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The History of Botanic Gardens

Gardens and the cultivation of plants have been around for thousands of years with the first examples dating to around 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Romans were also keen gardeners and they were also aware of the medicinal properties of plants. Following on from the Romans in identifying the medicinal properties of plants were the monks. They also used the beauty of plants and flowers as a celebration of god. The first of these monastic gardens was created in the 8th century. These gardens were the pre-cursor to the physic gardens that appeared in the 16 century.

None of the gardens mentioned so far can be regarded as “botanic gardens” though. A botanic garden is not an easy thing to classify (see the definition page for a detailed definition) though an underlying scientific basis is a necessity. Therefore the world’s first botanic gardens were the physic gardens of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first of these physic gardens was the garden of the University of Pisa which was created by Luca Ghini in 1543. Following this other Italian universities followed suit and gardens were created in Padova (1545), Firenze (1545) and Bologna (1547). These gardens were purely for the academic study of medicinal plants. By the 16th Century these medicinal gardens had spread to universities and apothecaries throughout central Europe such as Cologne and Prague. The University of Oxford botanic garden was the first garden established in the United Kingdom in 1621 with a mission to promote learning and the glory of god.

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The Botanical Gardens of Padua University as seen in a 16th Century Print

Botanic gardens then experienced a change in usage during the 16th and 17th century. This was the age of exploration and the beginnings of international trade. Gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid were set up to try and cultivate new species that were being brought back from expeditions to the tropics. Not only did these gardens promote and encourage botanical exploration in the tropics they also helped found new gardens in the tropical regions to help cultivate these newly discovered plant species. The British established Calcutta Botanic Gardens in 1787 while the French set up Pamplemousse Botanic Gardens in Mauritius in 1735 and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid established the botanic gardens of La Orotava on Tenerife. These tropical gardens were created almost solely to receive and cultivate commercial crops such as cloves, tea, coffee, breadfruit, cinchona, palm oil as well as chocolate. It was during these times that Para rubber was introduced to Singapore, teak and tea to India and breadfruit, pepper and star fruit to the Caribbean.

These tropical gardens could not strictly be called “Botanic Gardens” as there was no real scientific basis to their work and this almost led to their decline. Separate institutions and schools of agriculture were developed which meant that these ‘cultivational’ gardens were almost redundant.

During the 19th and 20th century municipal and civic gardens were created throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth. Nearly all of these gardens were mainly pleasure gardens with very few of them having any scientific programmes. Missouri botanic garden is an exception to this and was among the first botanic gardens to be established in the United States of America in 1859. The U.S. Botanic Garden has been continuously operating and open to the public since 1850, and its plant collection was established and has been maintained since 1842. No longer existing is the Elgin Botanic Garden, which was established in 1801 by Dr. David Hosack who developed and studied a vast medicinal plant collection in New York City. However, during this section of botanic garden history the primary scientific activities undertaken by gardens was the labelling of collections correctly and exchanging seeds on a worldwide basis. 

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The Glasshouse at Missouri Botanic Garden

In the last 30 years botanic gardens have seen a revival as scientific institutions due to the emergence of the conservation movement. They are now seen as very important due to their existing collections and the scientific knowledge they posses in the propagation of plant species. Conservation is now seen in many gardens as their rasion d’etre. The beginning of this was seen in the 1970’s when IUCN began encouraging ex situ conservation of threatened plants.

There are now currently 1775 botanic gardens and arboreta in 148 countries around the world with many more under construction or being planned such as the first botanic garden in Oman which will be one of the largest gardens in the world once it is completed and will house the first large scale internal fog-forest in a huge glasshouse.