A Brief History of Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain, with nearly 400 years of botanical history


Danby Gate (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Founded in 1621 by Sir Henry Danvers, the first Earl of Danby, it was established as a Physic Garden. 
Physic gardens are collections of medicinal plants. Many botanic gardens developed from them.

Danby Gate (1853)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The Danby Gate, at the entrance to the Botanic Garden, was completed in 1632.

At the top of the Gate sits the bust of Sir Henry Danvers. In 2018, Danby Gate underwent some conservation work, restoring it to its former glory.   

Jacob Bobart the Elder (c1599-1680) (1642)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Bobart the Elder (c1599-1680) was appointed first Superintendent of Oxford Physic Garden. Bobart was an eccentric. Besides running the Garden, he owned a pub on Oxford High Street, called the Greyhound, was accompanied by a goat, and placed pieces of silver in his beard on days of celebration.

The year in which Bobart was appointed Superintendent was also the year in which the English Civil War commenced. However planting of the Garden continued throughout this period. 


The yew tree in the Walled Garden is the oldest plant in the collection. It was planted in 1645 by Bobart the Elder. The medicinal properties of the yew were not known at the time and it was planted as a part of a row of ornamental hedges. We know now that the yew has important medicinal properties and is used in cancer therapy.

Catalogus plantarum horti medici Oxoniensis (1648)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


In this year the first scientific list of the Garden’s plants was published. Entitled ‘Catalogus plantarum horti medici Oxoniensis’. It was published anonymously but is generally attributed to Jacob Bobart the Elder. 

Inside Catalogus plantarum horti medici Oxoniensis (1648)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Ostensibly it served as a compendium of the 1369 plants grown in the Botanic Garden at the time, with species described by both Latin names and colloquial (local) names. Today it provides an historic reference for the plant collection established by Bobart in the early years of the Garden.
Care has been taken to include representatives of Bobart’s original plant collection to show the plants that were first cultivated in at the Botanic Garden.

Robert Morrison (1620-1683) (1660)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Scottish botanist Robert Morison was appointed the first Professor of Botany in 1660. In 1669 he began a project, Historia Plantarum Universalis Oxoniensis, to classify all the plants then known.  

Stripped bittersweet herbarium specimen (1680)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


In 1679 Bobart’s son Bobart the Younger (1641-1719) was made Superintendent of the Garden. Bobart the Younger worked at the Botanic Garden for the duration of his career, first working for his father and then as the Superintendent himself. Bobart had a life-long friendship with English diplomat William Sherard (1659-1728) and together they shared an enthusiasm for herbaria (dried plant collections).
Bobart’s herbaria comprised the founding collection of the ‘Oxford University Herbaria’, which today contain over a million plant specimens.

Willam Sherard (1659-1728) (1728)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


William Sherard (1659-1728) leaves a legacy to endow a professorial chair of botany at Oxford University. This professorship still exists and is known as the Sherardian Professor of Botany.

CottonOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Two conservatories designed by William Townsend (c.1676-1739) were constructed. This allowed the Garden to grow ‘about 900 exotics in pots’, including coffee, tea, cotton, sugarcane and pineapples.
Glasshouses were expensive to run and they consumed approximately 40 percent of the Garden’s budget between 1735 and 1754.

Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747) (1734)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747), a German botanist, became the first Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford.

Hortus Elthamensis (1732)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Dillenius wrote and illustrated Hortus Elthamensis, published in 1732. This flora described the exotic plants cultivated by the apothecary James Sherard (1666-1738). Reproductions of the illustrations from this flora can be seen printed on the walls of the Garden’s Herbarium Room.

Linnaeus, Carolus 1707 - 1778LIFE Photo Collection


In 1736 there was an important historic visit to the Garden by the ‘Father of Taxonomy’, Carl Linnaeus. Carl Linnaeus was an important Swedish botanist noted for his work on taxonomy (the science of classifying living organisms). 

Ananas comosus - a symbol of wealth (1749)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The first pineapple was grown.
Pineapples were once a symbol of status and wealth. Homegrown pineapples presented on banqueting tables were perceived to be a mark of social and intellectual distinction.

Charles Daubeny (1834)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Charles Daubeny was appointed Professor of Botany.
Upon appointment he renamed the Oxford Physicke Garden to the ‘Oxford Botanic Garden’.

View towards the Professor's House in 1871 (1871)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Daubeny had a close professional relationship with botanist William Baxtor (who was appointed Curator of the Garden in 1813) and together they redesigned the Garden, creating planting schemes to make the Garden appealing to the public.

Water Lily House in 1870 (1870)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The glasshouses were built in the location they occupy today. The pond in the Water Lily House is the original structure that was custom-built to cultivate the giant Amazonian water lily (Victoria amazonica), which is still grown at the Garden today along with its relative V. cruziana

Plant physiology research laboratory in the 1940s. (1940)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


This was an important period for plant sciences at Oxford. The Department of Botany was established at the Garden, along with the Taxonomic Beds and Charles Daubeny oversaw the introduction of a new lecture theatre, now known as the Daubeny Lecture Theatre. The room later became the Daubeny Laboratory, before reverting back to a lecture theatre.

Dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The first female gardeners were employed by the Botanic Garden during the 1940s.

During the same decade the Lower Garden was annexed and in 1949, the dawn redwood, (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) raised from one of the original seed collections following the tree’s discovery in 1941, was planted in the Walled Garden.


The Harcourt Arboretum at Nuneham Courtney became associated with the Garden. Thanks to the Arboretum’s different soil conditions, the plant collection was broadened to include acid-loving shrubs and trees.

1970s Glasshouse redevelopment (1971)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The glasshouses were rebuilt. These are the glasshouses that exist in the Garden today.

Palmer's Leys MeadowOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The ‘Friends of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum’ were established. In 2006 the Friends supported the purchase of Palmer’s Leys, dramatically expanding the footprint of Harcourt Arboretum. 

Black pine by Rosemary WiseOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The Oxford Florilegium Society was established. The Oxford Florilegium produce botanical illustrations for archival purposes, documenting the living collections at the Garden and Arboretum, providing Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum with an invaluable resource for the future.​

White mulberry (2020)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


The cunning smile of the Cheshire Cat appeared in our Literary Woodland in the form of a sculpture by Julian Warren, inspired by Lewis Caroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

Dæmon Sculpture (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


Will and Lyra’s bench from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ is located in the Lower Garden, by the Water Garden. In 2019 a sculpture by Julian Warren was placed behind the bench. The sculpture features the Dæmon of Will and Lyra as well as Philip Pullman’s very own Dæmon, the raven.

The storm and the yew (2020)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


In February 2018, Storm Ciara swept across the UK causing national disruption. Formerly standing tall, two thirds of the yew fell victim to the storm. Devastating though this may seem, yews have an incredible ability to rejuvenate, and the tree is anticipated to make a full recovery.
The longevity of yews is owed in part to their ability to regenerate. Dying or dead wood may look disconcerting, however collapsing branches are able to take root self-propagate. This can make it very difficult to age a yew accurately, however thanks to old records we know the exact year this particular yew was planted.
Bobart’s yew is still a youngster and doubtless will recover to endure many storms in the future.

Danby Gate after 2018 conservation work (2018)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum


25 July 2021 marks the 400th anniversary of Oxford Botanic Garden and four centuries of botany in Oxford.

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