Archaeologists date the beginning of agriculture to approximately twelve thousand years ago. From this time mankind’s fascination with plant life and botany has grown and developed. This interest has been primarily focused on the growth of food, medical developments and for economic purposes.
One of the oldest known gardens are those of the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’, although it can be argued that Aristotle developed one of the first botanical gardens with the help of Alexander the Great one of Aristotle’s students and friends. Throughout Alexander’s conquests he would send back plants from distant countries for Aristotle to study and document. However, it was not until the renaissance that botanical gardens, as we understand them today, were planted.
The very first, those in Pisa and Padua of Italy, date from the 1540s. Botanical gardens were quickly developed in the Empirical countries within Europe: Holland; France and Britain, but it was the Dutch East and West India Companies, searching both for cures for tropical diseases and new
commodities to monopolise, which set the standard. The Dutch set up botanic gardens in the Cape, Malabar, Java, Ceylon and Brazil, which exchanged plants with Amsterdam and Leyden.
After 1648 both France and Britain imitated the Dutch and formed their own overseas trading empires and were inspired in this way to also create botanical gardens in the colonies. The missionaries sent out to these new colonies needed the gardens to grow plants, flowers, vegetables, trees and animals to cultivate them, harvest them and transform them into useful forms for everyday life. What this then allowed for was a place where missionary and indigenous botanical traditions could intersect.
As the overseas trading empires grew, botanic gardens became primarily focused on the cultivation and production methods of economically valuable plants. Trade in exotic plants expanded enormously as exotic plants became fashionable throughout Europe. Eventually endangering the survival of several varieties of plants in their countries of origin, and when this happened botanical gardens became conservation specialists.
The Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) defines a modern botanic garden as “institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education.” The BGCI also indicates that there are over 2,500 botanic gardens in the world, highlighting the popularity in the global community for the preservation and study of plant life, both endangered and flourishing.
There are few botanic gardens in the Middle East, mainly due to the inhospitable climate. Temperatures are both fiercely hot and extremely cold and in this environment only plant and animal life that has adapted over thousands of years can survive. However, this is not to say that it is impossible for botanic gardens to be created in this environment. In looking at examples of today’s botanic gardens from around the world, the research has been broken into four separate areas:
Empirical botanic gardens of Europe
• Jardin des Plantes – Paris, France
• Kew Gardens – London, UK
Botanic gardens in humid environments
• Singapore Botanic Gardens – Singapore
• Huntington Botanic Gardens – San Marino, California, US
Botanic gardens in dry and arid environments
• The Living Desert – Palm Desert, California, US
• Alice Springs Desert Park – Alice Springs, Australia
• Karoo Botanic Garden – South Africa
• Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden – South Africa
The innovative botanic garden
• The Eden Project - Cornwall, UK
The empirical botanic gardens were selected as they are considered to have had the most influence on the design and basic format of many of the existing botanic gardens today. The botanic gardens in humid environments show good examples of how 19th century design was influenced by the empirical botanic gardens of Europe.
The botanic gardens in dry and arid environments highlight what has already been done in this harsh environment and provides a good idea for the possibilities of developing these harsh environments further, using innovation and modern technologies.
The innovative botanic garden was included to demonstrate what can be achieved with modern technologies to create a new generation of botanic gardens. Eden Project, Cornwall, UK, 2001
Rather than cultivating for economic purposes they focused on the science of plants as a whole. Through these routes botany benefited from a wealth of scientific insight accumulated over several centuries. However, over the last few decades, science has increasingly depended on research carried out in laboratories and there has been a decline in the importance of botanical gardens for scientific research.
On the other hand, public interest in plants and gardens is growing and for this reason plants are no longer arranged in botanical gardens by classifications, in accordance with the families to which they are related. Instead, they may be arranged through their geographical points of correspondence, in this way many botanical gardens have created charming miniature landscapes. In many conservatories one can enter little areas of rainforest, desert or misty mountain forest.
Today, the study and conservation of threatened species has become one of the most important tasks of modern botanical gardens. In achieving this, seeds and plants are exchanged between botanical gardens, yet at the same time each botanical garden tries to specialise in a particular field.