Botanic Gardens, Gardens, Landscape History, London

Oxford Botanic Garden

April 2, 2016


Oxford, where windows open into other worlds……..

It’s quite possibly a very good thing that I had not read the book I am currently reviewing, Oxford College Gardens, before my visit to the University’s Botanic Garden last June. Written by garden historian Tim Richardson the more than three hundred page volume exhaustively documents thirty-four individual garden landscapes that, in the words of the author, “help shape the identity” of the place.


Oxford is indeed busy, ever the more so since serving as a setting for the Harry Potter movies.  The frenetic nature of its public spaces is offset by the worlds within worlds existing within individual colleges and their gardens secreted behind the walls which famously enclose them. It’s not that you can’t find them, it’s just that, like for Alice, they may reveal themselves in a somewhat curious fashion.

The images above and below are from Balliol College.  To take a virtual tour visit:


Richardson asserts, that a landscape or a garden can affect the mind and its layout will help shape its identity.  The layout of Oxford has been shaped over time through both its physical and imaginary qualities.  The map below is from the book Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman.  It depicts the bench within the Oxford Botanic Garden which plays an important role in His Dark Materials Trilogy as the site where Will and Lyra meet each year at noon on Midsummer’s day to feel each other’s presence between their spirit worlds.


The Oxford Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, was the first of its kind in Britain; a physic garden where botany, medicine and practical gardening were linked in a systematic manner.

Founded as a “nursery of simples” the original garden was sited on five acres of meadowland outside the city walls leased, by Sir Henry Danvers 1st Earl of Danby, from Magdalen College.

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Sir Henry’s 5,000 pound gift built the walls and archway but were not sufficient to employ anyone to cultivate the garden requiring that the first Superintendent Jacob Bobart work both as gardener and innkeeper to support his employment.


The Danby Gate, designed by Nicholas Stone and built between 1632 and 1633 commemorates Sir Danby’s gift.

An eccentric character who according to garden historian Mavis Batey was often accompanied by a goat, Bobart was deemed an “excellent Gardener and Botanist.” During his tenure the first catalogue of plants, containing 1,600 different species, was published.  Upon his death in 1679 he was succeeded by his son, also named Jacob, who started an annual botanic garden seed exchange through which gardens continue to acquire seeds they wish to grow.



By 1734 an endowment left to the University provided support for the teaching of botany and plant science and a Keeper of the Garden, assuring its legacy as a research institution.


Today the Garden includes three sections illustrated on the map below.


Within the walled garden plants are classified thematically, including by country of origin, botanic family or use. These are arranged in family borders originally based upon the Linnean System of classification and modified through the years to reflect changing attitudes towards evolutionary relationships between groups of plants. Included are the Plant Heritage National Collection of Euphorbias and a medicinal plant collection.


Between the walled garden and Cherwell River is the lower garden. While this area has accommodated various uses, it’s current design reflects a 2009 plan by Kim Wilkie Associates to more formally integrate the area with the Walled Garden and illustrate the role of the Botanic Garden in the 21st century.



The lower garden includes a fruit, vegetable and herb collection which connects the garden to its historical uses as well as the English Herbaceous and Merton Borders.


The English Herbaceous Border, planted in 2007, is designed to look best in the summer months.

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The Merton Borders, the garden’s most recent addition, are also one of its largest cultivated areas. Planted for year round interest, these include grasses, bulbs and annuals, biennials and perennials bordered by fruit trees. The borders are dynamic and change each year. Cut back in the spring they provide visual interest throughout the winter months.



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Originally constructed in 1926, The Rock Garden is divided between plants that are both European and reflective of the rest of the world.


For more than 300 years there has been a glasshouse associated with the garden, a prominent feature sited along the River Cherwell’s banks. Within are lily, arid, palm and alpine, fernery and insectivorous houses.

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A walkway along the river provides access to  Merton Field, The Broad Walk and Christ Church Meadow,  popular walking and picnicking spots.


In keeping with its original mission “to promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature,”  the garden continues to support the study of plant biology and conservation while providing educational programs for people of all ages.


As a botanic garden it is committed to the successful implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation which works to ensure that the world’s biological diversity is preserved.

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The Oxford Botanic Garden is open throughout the year with varied hours of entry depending upon the season. A modest fee is charged.


Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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