) and German (1702) (George 1999, p. 7).

Dampier’s scientific enthusiasm impressed the Royal Society so when he requested a ship from the British Admiralty for a return to the South Seas the wish was granted. His brief was to investigate the uncharted eastern coast of New Holland, perhaps solving the mystery of the fabled Terra Australis Incognito. This was the first British Admiralty expedition dedicated to both exploration and scientific study: it was to survey ‘all islands, shores, capes, bays, creeks and harbours, fit for shelter as well as defence’ to also bring back specimens of animals and plants and to have with him an artist to ‘sketch birds, beasts, fishes and plants’ and he was also asked to bring back a sample native person ‘providing they shall be willing to come along’ (Hill 2012, p. 46).

Departing England in 1699 Dampier arrived in New Holland the same year. Using a chart of the western coast drawn up by Abel Tasman 50 years before he named Shark Bay and sailed north collecting as he went, pressing plants between the leaves of a book. Plants, birds and fish were sketched by a crew member following a procedure first encouraged by the Royal Society in 1665. However, the Roebuck foundered and Dampier arrived back in England without his ship in 1701 to be court-marshalled by the navy for, among other things, loss of the Roebuck, and cruelty to his Lieutenant and a boatswain. As a penalty his pay for the voyage was docked and he returned to writing travelogues, his account of this second 1699–1701 expedition to New Holland published in 1703 and 1709 as A Voyage to New Holland. The sketches and descriptions published together were the first recorded graphic representation of plants and animals of New Holland (Finney 1984, p. 11).

Botanical specimens from the Roebuck expedition were presented to the Royal Society and about 40 are now held by the Fielding-Druce Herbarium at Oxford University (George 1971, Olde & Marriott 1994, p. 11). Nine of his Australian specimens were described by leading English botanists John Ray the ‘father of British botany’ in his Historiae Plantarum (1704) others by Leonard Plukenet who was Royal Professor of Botany and gardener to Queen Mary (George 1999, p. 22). Those published before Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum of 1753 were given ‘phrase names’ as brief Latin descriptions also referred to as polynomials.

Dampier was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times; and he made the first fully authenticated plant collections in New Holland. His travelogues were the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner and they were recommended reading for subsequent voyages of scientific exploration.

The direction of botanic gardens, and indeed western horticulture, owes much to Scotsman Philip Miller (1691-1771) of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and Joseph Banks (1743-1820) of Kew Botanic Gardens. Miller was a key figure in international horticulture at a time when Chelsea, not Kew, was the pre-eminent garden in England.

As early as 1680 merchant apothecary and former curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden John Watts was instructed to grow both native and exotic plants in addition to the medicinal ones and he sent gardener John Harlow to collect plants in Virginia, America. Then in 1682 the Chelsea garden was visited by Leiden’s Paul Hermann. Watts’s subsequent return visit to Amsterdam in 1683 initiated not only an exchange of seed and plants, but the tradition that would become known as ‘the international botanic gardens seed exchange’, a free exchange network that persists to this day (Minter 2000, pp. 5-6, 102). The exchange of a seed catalogue (Index Seminum) has been, historically, a major means of global plant distribution but it is waning today due to concerns about genetic piracy and the danger of innocently spreading environmentally invasive plants (Aplin & Heywood 2008).

Philip Miller (1691-1771) was appointed Praefectorius of London’s Chelsea Physic Garden in 1722 and in 1727 he visited Leiden, admiring the garden and greenhouse displays, the greatest living plant collections in Europe. After meeting Boerhaave he returned to London determined to increase the Chelsea collection and by the 1730s the Chelsea Physic Garden could boast a collection of plants that would rival any in Europe (Hadfield et al 1980). Then in 1732 letters arrived from Boerhaave himself requesting trees and shrubs ‘I know of no one in your country who is more capable to identify and distinguish them’ and … ‘Remember, I beg you, my garden’ (Wulf 2009, p. 40), this being, to all intents and purposes, an acknowledgement by Boerhaave of the transition of European horticultural pre-eminence from Holland to Britain.

Linnaeus travelled from Holland to London in 1736 visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden on three occasions and describing Miller as ‘Hortulanorum Princeps’ (Prince of gardeners) and Miller’s Dictionary as ‘Non erit lexicon hortulanorum sed etiam botanicorum’ (not just a dictionary of horticulture but a dictionary of botany too) (Huxley 1992, p. 240). Miller was best known for his compendium Gardener’s Dictionary first published in 1731 but with many later editions. This work was like an encyclopaedia of garden plants and it has continued in various guises to this day, publications following Miller’s tradition including the New RHS Dictionary of Gardening (Huxley 1992) and RHS Plant Finder. William Stearn described the Gardeners Dictionary as ‘the most important horticultural work of the eighteenth century’, especially the 8th edition of 1768, the first to use the Linnaean system previously resisted by Miller (Stearn in Le Rougetel 1990, p. 169). Covering the period 1731 to 1804 each edition of the Dictionary was not only a horticultural encyclopaedia, it was a record of plant introduction through the century that included approximate dates as well as additional historical and botanical information. Notable English merchant and plant collector Peter Collinson in 1764 stated that that Miller ‘has raised the reputation of the Chelsea Physic Garden so much that it excels all the gardens of Europe’ (Paterson 1986). From this time in the mid-eighteenth century to the present horticulture would remain an English obsession, prompting a remark found in the Preface to a German translation of the encyclopaedic 1750 edition of Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary, observing that the English are ‘All, more or less, gardeners’ (Wulf 2009, p. 310).

In the latter half of the eighteenth century Europe was captivated by the voyages of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) who had completed three circumnavigations of the globe (1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-79) the first voyage included the now famous eight-day extravaganza of botanical collecting at Botany Bay in April 1770 by the naturalists Joseph Banks and Linnaeus’s favourite student Daniel Solander (1733-1782) who, Linnaeus had hoped, would marry his daughter (Moyal 1976). The exotic adventure along the east coast of New Holland proved so popular that, back in Europe Banks and Solander were widely acclaimed and decorated. From 1778 Banks held the position of President of the Royal Society for 41 years, he was a founding member of the (Royal) Horticultural Society. After stepping off HMS Endeavour, he had effectively become Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in 1772 to preside over a period when Kew became the principle European repository for plants from overseas (Blunt 1972) in a golden era that ended rapidly following his death in 1820. British pr-eminence is evident in the number and location of botanic gardens that existed in the period 1543 to 1901: Europe (226), British Empire (126), United Kingdom (26), continental empires (25), the rest (38) with a total of 441 (McCracken 1997, p. viii, and listed in appendices). The four greatest imperial gardens, all with the title ‘Royal’ were Calcutta, Pamplemousses (Mauritius), Peradeniya (Ceylon) and Trinidad, while the pre-eminent non-British ones were in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg. Gardens had become an adjunct to imperialism (McCracken 1997, p. x). Gardeners had made their mark in arenas beyond the garden, holding editorial positions on globally important publications: Charles Curtis (‘Gardeners’ Magazine’), John Fraser (‘Gardening World’), Robert Pearson (‘Gardener’s Chronicle’), Thomas Spanswick (‘The Garden’), and in Chicago, William Falconer (‘Gardening’) (McCracken 1997, p. x).

Kew, though having a long royal history, at this time was virtually an offshoot of the Chelsea Physic Garden. George III needed a garden that might rival those in France although it could not possibly compete with the art of Versailles. Kew was selected and in 1772 Banks was put in charge, immediately opening up communication with Bouffon and Thouin.

Kew’s first head gardener was Scotsman William Aiton, formerly of the Chelsea Physic Garden, who was appointed in 1759 on Miller’s recommendation, the first nine acres being laid out according to Linnaeus’s sexual system of classification (Stearn 1961, p. xcix).

Major landmarks of plant cataloguing were achieved over the next few decades. In the mid 18th century the Third Earl of Bute had apparently desired that Kew gardens should ‘contain all the plants known on Earth’ (Powledge 2011, p. 743). But clearly Europe’s leading gardens were competing much earlier than this to hold the greatest number of different plants. In the 1660s the Jardin du Roi claimed about 4000 species (Stafleu 1969), probably the most extensive at this time, but by 1720 giving way to Leiden under Boerhaave with 5846 different kinds (Boerhaave 1720). Between 1730 and 1770 both the reputation and collection at the Chelsea Physic Garden grew until the species totalled about 5000 (Uglow 2005, p. 147). John Hills’s Hortus Kewensis of 1769, an inventory of Kew’s stock, listed about 600 species. Then, following the 1768 edition of Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary came Aiton’s three-volume Hortus Kewensis in 1789, a monumental descriptive inventory of Kew’s living collections now under Banks’s influence totalling over 5,500 species. This was an invaluable horticultural record that included Linnaean Latin diagnoses (much of it was written by botanists Solander, Dryander and Brown) and annotated with dates of introduction etc. It included ‘… almost all the species then cultivated in England’ (Stearn 1961, pp. cvii-cviii). The 1813 edition of Hortus Kewensis had swelled to five volumes and over 11,000 species including about 300 from Australia indicating the further impact of Banks’s acquisitiveness (Turrill 1959, pp. 20-21, 23-24; Drayton 2000, p. 125). Though all these new plants arriving at Kew embellished His Majesty’s collection (Kew only became public in 1840) George III actually expended very little in their acquisition as royal patronage diminished in the regency period (McCracken 1997). The great encyclopaedist John Loudon Hortus Britannicus of 1830 lists around 30,000 species (see biodiversity Heritage Library).

When Banks as a young man had moved from his country estate to London his new home was situated near the east corner of the Chelsea Physic Garden which became one of his favourite haunts. Here he met Philip Miller who acted as a horticultural mentor, explaining about plant collections and the excitement of introducing new species into cultivation while at the same time introducing Banks to the circle of eminent horticulturists, nurserymen, and collectors of the day among whom were botanist Daniel Solander and well-known The Vineyard nurseryman James Lee, colleague of Lewis Kennedy, John Bartram in America, Hans Sloane and many others (Minter 1994). Miller’s herbarium specimens, including copper-plate coloured engravings made by outstanding botanical artist Georg Ehret (1708-1770) completed during Miller’s curatorship, were purchased in 1774 by Banks and are now housed at the Natural History Museum, many serving as voucher specimens for plants cultivated in Britain for the first time (Uglow 2005, p. 146, Stearn in Le Rougetel 1990, pp. 185-186).

Banks, like Thouin in Paris, groomed enterprising young gardeners as plant collectors, several later finding their way to posts in colonial gardens including Australia where Kew-trained gardeners and botanists have found employment to the present day. Gardeners sailed on ships attached to various government and private organizations. Examples would be Christopher Smith who worked with Bligh before taking charge of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens, and Peter Good, previously a foreman gardener at Kew, and who eventually died in 1802 on Matthew Flinders’s Investigator mission of 1801 while he was gardener to botanist Robert Brown during a detailed charting of the Australia’s coast. William Kerr, a Scottish gardener to the British East India Company and a Kew gardener selected by Banks worked in Canton and Java before taking charge of the Ceylon Botanic Garden in 1810 (Drayton 2000, p.86). There are many others.

Banks never met Linnaeus. In spite of the excellent taxonomy and horticulture based in Paris the mantle of botany had passed from Linnaeus to London. Linnaeus himself never saw plants collected by Banks and Solander on the Endeavour voyage and Solander eventually ceased correspondence with his old master. Banks had, effectively, circumvented the need for internationally recognised botanical authority by poaching Linnaeus’s favourite student Solander, and later another student Dryander. Linnaeus had even magnanimously suggested the name Banksia for the southern continent that would eventually become known as Australia, as he wished to commemorate the work of the Endeavour’s naturalists in 1770 (Moyal 1976).

When Linnaeus died in 1778 his entire collection of natural history specimens, including an extensive herbarium, was put on the market for 1,000 guineas. As Linnaeus had used these collections for the reclassification of the natural world they were of inestimable value as ‘type’ specimens and in much demand from, amongst others, Catherine the Great of Russia, botanists in Denmark, Holland, France, Switzerland, and even Sweden’s King Gustav. Banks managed to acquire the collection for Britain by persuading Scottish botanist James Smith to make the purchase. This placed Britain and Banks in charge of the botanical world:

‘With Linnaeus’s collection in Chelsea, Banks’s collection at Soho Square, Sloane’s bequest at the British Museum and the living plant entrepôt at Kew, London had become the botanic centre of the world. Nowhere else was there such an accumulation of foreign plants – dried and living – as well as of botanical knowledge. The purchase of Linnaeus’s collection, one of Smith’s friends wrote, ‘most decidedly sets Britain above all other nations in the Botanical Empire’ (Wulf 2009, p. 223).

Imperial powers were well aware of the economic opportunities presented by plants. Fortunes built on spices were a reminder that plants were economic resources as well as ornaments. From his imperial botanical hub at Kew Banks set out to exploit the full commercial potential of tropical and other crops. A globally respected plant celebrity and father-figure he was a master of economic botany, a supreme administrator and communicator, orchestrating events from the centre of a vast scientific, botanical, horticultural, political, economic, aristocratic, and royal network. He initiated foreign employment on the brink of an era of salaried positions for scientists. He was a patriarch who influenced the British East India Company and created a sense of botanical nationalism. His legacy is summarized by horticultural historian Andrea Wulf:

One of the most influential men of the Enlightenment … who was the engine of scientific progress for more than four decades and who believed that science was the future of both Britain and humankind … Banks was generous because he believed that the sharing of knowledge would bring progress … one of the most fascinating men of Georgian England. (Wulf 2007).

‘… he consolidated practical horticulture, systematic botany and imperial expansion into a coherent enterprise. As President of the Royal Society, Member of the Privy Council, confidant of King George III and founder of the Horticultural Society, he, more than anyone before or after him, saw how the three elements could bring pleasure and prosperity to a nation.’ (Wulf 2009, p. 241).

In the eighteenth century botany was like a thick fibre woven into the fabric of society. Banks facilitated the linking of botany and horticulture, science and economics, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, government, and British high society, all united into an international network engaged in the collection, distribution, and exchange of living and dried plants. With Kew a strategic centre of economic botany for the world’s largest-ever empire it is not surprising that its activities in botany and horticulture would have a profound influence on future global plant distribution and management. The story of British colonial botanic gardens has been outlined by McCracken (1997).

Voyages of scientific exploration

With the VOC and Dutch West India companies Holland had established a trading empire with botanic gardens and trading hubs at the Cape, Malabar, Java, Ceylon, and Brazil all linked to the finest living and dried botanical collections in Europe held at the botanic gardens and Rijksherbaria of Leiden and Amsterdam (Drayton 2000, p. 18). Here in Holland Linnaeus had, in the 1730s, completed his foundational work on botany. However, by the third decade of the century the Dutch grip on European politics and botany was weakened as France and Britain came to the fore.

Linnaeus was an advocate of mercantilist natural history and acclimatization. He harnessed international commerce by ensuring that each year a student of natural history (one of his ‘apostles’) should receive a free passage on a trading ship of the Swedish East India Company (Stearn 1961, pg. cxix). Between 1746 and 1773 he sent ten students out into the world to collect plant treasures in China, North and South America, and Egypt. Other European cities soon joined the race for botanical booty as more botanists and horticulturists joining the hunt for plant trophies from the newly established colonies.

Plants and plant exploration ranked high on the scientific agenda although no country was above combining a little espionage with their science. There was now a pronounced change in the focus and content of Europe’s botanic gardens. From the sixteenth century there had been a steady increase in numbers of plants arriving from foreign lands but now new plants flooded into Europe and the former physic gardens were transformed into repositories, not for medicinal plants, but for plants that were described using the adjectives ‘beautiful’, ‘curious’, and ‘new’.

The romance of mysterious and exotic foreign lands captured the imaginations of all sectors of society. Travelogues, especially, drew public attention to the new era of voyages of scientific discovery and exploration. Tales of intrepid explorers were reminders of heroic ages past. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh written in about 2700 BCE is considered the world’s first story in a tradition probably related to similar Egyptian epics like the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor that dated from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000-1700 BCE) which tells of an inexperienced heroic sailor who becomes lost at sea following a storm after which he discovers a magical island and prevails over monsters of the deep and other trials and tribulations before returning home. Alexander the Great kept copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by his side when on military campaigns (Leroi 2014, p. 50). On Cook’s first circumnavigation of the world in the Endeavour, his naturalists Banks and Solander returned to England as heroic plant collectors who had faced the gruelling test of global circumnavigation interspersed with the tropical delights and diversions of the enchanted islands of Otahiti: they were Enlightenment ‘Shipwrecked Sailors’ repeating deeds and exploits recounted in epics written over 3000 years before. After the magnificent botanical haul in Botany Bay, and with paper for the plant presses running out, Banks resorted to using unbound sheets of a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost that he had brought to read on the voyage (Finney 1984, p.16). This may have been the reason that, many years later, Charles Darwin kept a copy of Paradise Lost in his library on his world-changing voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836).

In Paris Jean Robin (1550-1629) was a French gardener to Henri III, Henri IV and Louis XIII who worked at the Jardin des Plantes and introduced the first American Robinia (the commemorative name being given to this tree by Linnaeus a century later) to Europe and planted in either the Place Dauphine or the School of Medicine. His son Vespasian (1579-1662) planted another in the King’s Garden. Robin published several books, the first in 1601, being the catalogue of the 1,300 native and exotic species he cultivated (Catalogus stirpium…) also that of Henry IV. Jean Robin was responsible for several gardens, including the one that Catherine de Medici created for the Palais des Tuileries. The small botanical Garden of the School of Medicine on the Rue de la Woodcutterie was entrusted to him in 1597 and closed in 1617. Robin was a friend of John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570s-1638) in London, the pair exchanging plants and seed (see Wikipedia entry). This was some of the modest historical background to the grand 18th century Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle headed by the world-renowned natural historian the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), the museum incorporating the Jardin des Plantes (called the Jardin du Roi before the Revolution) whose head gardener was the outward-looking André Thouin.

In London the Chelsea Physic Garden under the curatorship of Philip Miller (1691-1771) became England’s, and the world’s, foremost plant collection until this honour passed to Kew Gardens in London at the end of the century. At Kew Joseph Banks groomed many botanical adventurers for work overseas – as botanists, horticulturists, or garden administrators. In smaller numbers collectors were also sent from Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.

In Vienna there were the gardens, menagerie, and heated glasshouses of Joseph II of Austria at the Palace of Schönbrunn that were constructed and managed with Dutch botanical expertise.

Then there were also the gardens of Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796) of Russia, as well as the many estates of the aristocracy and Europe’s social elite.

Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration by Britain and France included not only astronomers, geologists, zoologists, botanists, other scientists but also landscape artists and biological illustrators. The status of botany in scientific, social, and economic circles had never been higher. Botanists needed herbarium specimens to describe these strange and wonderful plants and a craving for natural history specimens among European high society was unleashed, especially living plants and seed from New Holland. This lust for ornamental plants from across the sea became an obsession referred to as ‘botanophilia’, gripping the wealthy and influential, including botanists and nurserymen, and it was fed by new illustrated periodicals, plant dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and travelogues (Williams 2001). Plant treasures were proudly displayed as rarities in the gardens and state-of-the-art heated glasshouses (hothouses) that protected the precious warm-climate botanical novelties from the severe European winters.

Both France and England set up networks of coastal outposts in the tropics to act as provisioning ports and holding stations for new crops and other plants of economic or ornamental value. Attention was given to acclimatization, the plants trialled in different climates and soils, as these hubs became experimental stations and botanic gardens dedicated to economic botany. The botanical bounty was eagerly shared between colonies especially those of the tropical Indo-Pacific and Caribbean regions (Ly-Tio-Fane 1996). Directors of these gardens were often trained in Paris or London, being highly skilled gardener-botanists who produced catalogues of the gardens under their care and engaged in international plant and seed exchange.

From the 1790s the British Admiralty initiated hydrological surveys that employed salaried naturalists that were paid to complete their work onshore. Among the later beneficiaries of this source of revenue would be Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Joseph Hooker (Drayton 2000, pp. 126-127).

Major British gardens were established at St Vincent and Jamaica in the Caribbean (1765), St Helena in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa (1787) as a stopping-station on the way to Indian Calcutta (1786). A spice garden specializing in nutmeg and cloves was established by the British East India Company in Penang in 1796 but sold in 1806 although in 1822 the company established botanic gardens in both Penang and Singapore (McCracken 1997, p. 8). In 1815-16 Banks generously assisted French botanist Leschenault de La Tour (chief botanist on Nicolas Baudin‘s expedition to Australia in 1800 and 1803 and commemorated in a genus of Australian plants named by Robert Brown) to set up a botanic garden in Indian Pondicherry (McCracken 1997, pp. 7-8).

The following list gives an impression of the geographic range of these trading hubs: National Botanic Garden, Kirstenbosch, South Africa formerly the Company Garden of VOC, (1658); Pamplemousses, Mauritius, now Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden (1745); St Vincent & St Thomas, Caribbean (1764); Calcutta, India (Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, previously the Indian Botanic Garden) (1786), where the first salaried Superintendant was William Roxburgh appointed in 1793 and regarded as the founder of Indian scientific botany – he had trained in medicine at Edinburgh University and served as company botanist to the British East India Company; St Helena, South Atlantic (1787); Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro) (1808); Bogor, Java, Indonesia (Kebun Raya Bogor) (1817); Sri Lanka (Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya) (1821); Malaysian Peninsula Penang (1822), Singapore (Singapore Botanic Gardens) (1822)(see Holttum 1970).

Paris already had a maritime base in Madagascar in 1642 but other outposts were established in the Mascarenes (Mauritius and Réunion, then called Ile de France and Ile Bourbon). Pamplemousses on the Ile de France was a Paris garden specializing in plants from Africa and Asia and famous for its acclimatization of Brazilian manioc as food for plantation slaves. Pierre Poivre (1719–1786) had founded the botanic garden near Port Louis but he introduced spice plants to both islands, notably pepper and cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. He was succeeded at Ile de France by botanist Jean-Nicolas Céré (1737– 1810) who continued the distribution of economic plants. Focus was also on the French Caribbean with gardens on the extremely lucrative settlements that had been founded at Saint Domingue and Guadeloupe. coffee was soon cultivated on the Ile Bourbon and by 1723 had reached the Antilles, other crops included pepper, cinnamon and breadfruit.

Colonial economic botany and the excitement of Botanophilia played a major role on the path to European empires and a global economy.

Biological globalization and economic botany

The Great Divergence that placed Europe at the centre of a new global order and economy would also have global implications for the world’s flora and fauna.

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170 CE) was a Greco-Egyptian natural scientist and geographer who worked in Alexandria. For well over a millennium his map of the classical world had served European mariners as an operational map of the known world. However, from 1482 European exploration and charting of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans rapidly outlined the familiar world map of today. The Age of Discovery, and especially the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-1522, had established the spatial limits of the world. By locating the boundaries of the world’s land masses, humanity was confronted for the first time with the physical reality of a finite planet. An inventory of the world’s resources, including its biological organisms, thus became a meaningful pursuit for the logical and scientific mind.

By the end of the fifteenth century botanists were speculating about the possible number of different plants in the world. The herbals had described 500-1000 species, this being the legacy of Classical and Medieval knowledge (Morton 1981, p. 145). In 1613 Jean Bauhin (1541-1613) (son of Jean Bauhin (1511-1582) who was physician to Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre) described about 4000 species. Jean’s brother Gaspard, in the Pinax of 1623, increased this number to 6000 his account including synonymy, references, and binomials over a century before they were used by Linnaeus. Ray’s three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704) lists some 18,700 different kinds of plants. Linnaeus in 1753, less than 40 years before Australian settlement, believed that the total number of plant species in the world was unlikely to exceed 10,000 (Stearn 1959). Today the total number of naturally-occurring seed plant taxa in the world is estimated to be about 369, 000 (RBG Kew 2016).

The dangers and risks of exploration might be rewarded by the discovery of new and valuable resources. Fortunes made from spices had alerted merchants to the commercial potential of plants as new foods, beverages, condiments, ornaments – and other as yet unknown but lucrative uses. Like spices, new crops might be luxury items rather than essentials.

Colonial powers introduced European institutions, technology, trade, and people to the Americas, Asia, and southern Africa. But the expansion of Europe was also a two-way process, a contraction of the world (Drayton 2000, p. xiv) and part of this process was the reciprocal exchange of animals and plants between the Old and New worlds. This began in earnest after Columbus’s discovery of the New World and therefore became known as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ (Crosby 1972). The Columbian Exchange was the first phase of biological globalization.

Botany became an arm of international economics as botanic gardens outside Europe became holding, provisioning, and trading hubs as well as experimental stations, and bases for seeking out plant novelties. These activities linking botanic gardens to the politics and economics of the day, and the increasing distribution of ornamental plants to commercial nurseries a well as private individuals and the major botanical centres meant that botanic gardens were moving away from academia, royalty and narrow interests to become instruments serving the state as well as academics and their local communities.

Prospecting for economic plants would lead to a global redistribution of the world’s vegetation, out of native habitats into cultivated land, and sometimes escaping into the wild. Two world wars would draw attention to the need for self-sufficiency in plants of economic importance and encouraged their introduction where this had not occurred, or the introduction of suitable substitutes.

The kinds of commercially and culturally important plants that were the focus of human plant redistribution fall into four broad groups. First, there was an early phase associated with the mystical and medicinal herbs and spices managed mostly by specialist physicians. Then there were three groups mostly distributed in the modern era: staple agricultural crops, mostly the cereals that were the mainstay of temperate European agriculture transferred as part of the process of European colonization; horticultural crops, foods grown to enhance diets and nutrition, often cultivated en masse; and garden plants grown as ornamental plant luxuries.

The first phase of plant globalization began with the East-West exchange of herbs and spices between China, India and the great cities of the Mediterranean.

Herbs and spices

From earliest history, apart from food plants, it was herbs and spices in particular that commanded human respect and study.

According to Indian, Persian, Greek, and Roman traditions of medicine, especially those espoused by Hippocrates and the Islamic physicians, the body had four humours (black and yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) corresponding to four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic): herbs and spices could be used to adjust these humours.

The distinction between herbs and spices is not clear-cut but, in general, relates to both the part of the plant being used but also geographic origin. Culinary herbs consist of the leafy green part of a plant, they are mostly temperate and Mediterranean in origin. Spices are sourced from other parts of the plant than the leaf such as the root, stem, bulb, bark, resin, or seeds, and most spices are native to the Asiatic tropics. Following Purseglove (1981), the major spices are: cardamon, cinnamon and cassia, chillies, cloves, coriander, ginger, nutmeg and mace, pepper, pimento, turmeric, and vanilla; lesser ones would be caraway, cumin, dill, fennel, garlic, frankincense, juniper, liquorice, mustard, myrrh, onion, sandalwood, and sesame. Some plants have the distinction of being used as both herbs and spices – like coriander, fennel, and dill.

Though the numbers of species transported to be grown elsewhere was small, trade along the Incense Route and Silk Road provided a foretaste of the East-West spice and plant trade that would gather momentum in the Age of Discovery. India’s reputation as a land of spices had attracted ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians to the Malabar Coast as early as c. 2000-3000 BCE. Many spices now popular and widely grown in the tropics were traded from the southwest coastal region of Kerala in India (India itself well-deserving its title Land of Spices) which was a centre for both land and sea trade from both East and West (Purseglove 1981, pp. 1-9).

Greco-Roman trade in the period c. 700 BCE to the 200 CE passed between North Africa (including the Horn of Africa, today’s Ethiopia and Somalia which provided rare woods, animal skins, feathers, and gold), the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Arabian Peninsula where Frankincense (the aromatic resin of four species in the genus Boswellia) was obtained as well as Myrrh (an aromatic resin from species of Commiphora) traded along what is sometimes known as the Arabia to Damascus Incense Route. But there were also goods from India: spices, silk and textiles, precious stones, pearls, and ebony, and from the Horn of Africa. Desire for spices did not diminish as is amply demonstrated by the demands of Alaric the Goth who, to call off the Visigoth siege of Rome in 408 CE, called for a bounty of gold, silver, and 3000 pounds of pepper (Purseglove 1981, pp. 1-9).

The herbs and spices that have figured in world trade can be divided into two groups based on the climate of the countries where they grow: temperate and Mediterranean (some extending to India) – coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, frankincense, garlic, juniper, mint, myrrh, and thyme; to a lesser extent caraway, fenugreek, liquorice, marjoram, mustard, onion, and parsley. Then there were the Indian and Far Eastern tropical spices that became so pivotal for world trade and global politics in the Age of Discovery: cardomum, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, pepper and, to a lesser extent, ginger, henna, sandalwood, and sesame.

Agricultural subsistence crops

Staple cereal crops have had more impact on humanity than any other plants: for their cultural transformation, life-sustaining nutritional energy, their influence on the human economy, and the expanse of land and resources required for their cultivation.

Agriculture, now a specialist applied science treated separately from botany, began to diverge from botany and botanical gardens through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cereals are quite difficult to display and in botanical gardens their significance is often passed over. However, for a while in the eighteenth century botanical gardens, being a major source of general plant knowledge, were also a source of agricultural knowledge.
Agriculture was both a scientific and moral priority of the Enlightenment since it was perceived as a means of ‘improvement’ – of land, society, and non-European peoples; also ‘a synonym for the laying out of parks and gardens’ (Stroud 1986). It therefore gained royal patronage across Europe in the 1760s (Drayton 2000, p.89). From its earliest days the Royal Society had ranked agriculture and forestry among its major concerns, the forestry being essential for the timber needed to build and maintain the royal navy (Drayton 2000, p. 52).

Economies at this time were essentially agrarian and France and England competed in the development of scientific agriculture. French ‘physiocrats’ promoted agricultural labour as the source of surplus energy, and therefore the wealth needed to drive society forward. Today’s Académie d’agriculture de France was founded as a royal society in 1761 by Louis XV. In 1784 the Annals of Agriculture was first published in Paris.

In England of the early eighteenth century there were ‘… great strides in land fertility and reclamation from the heath, bog, and scrub with which more than half the countryside is estimated to have been covered’ (Stroud 1986).
In 1787 merino sheep were imported by England’s George III from Spain to roam the royal gardens at Windsor and Kew and it was from these flocks that the first merino sheep were selected for the Colony of New South Wales in 1804 (Drayton 2000, p.87). Banks was a wealthy landholder, a Lincolnshire squire in the tradition of the Roman farmer-statesman, and agriculture was close to his heart.

Colonising Europeans preferred comfortable temperatures, settling mainly in temperate regions where they introduced the familiar domesticated animals and plants of temperate agriculture although associated with these came unwanted pests, diseases, and invasive organisms. Temperate Afro-Eurasian cereals barley, oats, wheat, millet, and rice (which had found its way from China to SE Asia and India in the third millennium BCE) along with assorted pulses, were introduced by the European settlers to temperate regions of the world which became ‘Neo-Europes’ (Crosby 2004).

Maize (corn) was returned to Spain from the Americas by Columbus, certainly from his second but probably the first voyage and quickly finding its way to China by the 1530s, growing well in soil too wet for wheat and too dry for rice permitting the productive use of marginal land (Standage, p. 113). As a former Genoese sugar merchant he also on his second voyage moved sugar westward from Spain to Hispaniola in 1493 where a sugar mill began production in 1503, the Portuguese doing the same in Brazil at about the same time. The world’s highest sugarcane production was previously reached on the Atlantic island of Madeira in the 1460s. In South America as local people succumbed to Old world diseases, slave labour for the new plantations was taken from Africa. Later, in the 17th century, the British, French and Dutch would establish their own plantations in the Caribbean. Over four centuries as many as 11 million African slaves were transported to the New World (Standage, p. 114).

The energy provided by agricultural and horticultural crops, and the wealth generated by trade in crops like sugar, cotton, tea, and coffee would feed into the accelerating growth of the world population. Through into the nineteenth century, vast tracts of the planet’s land surface would be turned over to crops and agricultural rangeland. The first indications of large-scale environmental impact were appearing that would later become topics to be addressed by botanic gardens. Demand for wood had already depleted the supply of native timber prompting the demand for more organised forestry. Seizure of arable land for agriculture was transforming landscapes and was a common reason for indigenous dispossession.

Horticultural crops

Over time horticultural crops would become the concern of specialist arms of government but botanic gardens had a vital role in the discovery, introduction, and distribution of these socially-transforming plants. Only a little of this story can be touched on here.

Between the fall of Rome and the voyages of Columbus it was mainly Arab merchants who were the agency for worldwide plant exchange. For example, sugarcane, which is native to southeast Asia, had passed in ancient times from SE Asia to India, then to Egypt, Syria and Arabia, and from there to Europe.

Horticultural food crops obtained from the New World of South America and the Caribbean included avocado, cashew, cassava, chili peppers, cocoa, Jerusalem artichoke, peanuts, pineapple, pumpkin, French and runner beans, squash, sunflower, sweet potato, tomato, vanilla, and the staple cereal maize (corn).

From the Old World and Asia passing to the New World were apples, aubergines (eggplant), citrus, coffee, grapes, mango, olives, onions, peaches, pears, spinach, and tea, and from Africa especially came sorghum, henna, and watermelons.
From SE Asia came the banana, breadfruit, coconut, sugar, taro, yams, and plantains.

There were additional economically important non-food plants that included tobacco from tropical America, the rubber plant from Brazil, quinine from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, opium from Eurasia, the fibres hemp and jute from Asia and sisal from South America, and cotton from the tropics and beyond.

Initially inspiring the whole enterprise of economic botany and plant prospecting were the nutmeg and cloves from the Indonesian Molucca islands in the Banda and Molucca Seas.

Portuguese traders introduced many economic plants to India, the Jardin des Plantes introduced coffee to the West Indies from a plant sent to Louis XIV as a gift from the Dutch government in 1714, the plant itself derived in turn from one sent to the Amsterdam Botanic Gardens from Java in 1706 (Standage 2007). Miller of the Chelsea Physic Garden excelled in his cultivation of melons, paw-paws, and pineapples in glasshouse ‘hot beds’ (Minter 2000). Kew introduced quinine to India, Rubber to the world.

The links between botanic gardens, horticultural crops, and taxonomy were many. For example, a banana plant from Surinam was grown in the private glasshouses of Clifford’s estate at Hartekamp. Here Linnaeus was the first European to coax the plant into flower and fruit. Linnaeus in his excitement sent a fruit to Antoine de Jussieu at the Paris Jardin du Roi (Jussieu was also trying to get the plant to fruit), Jussieu being most impressed. When naming the plant Linnaeus chose the genus name Musa, almost certainly commemorating Antonius Musa a Greek freedman botanist-physician to Rome’s first emperor Augustus. It was believed by Linnaeus and others that the Tree of Knowledge, whose forbidden fruit was eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, was in fact a banana and, accordingly, Linnaeus erected the names Musa sapientum and Musa paradisiaca (Koerner in Jardine et al. p. 147). In the sixteenth century the banana was introduced to the Americas by the Portuguese via West Africa and the Canaries but it would remain an exotic luxury novelty in temperate Europe until the advent of rapid transport and refrigeration in the twentieth century.

Columbus introduced sugarcane to the New World from the Canaries in 1493. Sugar plantations were soon part of European wealth accumulation as part of a circular Atlantic trade route for goods and people running between Britain, West Africa, the New World and back, a trade based mainly on African slaves taken to work plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

Plantation crops like sugar, tobacco, and cotton, though generating vast wealth and benefit for their colonial overseers, were maintained by slavery and often involved cruel mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

Various commercial enterprises were initiated by the French in the tropical French West Indies including the first introduction of breadfruit, considered a French triumph, especially after the initial failure of Britain’s Captain Bligh and the Bounty expedition.

The voyage of Captain Bligh, who would later become an Australian governor, was legendary. The Royal Society had offered a prize for the successful transfer of breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean where it was to be used as a staple food for the thousands of slaves working in the English sugar plantations. On the first voyage of 1787-1790 with gardeners William Brown and David Nelson (selected by Banks), the Bounty called in to Adventure Bay in Tasmania (where the gardeners set up a small food garden) but the mission later ended in mutiny, the plants thrown overboard. Bligh and 18 loyalists, including David Nelson, were cast adrift with a meagre supply of food and water in an open boat just 7 m long. In a staggering feat of endurance and navigation, the small boat covered the 5,822 km to Timor in six weeks, even charting part of the north-east coast of New Holland on their way. Ironically, a few days after arriving in Timor Nelson, who was always keen to botanize, could not resist spending a day in the mountains where he caught a cold and died of ‘inflammatory fever’ (St John 1976). Nelson was buried in a grave in Timor that would later be also used for French gardener Anselme Riedlé of the Baudin scientific expedition (1800–1804), and Alexander Zippelius a Dutch gardener-botanist and assistant curator of the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens (now Bogor Botanical Gardens), who died in Timor in 1828. Bligh’s second breadfruit voyage in the Providence from 1791-1793, with illustrators, artists, and Kew gardeners James Wiles and Christopher Smith was successful, although ironically the breadfruit was rejected as a food source by the plantation slaves.

Ornamental plants

Crops serviced basic human needs while ornamental plants were socially prestigious luxuries. It was mostly botanic gardens that spearheaded the early introduction and exchange of plant novelties by sending out plant hunters, herbarium specimen collectors, botanists and gardeners. New plants could then be accessed through direct exchange supplemented by the Botanic garden international seed exchange program.

As with the spices before them it was to the wealthy and powerful that these plants would go first before trickling down to lower social strata. Gardener-botanists on voyages of exploration and discovery sought out horticultural delights for the estates of the European wealthy, a duty that required specially designed cabinets and equipment like the Wardian Case to protect the living cargo. The gardeners assisted with the collection, transport, cultivation and distribution of the plants, working as assistants to the naturalists, collecting live plants, cuttings and seed, as well as plant specimens for herbarium collections. They often maintained journals and records of their collections and made observations on the vegetation encountered during the voyage.

The global flow of ornamental plant exchange that began in the modern era as part of the accelerating process of globalization turned into a flood in the eighteenth century.

Plants were, of course, passing both in and out of Europe but on the inward path of ornamental plant introduction Gregor Kraus (1894) recognised six phases with colonialism steadily enlarging the geographic area available for plant collection and importation (Stearn 1965, 1971):

• To 1560 – European-Mediterranean Period
• 1560-1620 – Near East (mostly bulbs)
• 1620-1686 – Herbaceous plants from Canada and Virginia
• 1687-1772 – Cape of South Africa
• 1687-1772 – North American trees and shrubs
• 1772-1820 – Australian plants

Stearn increased the number of periods to nine, his additional three periods being:

• 1820-1900 – tropical glasshouse plants and hardy plants from Japan and North America
• 1900-1930 – plants from West China
• 1930s – genetics and plant breeding producing new garden varieties.

To this list can be added a tenth period
• 1980 – genetically engineered plants.

A catalogue of indigenous and exotic plants cultivated by Jean Robin of the Jardin du Roi in Paris (Catalogus stirpium . . . ) and published in 1601 lists 1300 species (biographic entry in French Wikipedia), while John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris of 1629 described over 1000 different plants.

The number and variety of plants introduced to Europe from overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries was dwarfed by the industry of plant collection and redistribution that occurred in the 18th century. Colonial expansion was feeding the plant lust sometimes referred to as Botanophilia (Williams 2001) that had gripped both scientists and the fashionable gardening elite. As international commerce thrived a new affluent middle class of merchants and professionals joined the upper echelons of society in the socially prestigious activity of gardening and the number of market gardens increased.

Manorial gardens in England of the Middle Ages had become progressively more estate-like and horticulturally adventurous over time, looking to classical models for inspiration. On Europe’s grand estates the English landscape style had increased in popularity through the late eighteenth century. Plant exchange with America had brought to England the delight of autumn foliage colours of the deciduous liquidambars, maples and other trees that now adorned these properties, all feeding the desire for more. Gardening was becoming more a part of daily life for all.

It is difficult to quantify this social change in gardening habits. However, in England small nursery concerns had begun in the reign of Charles I (1600-1649) and trade in ornamental plants was largely confined to London where the London Gardeners’ Company was founded in 1605. In 1691, there were about 5 nurseries and seed suppliers, the total rising to about 15 in 1690-1700, and 35 in 1700-1730 at a time when nurseries were beginning to open up in the provinces. In Georgian England (1713-1830) by 1730-1760 there were around 42 nurseries in London and 40 in the provinces including distant places like Edinburgh and Yorkshire (Harvey 1974, pp. 4-6). A survey in 1760 by the London Gardeners Company produced the following estimates for professional and commercial gardeners in England and Wales: 10 garden designers, 150 nobleman’s gardeners, 400 gentleman’s gardeners, 100 nurserymen, 100 florists, 20 botanists, and 200 market gardeners. The first priced catalogue was published in 1775 then, with improvements in the transport system the nursery system as we would recognize it today emerged around the 1790s (Harvey 1974, pp. 8-10).

By 1780 printed directories were being produced and had become available outside London as provincial florists’ joined the ranks of gardeners and nurserymen so, by 1825, there could be a more precise estimation of the increasing number of plant taxa in cultivation (Harvey 1974, p. 6). In late Georgian England the number of commercial plant nurseries soared, plant exchange possibly facilitated by the improvement of the canal system. The later development of railways would further improve transport and communications as the Industrial Revolution progressed so that by 1839 garden chronicler John Loudon could list 18,000 species in cultivation in Britain (Harvey 1974, p. 128) and similar developments were taking place on the continent. American ornamental plants were now coming into the country in large shipments, and nurseries in the Netherlands, especially those providing bulbs, were sourcing plants from across Europe (Webber 1968).

From this period on, ornamental plant introduction by Europeans would radically change the plant composition and appearance of both urban and rural landscapes in a cultural tradition that would flow on to the neo-Europes. Britain, more than any other country, exemplifies this change. Here more than 120,000 different garden plants have been recorded in cultivation in recent decades (Armitage 2015), while plants in the wild number only about 3850, about half of these being naturalised. About 13% of the total Australian flora is naturalised and about sixty percent of these naturalisations are garden escapes. The account of human dispersal of plants across the globe is both fascinating and important but at present piecemeal and incomplete. What part did biological globalization play in the doubling of world population between 1650 and 1850? Botanic gardens can help flesh out this story.

Today we face the difficulty of distinguishing and defining what we mean by natural landscapes and natural plant communities: the distinction between natural and man-made or man-altered plants is also increasingly blurred. The deliberate management of hybrid and novel ecosystems as ‘synthetic vegetation’ at the interface between natural and artificial systems is a topic for current debate (see Bridgewater 2016) while the expensive problem of exotic plants invading and sometimes breeding with indigenous plants has been with us for many years.

In retrospect, it is clear that the sharing of the world’s botanical bounty was an inevitable consequence of globalisation though the way this occurred and the long-term consequences are yet to be fully assessed and experienced.

Modern definition

Views about the role and function of botanic gardens have changed over time. Their perceived priorities and individual interpretations of the appropriate blend of factors needed in a public botanic garden were often debated in terms of simple competing views: science vs art, education vs wonder and amusement, research programs vs ornamental displays, and their management in terms of botanists vs horticulturists vs trained or experienced managers. Partly a sterile debate decided by strength of egos, this was also about the constant re-examination of management priorities as historical circumstances changed.

Historian Drayton (2000, p. 137) expresses the situation as it appeared in the 19th century, as follows:

‘The purposes of the botanic garden had never been clearly resolved: in what measure should it be useful or ornamental? To whom among apothecaries, gardeners, botanists, agrarian improvers, or its various types of patron, did it really belong?’

William Hooker at Kew and Ferdinand Mueller in Melbourne expressed views that the conceptual lens through which botanic gardens activities must be filtered was ‘science’ and ‘education’. Hooker’s Kew was physically tripartite, presenting plants to the world from three perspectives: the living collections (the garden); the dry collections (the herbarium); and a further collection of artefacts and exhibits that demonstrated the human relationship to plants (the economic museum). But his public wanted more garden art, and there were other voices clamouring to be heard.

By the 1980s it had become conventional to supplement the enduring categories of ‘science’ and ‘education’ with contemporary concerns like conservation and sustainability, and the adoption of a more relaxed approach that included ‘recreation’ (see, for example, Looker 2002, p. 100).

In recent times the leading botanic garden advocate, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), has embraced this variety of function and provided several more exploratory definitions. Garden ornament and art was taken into consideration by defining a botanic garden as ‘. . . an institution holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education’ (Wyse Jackson 1999).

More recently BGCI has produced a technical review addressing the issue of definition (Smith & Harvey-Brown 2017). This paper reported a survey that assessed how botanic gardens themselves perceived their role in society. BGCI found that the words appearing most frequently in their survey were ‘research’, ‘conservation’, ‘scientific’, ‘collections’, and ‘education’. The absence of the word ‘display’ (or equivalent) is surely a surprise. Less surprising was BGCIs conclusion that ‘conservation is becoming more and more central to the work of botanic gardens’ (see also Wyse Jackson & Sutherland 2000).

Definitions can assume the role of prescriptions – in effect legislating what botanic gardens should be if they are to assume that name – and in so doing they inhibit imagination and direct our thinking along unnecessarily rigid lines. Nevertheless, words expressing goals and roles are needed to populate strategic documents and the thoughts of managers, because they provide clarity of purpose, identity and direction.

As botanic gardens have embraced more functions, so the temptation has been to cover all stakeholder positions so . . . a botanic garden is . . . ‘A centre holding documented collections of living plants for a range of purposes such as scientific research, horticultural development, conservation, plant introduction, display, sustainability, education and outreach’ (Heywood 2017, p. 312).

It is tempting to side-step the ‘everything-for-everybody’ clumsiness of such a definition by resorting to generalisation. What about ‘Botanic garden’ means a scientific and educational institution the purpose of which is the advancement and dissemination of the knowledge and appreciation of plants’ (National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 – Sect 3)? Another example would be the definition by Professor Tim Entwisle of today’s ‘modern-era 4th generation botanic garden’ given at the 6th Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Geneva in 2017 as: ‘ . . . a scientifically managed and inspiring landscape of documented plant collections, where every plant and setting has a purpose’ (Entwisle 2017) or, reduced even further by David Mabberley ‘ . . . the true rationale for botanic gardens – public education . . .’ (Mabberley 2019, p. xi). These and similar generalised definitions remind us that we do need detail – because it is the detail that matters; it is what gives a definition teeth, something to hold on to. Motherhood words like ‘scientific’, ‘inspiring’, ‘purpose’ and ‘education’ can only satisfy the serious enquirer when they are fleshed out.

So, how can a definition express both the general and the particular?

There are no necessary and sufficient conditions that define a botanic garden, only a family of characteristics expressed by most botanic gardens, most of the time. The Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy 1989 endorsed by IUCN, WWF, FAO, UNEP, and UNESCO (Heywood 1989); and the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation (Wyse Jackson & Sutherland 2000) and BGCI (2019) are the best we have today. They draw attention to these general characteristics which include: a degree of permanence, the presence of science and research, the documentation and monitoring of collections, labelling of plants, public access, a wide network of communication, and the exchange of germplasm. This is not intended as a comprehensive list (for example there is, surprisingly, no direct mention of plant conservation or the amenity displays that are features of modern botanic gardens): it is simply a gathering together of features that tend to be associated with today’s botanic gardens.

What is of greater interest than any debate about definition is the changing nature of botanic gardens. It is this change that inspires the desire to constantly redefine, and which is our direct concern in this paper – not ‘what they are’ but ‘what they could be’ – the much more useful debate about the future direction of the world’s foremost plant institutions.

Here we must be realistic. Over time, public pressure on many botanic gardens has literally taken ground from science. This does not mean that there is no science but, following William Hooker’s example, it has gone undercover, retiring to the laboratory and hidden in often obscure buildings, its evidence in the gardens themselves generally muffled. Also, across the world, as the public purse strings for botanic gardens have tightened, so popular and ephemeral horticultural displays, music, sculpture, art shows and other forms of public entertainment have been used to generate funding for scientific research. These are diversions that bring the botanic garden more in line with London’s Victorian pleasure gardens at Battersea and Vauxhall. Such activities can seem exasperatingly trivial as the pace of plant extinction escalates (see Smith 2019). Nevertheless, this appears to be the price paid for institutional continuity.

What all this means is that botanic gardens are a broad church. Today, more than ever before, botanic gardens are institutions whose raison d’ȇtre is plant advocacy in general as indicated by today’s Vision Statements such as that of the RBGV and Kew along the lines of: ‘Life is sustained and enriched by plants’. This article stands by the contention at the head of this article (not a definition) that: ‘Collectively, botanical gardens today explore the connections between plants, people and our planet in all its richness and complexity’ (Spencer & Cross 2017, p. 91). But perhaps a more aspirational tone could be adopted: for example, an expressed commitment to responsible global plant stewardship where plant conservation is just one aspect of this wider goal. This is also in tune with the way BGCI’s mission has, over time, been expressed more expansively as, for example, in the strategic plan ‘Plants for the planet’ which refers to ‘sustaining wild plants and places; connecting people with nature; and finding natural solutions for sustainable livelihoods and human well-being.’

In the spirit of community engagement, the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester in 2010 produced a 146-page report commissioned by BGCI examining the social role and relevance of contemporary botanic gardens (BGCI 2010). The report challenged gardens to re-examine their philosophies, values and practices and to make a more effective contribution to social and environmental awareness and change. This is a vision that resonates with the global objectives of many other international organisations, but it requires strong international networking.

The International Association of Botanic Gardens (IABG) was formed in 1954 and is a worldwide organisation affiliated to the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) as a commission of the International Association of Botanical and Mycological Societies. The global botanic garden movement led to the establishment of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) at Kew in 1987 where it provided strong support to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

Historically, human impacts on global ecology may be viewed as ultimately an outcome of cultural factors (the side-effects of social organisation) deployed to harness plant energy. The study of this anthropogenic influence, from the Pleistocene to the present, is a multidisciplinary challenge for historians, archaeologists, ecologists and others investigating both natural and artificial-cultural human selection processes (human niche construction theory)(Ellis 2015).

There are several clear contemporary challenges that face botanic gardens in the plant world of Informatia: first, the constant analysis and review of the relationship between humans and plants as a process of coevolution and (specifically in relation to Informatia) starting with an analysis of rapidly changing energy relationships; second, the securing of a sound global plant stewardship that includes close examination of the horticultural connections to the environment; and, third, the more specific study of factors influencing global changes in cultivated plant composition, distribution, and biomass, with special emphasis on ornamental plants.

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Pisa          -      1544
Padua      -      1545
Florence   -     1545
Zurich       -      1560
Valencia    -     1567
Bologna    -      1568
Leiden       -      1587
Montpellier -   1593
Leipzig       -     1597
Oxford       -     1621
Paris           -     1635
Berlin         -     1646
Uppsala      -    1655
Edinburgh  -    1670
Chelsea Physic Gdn - 1673
Amsterdam  -  1682
St Petersburg - 1714
Kew             -      1759

Colonial botanic gardens

   VOC Cape Garden    -  1658
Pamplemousse, Maur;s - 1745
   St Vincent, St Thomas - 1764
     Calcutta             -         1786
     St Helena          -          1787
     Rio de Janeiro   -         1808
     Sydney               -         1816
     Bogor                 -         1817
     Hobart               -         1818
Peradeniya, Sri Lanka  -  1821
     Singapore         -          1822
     Perth                  -          1831
     Melbourne        -          1846
     Cape Town        -          1846
     Adelaide            -          1855
     Christchurch    -           1863
     Kirstenbosch    -           1902


Apothecary is the medieval name for a seller of drugs and spices, loosely equivalent to today’s pharmacist as someone who prepares and sells medicines. When the medicines are plants or their extracts the person may be called a herbalist while a book that lists these plants, with their medicinal properties and probably some illustrations, is a herbal or, as in the case of Dioscorides' work, a Materia Medica. The medicinal plants themselves may be known as botanicals, simples, or officinals and in ancient times their medicinal properties were referred to as virtues. Medicines supplied by apothecaries were generally mixtures of multiple (compound) ingredients: ‘simple’ refers to one of these basic ingredients. 'Officinal' (of commerce) suggests that these simples were sold by the apothecaries. Sometimes the medicinal drugs (or the art of medicine itself) was called physic hence a garden of medicinal plants was known as a physic garden. In more recent times someone who studies drugs and their effects in a scientific way is known as a pharmacologist and the book, often a government publication, that lists the medicines, their formulas, preparation, strength and purity, is known as a pharmacopoeia. When plants alone are the source of drugs the study may be termed pharmacognosy. A physician is a medical practitioner who is highly skilled in diagnosis (rather than surgery), a specialist who has usually had a longer training than a doctor or GP.


This article is an adaptation of part of a paper ‘The origins of botanic gardens and their relation to plant science with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy‘ by R. Spencer and R. Cross published in Muelleria 35: 43-94 in 2017.


How do we account for the totally different attitudes to plants and land management that were juxtaposed when, at Botany Bay in 1788, Europeans of the First Fleet stood face to face with Australia’s First People, the two groups observing one-another from the ‘… opposite sides of the Neolithic Revolution’? (Crosby 2004, p. 18). In Australia this is the first key question to answer if we are to truly understand the establishment in 1846 of a botanical garden in Melbourne, Australia.

European settlers observed Aboriginals taking food directly from nature. This begs the question: why are plants cultivated in the many ways that we do today, indeed, why do we need to cultivate plants at all? What was the uniquely European historical experience from which plant cultivation, gardens, and botanic gardens emerged? To answer this question has meant going back to origins, to the first plant cultivation and domestication, the beginning of gardens and gardening, and the foundations of botany and botanic gardens.

For convenience we distinguish four phases in the history of plant cultivation leading up to the 19th century:

  • prehistory
  • the Neolithic Revolution and ancient civilizations
  • the advent of botanical science in the Classical era
  • the modern era from the foundation of Renaissance botanic gardens to the time of European settlement of Australia (approximately 1550-1800).

So far as we can tell, prehistoric nomadic hunter-gather societies like those of the Australian Aboriginal associated plants with a spiritual world acknowledged in rituals, beliefs, and customs passed down the generations. Traditional empirical plant knowledge would have related strongly to the use of plants as foods and medicines. We may glimpse a little of this world through remnant ceremony, mythology, folklore, religion, rock art, archaeological remains, and traditions hidden deep in language. We know, for example, that there is a close connection between the myths and legends of India and those of Western Europe but the details are unsurprisingly diverse. Nature, it seems, was deeply personified and anthropomorphised. There was temporal continuity between the lives of ancestors, the living, and the after-life. We can surmise the existence of sacred sites of different kinds with their associated plants. Practical plant knowledge almost certainly centred on their use for food, tools, healing, and medicine (Clarke 2007).

Hunter-gatherers lived within nature but they also changed it. The extent to which Australian Aboriginals modified Australia’s landscapes remains uncertain but in all probability many of the sites first settled by Europeans had been modified by human activity before their arrival (Gammage 2011). Even so, modified nature was totally unlike the man-made surroundings that were constructed in urban environments.

Plants in prehistory were no doubt gathered together into cultivated spaces. Ancient urban environments, made possible by agriculture, were structured into functional physical spaces very similar to those of today. Plants were brought from the wild into all of these spaces where they were managed or ‘cultivated’. From these urban cultivated spaces, in the Bronze Age, emerged spaces specifically dedicated to plants that we now know as ‘gardens’. And among these Bronze Age gardens were those containing medicinal plants that were the subjects of study by academic physicians: these spaces were the precursors to, if not the first, ‘botanic gardens’. The early core of special mystical and medicinal plants worthy of study were the herbs and spices, their flavour and scent suggesting that they were touched by the spiritual and divine.. Greeks and Romans referred to these plants as aromata and the ones of greatest fascination came from distant, unknown, and paradise-like places.

Also in prehistory the human modification of plants began, the selection of forms of cereals that are now staples of our modern diet. Stearn has claimed that ‘cultivated plants are mankind’s most vital and precious heritage from remote antiquity’ (Stearn 1965, p. 282). Our Paleolithic and Neolithic forbears bequeathed to us the first domesticated crops – plants with man-made characteristics distinguishing them from their wild ancestors.

The inhabitants of early civilizations were aware of the enormity of the transition they had made from nature to culture and were ambivalent about its benefits. Mythology, religion, and historical accounts sometimes characterized the former life in nature as a romantic age of innocence, a paradise, or a lost Garden of Eden before the advent of civilization which was the source of misery, toil, and a fall from grace. On the other hand others, like philosopher Aristotle (see his Nicomachean Ethics), regarded these early times as an era of savagery and ignorance: civilization and progress had arrived with the first cities which were the only places where humans could reach their full potential as social animals. European settlers assuming that their lifestyle was both morally and materially superior to that of the Aboriginal. Agriculture was a ‘higher’ mode of existence and a means of human ‘improvement’. Today our attitudes are again ambivalent. ‘Progress’ has come at a price and the skilful and sensitive Aboriginal integration of human lives with the environment is treated with respect. The theme of a garden as a place of peace and relaxation is frequently also associated with the modern botanic garden.

There are other echoes of prehistory to be found in ancient civilizations. The stone columns and colonnades so popular in the temples and porticoes of antiquity, especially the Greek Corinthian columns whose capitals were decorated with foliage, probably served as symbols of the trunks of trees that grew in ancient sacred groves (Hooke 2010, p. 9). The general plan of these large-scale monuments is echoed in both Greek and Roman peristyle gardens where shrines were situated. There are possibly historical connections between these peristyle gardens, the porticoes of Byzantine churches where flower gardens were planted, and the medieval ‘paradise’ gardens as sheltered areas in churches where the Sacrist (church caretaker) displayed festival flowers that prompted evocations of Eden (Uglow 2005, p. 33). The first public park of Ancient Rome opened in 55 BCE consisted of a porticus (colonnade) surrounding a nemus (sacred grove) with avenues of plane trees and a parkland temple precinct dedicated to the goddess Venus. The park proved so popular that by the first century AD the word ‘porticus’ was being used to describe all the urban parks of central Rome and this particular porticus was similar to the lavish suburban horti (gardens) of wealthy Roman generals on the outskirts of the city (Gleason 1994). Roman villas had peristyle gardens which were inner open courtyards with a surrounding colonnade supporting a shade-roof beneath which was often a shrine dedicated to the household gods.

Another possible connection to prehistory comes to us through the association of royal courts with hunting expeditions like those of ancient Mesopotamia in a tradition that has persisted to the present day as, for example, the fox hunting, deer and grouse shoots that we associate with the English gentleman’s estate. We can speculate that this tradition so prevalent in the ancient world, may have begun as a respectful glance back to the ancestral hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Palaeolithic.

In antiquity we already see the strong association between useful and interesting plants, trade, and the heroism of exploration and military conquest. Ancient texts from Bronze Age cities indicate the spiritual significance of plants through their symbolism but special attention is given to their medicinal properties. Records include registers of plant names, sometimes with brief descriptions, but mostly as herbal remedies. In Egypt this tradition dates back to the third millennium BCE. Always, though, the interest is anthropocentric, it is about the relationship between plants and humans, not about the plants themselves.

Though horticulture was well established in antiquity, it is only in the classical era that we see the emergence of plant science as we would recognize it today.

The Lyceum in Athens headed by Theophrastus has much in common with the modern botanic garden and university. As a centre of learning it was situated in designed parkland with a library and museum, the lectures delivered to both students and the general public. Plant studies were part of a general educational program within the gymnasium as a whole. At the Lyceum we see the birth of botany in a clear break from the former tradition of medicine. Philosopher Theophrastus used objective analytical thinking to lead the study of plants in a completely new direction, one that, so far as we know, was not previously apparent in either the west or the great ancient civilizations of India and China. Historian Georges Métailié, for example, regards botanical science as peculiar to the western world since 1600 CE and, through expansion, the rest of the world since about 1800 – that in China ‘there was not even a term to refer directly to a specific knowledge of plants’ (Métailié 2007) : Jesuit missionaries had a slight influence on Chinese botany but western scientific ideas in botany did not influence China until the mid 19th century, the Chinese botany being mor akin to western ‘ethnobotany’ (Métailié 2015). Theophrastus’s plant studies were about the plants themselves as well as their utility. He wrote about their identification, relationships, structure, function, reproduction, and ecology. Plants grown in the Lyceum garden were collected not only from local sources but from the then-known world: they were both a valuable collection and a living resource for the students. The sheer diversity of plants facilitated detailed observation, comparison, and description. Theophrastus’s research was incorporated into his lecture notes that became Historia Plantarum and Causa Plantarum, the world’s first scientific treatises on plants. The Lyceum was a property that Aristotle had rented and it enjoyed a degree of academic freedom. Royalty was not a part of democratic ancient Athens and state interference was limited although technically both Aristotle and Theophrastus were metics (foreigners without citizen rights).

The ancient Greeks had added a new subject to the educational curriculum, plant science, the combination of Theophrastus’s plant research and Aristotle’s work on animals laying the foundations of biological science. Sadly this beginning to botanical science was a brief flame of intellectual curiosity that would be extinguished for about 1200 years.

With the Renaissance revival of ancient learning came the recovery of Theophrastus’s works which were ‘ … certainly known and read by botanists; he was frequently referred to and quoted …’(Morton, p. 121). Though the medicinal Renaissance botanic gardens are often treated as the first botanic gardens, we can now see how they harked back thousands of years to an ancient social class of academic physicians. There is a continuity of tradition and function that runs from the medicinal gardens and libraries of antiquity, of Egypt and Mesopotamia, including the rhizotomi (herbalists) of ancient Athens, to the monastic physic gardens of the Christian scholastics, and the apothecaries of the early modern university botanic gardens of Italy. Only with the Lyceum teaching garden in classical Athens did this tradition take a brief but crucial turn into a study of the science of plants.

With the unprecedented and extremely rapid social, economic, scientific, and intellectual change that occurred in the modern era came an equally dramatic change in the character of botanic gardens and the work done within them. In the period up to the nineteenth century, a relatively short 250-years (c. 1550-1800), the influx of new plants to Europe during the Age of Discovery initiated a prolonged phase of plant classification, nomenclature and description. Plant knowledge was synthesised in the taxonomic work of Linnaeus, culminating in the publication of his magnum opus of known plants, Species Plantarum, in 1753, the first edition published on 1 May 1753 marking the starting point for modern botanical nomenclature. Past debts were recognised as it was Linnaeus who anointed Theophrastus with the sobriquet ‘Father of Botany’.

The early stages of this taxonomic journey were facilitated by the advent of printing and the publication of herbals that lasted from about 1470 to 1670, these books gradually changing from simple lists of plants and their medicinal and other properties into academic compendia of scientific botanical descriptions. The Scientific Revolution and its technology also facilitated the beginnings of plant anatomy and the first scientific investigations of plant function as physiology.

The momentum of change increased dramatically in the 18th century as European colonial expansion gathered pace uniting scientists, royalty, and government into an economic and political force that would be felt across the world. Under the influence of Enlightenment reason and science two generations of naturalists were launched on scientific voyages of discovery. European political ascendancy began with Portugal and Spain as countries leading Europe across the world, lured by a spice race that promised personal, royal, and public fortunes. Holland, similarly motivated, would follow. A gathering interest in economic and ornamental botany would reach its height in the Pacific voyages of scientific exploration and discovery sent out from the great capital city gardens of Paris and London, initiated by the monarchs of France and Britain. It would be the horticulturally-obsessed Britain that would eventually set up a colony on the world’s largest island continent located on the opposite side of the world.

Theophrastus’s writings no doubt stimulated the revitalisation of plant science and hinted at the lucrative economic botany that would eventually drive so much of the scientific and economic activity of eighteenth century Europe. In retrospect this was a pivotal period in global plant history with Britain at the centre – its increasing number of nurseries, horticultural commerce, its gardens and gardening, landscaped country estates, the frenzy of plant collection, the world-wide distribution of seed and plants, its dominance of economic botany, agriculture, and general botanical curiosity. Humanity at this time was beginning to take charge of the planet, its land, and its biodiversity. Plant commerce and nurseries played a major role in the historical acceleration of ever-increasing numbers and kinds of plants being distributed more rapidly over greater distances across the globe. Merchants, adventurers, missionaries, naturalists, and chartered companies were now repeating on a global scale the pattern of local foreign forays and plant hunting exhibited by the Egyptian pharaohs Hapshetsut and Tuthmosis III, ancient Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser I and Assurnasirpal II, and Macedonian warrior Alexander the Great.

Enlightenment intelligentsia of the European empires, including those scientists who communicated in Latin, had received a classical education. Theophrastus was a part of the Greco-Roman ethos that inspired leaders of the British Empire in their heroic search for the resources needed to fuel Britain’s growing population and gathering Industrial Revolution. This was still an age of royalty, patronage, and privilege. Banks had paid for his place on Captain Cook’s voyage of the Endeavour, taking with him eleven servants (two were Africans), and two greyhounds. The efforts of Enlightenment gentlemen would build the world’s largest ever empire and generate a global economy. It would also accelerate a redistribution of world vegetation that had begun with the New World Columbian exchange. Temperate crops were spread to other temperate regions of the world, the neo-Europes; tropical crops were distributed between eastern and western hemispheres; ornamental plants would be shipped around the world; and native floras would be invaded by the unanticipated escape into the wild of plants growing in fields and gardens. Increasing wealth and the escalation in numbers of plant nurseries would increase the flow of plants through social strata meeting the demands of an increasingly affluent and numerically-expanding middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors; plant exchange was not confined to packets of seed and exchange between a few individuals but involved substantial shipments and enterprises; the global homogenisation of garden floras was beginning; technology like glasshouses helped overcome the constraints of climate; horticultural crops were transforming daily life with plants like cotton, rubber, quinine, and tobacco; there was an internationalization of beverages based on grapes, tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and cereals; and associated with agriculture, the massive appropriation of land for crops and pastoralism combined with the global spread of invasive organisms and pathogens.

The achievements of both Dutch and French naturalists in early Australian botany and horticulture are easily forgotten. Britain had inherited Australia but it had done so with maritime know-how inspired by the Portuguese and Dutch, and much botanical science passed on from Holland and France. In 1644, more than 120 years before Cook’s visit to New Holland, the Dutch had roughly charted all but Australia’s east coast, including Van Diemen’s Land and a portion of New Zealand. Dutch interest in New Holland was more commercial than scientific but this phase of Australian history did leave a Dutch botanical legacy: the first description of Australian vegetation by Tasman in 1642, the first indubitable record of seeds of Australian plants reaching Europe with Vlamingh in 1698, and the first scientifically named Australian plants described by Burman in 1768 (Nelson 1990, p. 285). To this can be added the cartography that would prove invaluable for the botanical and scientific exploration to follow. Visits to New Holland by Englishman William Dampier in the period 1688 to 1699 stirred the VOC into renewed navigational forays to the north coast but most of these met unfortunate endings and by 1756 Dutch interest in the region was over.

France’s taxonomists were among the best in the world, Versailles was a masterpiece of garden design, and French Enlightenment scientific exploration was by far the most ambitious. However, after the  Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 Britain, by defeating the combined French and Spanish navies, would rule the waves. This defeat of France at sea was underlined a decade later by the land defeat of Napoleon in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. The British Empire was now secure and Britain had gained the lion’s share of the Far East. Even before this time Britain’s horticulture had gathered an international acclaim that has never been lost. France produced the first complete navigational chart of the Australian coast. The first European garden on mainland Australia was almost certainly the vegetable garden, known as the ‘French Garden’ that was dug at Botany Bay between 26 January and 10 March in 1788 (shortly ahead of similar vegetable gardens created by the British settlers at Port Jackson) and, presumably, overseen by gardener-botanist from the Jardin du Roi in Paris, Jean-Nicolas Collignon. It was French scientists who first described many iconic Australian plants and animals including the eucalypt, wombat, platypus, and emu.

Botanic gardens of the early modern period, often regarded as the first botanic gardens, were restricted in their content, objectives, and audience. Their content was medicinal plants, their objectives were instructive and scientific, and their audience was medical students of university medical faculties. Over time these gardens, though some retained the old formal layout, would for the most part become increasingly broader in scope until today their collections might include any member of the plant kingdom. Their objectives have extended beyond the narrow goals of science and education to include a wide range of additional aesthetic and utilitarian considerations. The audience is no longer the specialized physician (university student) but the general public whose diverse interests have resulted in gardens that are a ‘… mixture of meditative retreat, scientific collection, menagerie, public playground, palace, and experimental station’ (Drayton 2000, pp. xii-xiii). And just as the character of botanic gardens had changed over time so too did the role of the men in charge of the plants, this now becoming a complex of perceptions: shaman-medicine-man, priest, physician, philosopher, herbalist, apothecary, pharmacist, professor of botany.

The expectations and demands of non-academic audiences have reconfigured the early botanic garden paradigm of instructive science from medicinal garden to that of a pleasure ground, albeit a thoughtful one. With France and England obtaining nutmeg plants plantations were set up in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Granada these and other spices became commonplace and relatively cheap, much as they are today. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the one-time mystery and magic of spices that enhanced the exotic cuisine of the aristocracy faded as their use passed into broader society.

The most obvious change in botanic gardens was the incorporation of art and design into a public (not just scientific) space although there is still often a class of academic physicians, as scientists, working in the institutions associated with the gardens. Mostly this has meant fewer regimented and rectilinear features announcing the scientific order of nature, and more visually pleasing elements borrowed from an eclectic garden history – the ancient western design elements synthesized by the Romans and subsequently resynthesized repeatedly on a world scale.

In their recent form botanic gardens more closely resemble the grandiose gardens of antiquity than the medicinal botanic gardens of the Italian Renaissance. Though there is still an emphasis on intellectual curiosity with a strong undercurrent of science, their functions are so broad as to defy prescriptive definition. Inevitably much of this narrative comes to us through plant science, world history, and garden history. Botanic gardens were, in a broad social sense, a demonstration of enlightened orderly governance within a wide political sphere of control – a manifestation of civilization (like museums, art galleries, libraries, and scientific societies) and hence a matter of civic pride. Collectively botanic gardens today explore the connection between plants and people in all its richness and complexity.

The environmental, social, and economic consequences of biological globalization during the Great Divergence are yet to be fully assessed. They are so intricately embedded in our lives that we will probably never know. Botanic gardens were sometimes at the centre and sometimes at the periphery of this big-picture historical change, their influence sometimes for the better and sometimes not so, but their presence cannot be ignored.


This article has explored the historical factors that influenced the establishment in 1846 of a botanical garden in Melbourne, Australia.
Firstly, there were the long-term and broad-scale land management practices that were so familiar to the European and alien to the Aboriginal: the origins of plant cultivation and domestication; the connection between agriculture, urbanization, and the first urban gardens; and the beginnings of botanical science and its role in helping us distinguish what we mean by ‘botanic garden’.

Secondly, there were the more recent factors relating to the European Great Divergence: the Renaissance and revival of botanical learning; development of science and technology, and its consequences for botany; the Age of Discovery and the European pursuit of strategic and economic colonial interests that passed from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions; the Enlightenment voyages of scientific discovery culminating in those by France and Britain, the global redistribution of vegetation and the settlement of Australia.

Thirdly, there were the major historical reasons for the changing character of gardens and botanic gardens in particular.

Australian settlement followed in the wake of European exploratory mercantilism in the Age of Discovery with the Portuguese and Dutch seeking to monopolize the trade in spices native to the Moluccan Islands in the Indonesian Archipelago to its north. Pacific trading and other strategic interests of the ascendant French and British followed. British interests most obviously including the need for a convict colony although Cook had seen, on his third circumnavigation of the world, flax (Phormium tenax) on Norfolk Island and ‘pines’ (Araucaria spp.) on New Caledonia and these were materials desperately needed for the cordage, ropes, sails and masts of the English navy (Frost 1980). There was always the possibility of lucrative and as yet undiscovered botanical and other resources.

Eighteenth century Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration and discovery had, under the watchful eye of Joseph Banks, combined economic botany, taxonomic botany, and ornamental horticulture as never before in an age of ‘botanophilia’. At the time of Australian settlement botanic gardens were an accepted and routine part of colonial occupation. This was the botanical and social ethos at the dawn of European Australia.

Key points

• Empirical knowledge of plants and their use as food, medicine, and other purposes dates back to the dawn of the human species but the aromatic herbs and spices acquired special significance by being associated with medicine, the spiritual, and divine

• Agriculture provided the food energy needed to support the growth of human populations that gave rise to cities

• Cities placed humans within an evolutionary environment of their own making; urban space was divided into functional units like those still used today and they included the first urban spaces we can call gardens; urban living resulted in mental categories and language that differentiated nature and culture; large populations harnessed the benefits of scale – the social complexity, specialization, technologies, and economic growth – that have subsequently facilitated material and social development and competition with other communities

• Domesticated or genetically altered plants (cultigens) first arose with the selection of cereal crops followed by the selection of other kinds of plants, especially ornamental ones, gathering pace with plant breeding based on twentieth century genetics and genetic engineering. The naming of wild plants and cultigens follows different nomenclatural codes that were instigated in the twentieth century.

• World-wide early plant studies concentrated on plant utility, mostly for food and tools, but with a special academic interest in the herbal or medicinal properties of plants. The first definitive record of an intellectual interest in plants themselves occurs in the writings of Theophrastus, student of Aristotle and Head of the Lyceum in ancient Athens. This marks the beginning of botanical science.

• Academic interest in plants remained focused on medicinal plants through the Middle Ages until the Renaissance facilitated the modern revival of botany and botanical institutions although the early modern botanical gardens of sixteenth century Italy were still medicinal in character and associated with the appointment of professors of botany within university medical faculties

• Circumnavigation of the world and the cartography of the Age of Discovery defined the spatial boundaries of the world’s major land masses and therefore the limits of its biological and other physical resources

• Modern botanical science began with the taxonomy associated with the systematization of plant knowledge prompted by the inflow of plants to Europe as a consequence of the Age of Discovery, most of the taxonomic work being done in botanic gardens. Other botanical disciplines would soon follow facilitated by new technologies like the microscope.

• Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as European political influence passed from Portugal and Spain to Holland, then France and Britain, botanic gardens looked outward to the Enlightenment-inspired botanical discoveries being made in distant lands as scientific interest in plants became wider in scope to include aesthetic considerations and the benefits derived from economic botany.

• Early modern botanic gardens with narrow scientific and instructive goals evolved into institutions that were much broader in scope. Botanic gardens today pursue local missions but their broader goals are derived mostly from the Classical world and antiquity, more recently supplemented by global environmental concerns. Collectively they explore the relationship between plants and people in all its richness and complexity

• Though agricultural landscapes date back into prehistory, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on, natural landscapes across the world composed of wild plants were increasingly transformed into cultural landscapes consisting mostly of cultigens.

• In the modern era, beginning with the Columbian Exchange, an accelerating process of global plant redistribution began consisting mostly of: temperate agricultural crops passing to the neo-Europes; socially-transforming horticultural crops like tea, coffee, sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, as well as tropical cereals, fruits and vegetables; and ornamental garden plants. Associated with this global change in vegetation was a now well-established cosmopolitan weed flora.

• In the eighteenth century the association of botanic gardens with royalty culminates in the artistic genius of Versailles and the imperial economic botany of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew before the beginning of social and horticultural democratization with its increase in social mobility, decrease in royal and aristocratic patronage, and botanic gardens becoming instruments of the state.

• Future management of planet earth demands that we understand the role of plants in global ecology, especially their impact on the biogeochemical cycling of the chemicals that underpin life itself – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water.

Media gallery

London, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens 2019

Bart Maniakowski – 2019 – 37:26

Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Melbourne

Drone Victoria – 2017 – 3:36


This article is an adaptation and extension of an article first published by R. Spencer and R. Cross in Muelleria 35: 43-94 in 2017 – ‘The origins of botanic gardens and their relation to plant science with special reference to horticultural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy‘

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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