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Overwhelmed by Gardens.

What IS a garden for goodness’ sake? What exactly are we talking about? Front gardens, back gardens, rock, gravel or sensory gardens? Or perhaps kitchen gardens, show, high- or low- maintenance? Pleasure gardens, zen, wild, botanic, formal, cottage ,white, bee, natural, English, rose, historic? Gardens of Remembrance, of Eden, the garden of good and evil, flower, herb, vegetable, water, landscaped, town, public, zoological, walled ones? you probably now perceive my difficulty!

Gardens have been with us forever if we are to believe the story. That’s where we all came from; we lived in this glorious garden of Eden which man has been trying to recreate since the Fall and though it’s a pity we were obliged to leave our paradise on earth I must say I have to agree with Eve. “heaven is what I cannot reach, the apple on the tree ,provided it does hopeless hang, that heaven is to me”. And in the Islamic culture paradise gardens were made to include the sound and freshness of water and the beauty and perfume of flowers and trees; delicious fruit was always readily available for people in the garden to pick and enjoy. The spread of Islam meant that Sicily was renowned for its paradise gardens. But Italy had too another claim to horticultural fame,that of having the oldest botanic gardens.

Botanic gardens are the descendants of monasteries.These were kept for god’s greater glory but also to collect medicinal herbs and essences. At the Charterhouse of Pavia there is a formally laid out garden surround by a cloister, presumably where the monks paced to meditate, but you can also see the private garden each monk’s cell had. These monastic gardens eventually became physic gardens and the first one was created by Luca Ghini physician and botanist at the University of Pisa in 1543. Many other Italian universities followed, the garden being used for the academic study of medicinal plants while the rest of Europe followed on. The English lagged behind, the first one at the university of Oxford did not appear until 1621.

Time marches on however and with the great ages of exploration the interest moved from medicinal plants, simply showing off who had been further, explored more and got the most strange and new plants for their collections. With the Enlightenment there was a new change: gardens became more scientific. In 1735 Linnaeus published his organizational work on botany. They were becoming more “educational ” in scope, the beds often being set out to show plant classification systems. The last time I was at Cambridge University Botanic gardens there was concern about the new planting. Keep the beds in a historically valid way as they had originally been planted to illustrate plant families? Or re-arrange them according to new classification systems coming into force because of more advanced technology in classifying them? As an example, I’m sure you’ve all come across this when you go to your garden centre and the plant you have happily been calling by the same name that your mum and grandmother did, has suddenly changed its name. I remember the first time I saw my beloved Datura RENAMED Brugmansia!

So whenever you’re near to a Botanic garden, do go and visit. It should be easy because there are at least three thousand worldwide! (To be continued)

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