History of the Botanic Garden

Founded in 1621

The Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 when Sir Henry Danvers, gave five thousand pounds (equivalent to £3.5 million today) to set up a physic garden for "the glorification of God and for the furtherance of learning". Today the Garden is still committed "to promoting learning and glorifying nature".

The walls and arches were built on such a grand scale that by the time they were finished in 1633 all the money had been spent and there was nothing left to pay for the running of the Garden. The walls are a perfect legacy as they enable us to grow a range of plants from around the World and have not been significantly changed or modified since they were completed almost 380 years ago.

In 1642 the Garden gained its first Curator, Jacob Bobart. For the first seven years the University failed to pay his salary. During this time he helped to make ends meet by selling fruit grown in the Garden. Among these fruits was the medlar (Mespilus germanica) that is listed in the Garden's first catalogue of plants that was published in 1648.

The oldest tree in the Garden is an English yew that was planted by Bobart in 1645. Although at the time they were not planted for their medicinal properties, yew trees now provide the raw material for two important cancer drugs, paclitaxel (taxol) and docetaxel (taxotere). How appropriate that the oldest plant in a former physic garden is now providing us with life-saving medicines.

Another Bobart

Bobart was succeeded as curator by his son, Jacob Bobart, who also took on the role of Professor of Botany at the University. During his time at the Garden, Bobart the Younger compiled a list of species in the Garden from which he had collected seeds. This list was sent to other botanic gardens with the suggestion that seeds could be exchanged for mutual benefit. This was the forerunner of the annual seed lists that are now published and circulated by botanic gardens all over the World. Many of the plants growing in the Garden today have come to us through this International Seed Exchange.When Bobart the Younger retired in 1719 the Garden fell into disrepair. The man who saved the Garden was William Sherard. He had been an undergraduate at Oxford and had then travelled extensively, collecting plants from around the World. He recognised the unfulfilled potential of the Garden and when he died in 1728 he left money to endow a professorial chair in Botany. Today's Sherardian Professor of Botany is Liam Dolan who leads an international research group in the University and yet continues to be Keeper of the Botanic Garden. Sherard attached a series of conditions to his donation. The most important being that the University should give £150 each year towards the running of the Garden, thus ensuring that the Botanic Garden receives an annual budget. This continues today, although the sum is somewhat more significant.

Inspirational Trees

In 1787 John Sibthorp was appointed Sherardian Professor at the Botanic Garden following the resignation of his father. Sibthorp was the original workaholic (unlike his father) and he travelled widely in Greece and the Aegean. However, it was on his travels through Northern Europe in 1790 that he collected the seed of the black pine tree Pinus nigra var. nigra that is now one of the largest trees in the Garden. He sent the seed back to his head gardener, John Foreman. The resulting sapling was planted out in 1800 by James Benwell making it the oldest specimen of this species in Britain. It has grown into a magnificent tree. It was the favourite tree of J.R.R. Tolkein and more recently it provided inspiration for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Charles Daubeny

The arrival of Charles Daubeny as Sherardian Professor of Botany in 1834 saw another major change in the Garden's fortunes. Daubeny was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, a passionate scientist and a very wealthy man. Perhaps Daubeny's most remarkable achievement at the Botanic Garden was the creation of the Water Lily House with its huge tank. In 1849 the Duke of Devonshire invited Daubeny to join a party of eminent botanists and horticulturists at Chatsworth House to come and see their plant of Victoria amazonica. This was the first time that the Victoria water lily had flowered in this country. As soon as Daubeny saw it he stated that he simply must have one and he returned to Oxford to build the Lily House and the tank. He successfully grew and flowered the Victoria in 1851 and then charged the people of Oxford a shilling to come and have a look. The people of Oxford not only stayed away but also wrote aggrieved letters expressing their concern at paying to see just one single plant. By 1859 we had stopped growing Victoria and the plant was not grown at Oxford again for almost 150 years. Today we grow Victoria cruziana enabling visitors of all ages to marvel at the large round 'pie dish' like leaves, strong enough to support a sitting child.