Botanic Gardens, Gardens

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

January 15, 2017

RBGE Botanic Cottage, courtesy of Simpson & Brown Architects from Resourcing Scotland’s Heritage

In mid-December the Botanic Cottage at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) was officially opened by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal.  While such an occasion might go unnoticed by many, I had visited the RBGE during New Year’s two years ago and duly impressed (and secretly wishing to return) have been following the progress of the garden and Botanic Cottage through social media.

Simultaneously the oldest and newest building at RBGE the story of the Georgian style Botanic Cottage, a modest building that was saved by a community campaign and reconstructed with the express intention of nurturing public engagement, parallels the story of the RBGE, founded in 1670.

The second oldest botanic garden in Britain (following Oxford) the RBGE began as Scotland’s first physic garden.  Originally sited on what is described as a modest patch of ground no bigger than a tennis court at Holyrood Park, the Garden relocated out of the city center on a 5 acre site on Leith Walk and later transferred the plant collections of its Leith Walk site to Inverleith.

John Ainslie, Map of Edinburgh 1804 (detail)

The garden is overseen by the official sounding Regius (Royal) Keeper appointed with assent by the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.  John Hope, Regius Keeper from 1761-1786, commissioned the Botanic Cottage.  Hope, a physician, botanist and teacher, is credited with unifying the Royal Botanic Gardens and obtaining a permanent endowment establishing “arguably the first Royal Botanic Garden.”

Dr. John Hope, Professor of Botany in the University of Edinburgh, Kay’s Originals, vol 2, page 412

Originally located at the entrance to the Garden the cottage contained classrooms, lecture spaces and housing for the head gardener.  Designed by architects John Adam and James Craig (who also planned Edinburgh’s New Town), the Botanic Cottage was completed in 1765.  In 2009, the same year that RBGE’s  biodiversity and visitor center (named in honor of Hope) was opened, the Botanic Cottage Trust was founded to save and repurpose the building, valued for both its connection to the New Town construction and importance to the Scottish Enlightenment.

Rendering of Botanic Cottage by Simpson and Brown, project architects

At 70 acres in size the RBGE is dedicated to international research, conservation work and serving as both an educational and community resource.

While it contains the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside of China, the garden is also home to a Scottish Heath Garden, a Rock-Garden with more than 5,000 alpine plants and extensive collections of trees and shrubs.

Inverleith House, designed in 1773 by David Henderson, is at the garden’s center. The home of Sir James Rocheid it was gifted, with surrounding land to the Crown in 1877 for the RBGE. Inverleith House is currently used as exhibition space (it was once the home of the garden’s Regius Keeper).

One quarter of the RBGE’s living collection is housed in an extensive series of glasshouses including the Victorian Tropical Palm House, the garden’s oldest, and the Temperate Palm House.

The restored Victorian Tropical Palm House, the largest in Britain, is the entrance to a series of ten-climatically-controlled Glasshouses containing a full range of diverse environments.

In 2006 the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden opened.  Centered on a contemporary parterre, the garden was designed by Lachlan Stewart of Anta Architecture using plantings that celebrate the Queen’s travels.

The Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden’s design is based upon the motif of the historic Eassie Cross near Glamis Castle.  Four geographical regions are represented in each of its corners and a labyrinth, planted with bog myrtle, is at the garden’s center.

The RBGE contains sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Adam and Ian Hamilton Findlay. Visit RBGE’s Garden Stories to learn more about the garden’s sculpture collection.

Ascending Form (Gloria) by Dame Barbara Hepworth, 1958

Ian Hamilton Findlay w/Michael Harvey, Umbra Solis, Sundial, 1975

Visiting gardens during the winter months can be a testy business. The rewards, should the weather cooperate, are multi-faceted as the landscape can be experienced through the lens described by American painter Andrew Wyeth in one of my favorite quotes; “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”

In the case of the RBGE a lasting impression of my visit was of the magnificent collection of trees, whose dark silhouettes contrasted with a slight frosting of dew.  To my delight, I discovered that the RBGE offers a tree adoption program.  To learn more visit:

The Royal Botanic Garden’s mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future.”  The website notes that without plants, there would be no life on earth and RBGE’s world class Living Collection, Herbarium and Library ensure that the facility is well placed to contribute to the ongoing process of documenting and conserving the world’s diversity of plant life.

For additional information about RBGE and the history of the Botanic Cottage:

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Simpson and Brown Project Sheet 

Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Pat Webster January 16, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    The Botanics is a great place to spend time. In addition to the parts you outline, I love the enormous beech hedge. wider than outstretched arms. Soaking up the sun on the long and beautifully designed bench near an opening cut through the hedge, admiring the long border in front of me and contemplating the pleasures to come in the greenhouses is a favourite memory of my visit in 2016.

    • Reply Patrice January 16, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      It’s a lovely garden well-defined by its trees which deftly balance vistas with intimate spaces. I do not know what season you visited (perhaps not January when the greenhouses are a verdant respite). I myself look forward to returning in the height of summer.

  • Reply Pat Webster January 17, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    I’ve been there two years in a row, both times in September. I’d like to go in summer or spring… or even in winter! Of the many botanic gardens I’ve visited, this one comes close to being top of the list. It’s not too large and there is a very congenial atmosphere throughout.

    • Reply Patrice January 18, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      September strikes me as a perfect time to visit and I imagine that the light must be beautiful into the early evening hours. As for the garden’s scale it is a perfect balance of being large (and diverse) enough to explore on multiple visits yet does not overwhelm. I look forward to returning soon.

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