botanic Oxbridge

I am a medievalist.  I spent my academic career teaching medieval literature, especially the Middle English literature of the 14th century, and its appropriation for a vast array of artistic, social, and commercial causes by the 19th, 20th, and 21stcenturies.  I like Oxford.  Its spires, narrow sHighStreet3ChristCh.jpgtreets, and granite and limestone walls feel familiar, warm, and comfortingly ageless to me.  Names like Castle Mound, Christ Church Meadow, and Holywell and Longwall Streets—not to overlook the name of the city’s patron saint, St. Frideswide—I find pleasing to the ear and to the imagination.  Several times I taught Middle English literature in an American summer program at St. John’s College, Oxford.  And, each of those summers, I’d spend time at University Parks and the Oxford Botanic Garden.

Just recently I had occasion to find myself in that other city that makes up the British academic hegemony of Oxbridge, namely Cambridge.  Although a medieval city founded in the 13th century, Cambridge had always been a little too red brick for me, a little too Tudor with roses replacing saints as architectural adornment.  But After Eden nudged me toward the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and I am delighted that it did.  It is an amazingly well thought out and tended site.  It is, however, as different from the Oxford Botanic Garden as brick is from limestone.

The missions of both gardens are, of course, essentially the same.  They are associated with universities, dedicated to preserving plant collections, to research and education, and to public access and outreach.  But in size and overall design they differ as much as punting from the till on the Cam or from the center of the boat on the Cherwell.   The boat moves forward regardless, but the picture is different.  Oxford, the oldest botanic garden in Great Britain, was founded as a physic garden in 1621; it maintains today a medical plant collection.  The original walled garden is divided into areas of taxonomic beds along a symmetrical x-y axis.  A clear view is seen across the gardenscape from the entrance gate, past a central fountain, to the lower gate.  The two photos on the left below were taken in 2010.  The bottom photo was taken from the vantage of the lower garden, acquired in 1945, into the walled garden through the lower gate. The photo of the Danby Arch and entrance is very recent, February 2018.

In spite of the impression of Enlightment symmetry—even the herbaceous boarders in the walled garden run along straight lines—the sense of ox2010borderbeing in medieval Oxford is never lost.  The medieval city hovers right outside of the garden walls.  Magdalen College Tower or Christ Church are almost always seen in the northern or western distance, and the Cherwell borders the south and east.  Towers and taxonomy together dominate initial impressions.

ox20183          ox20182

Initial impressions, however, should not overlook the glasses houses between the east wall and the Cherwell or the conservatory housed in the main building.  Nonetheless, the area of the garden is just a little over 4 acres, not counting the Harcourt Arboretum, which became part of the Oxford Botanic Garden in 1963 and is Nuneham Courteney, about 5 miles southeast of Oxford.

Dating from 1846, the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, however, is 40 acres, with few straight lines to be seen.  The overall impression is of organic design and extended vistas.  I think that the two photos below illustrate the difference in the character of the two gardens.  Both feature displays of early blooming snowdrops, or Galanthus. The first is from the events lawn in Oxford’s walled garden; the second is from the Carter Woodlands area in Cambridge’s garden.

While snowdrops dominate as early bloomers, throughout both gardens yellow winter aconites, blue Iris Histrioides, and a smattering of crocus dot beds or open areas.  My point is that Oxford’s display is tamed and disciplined into clearly defined beds; Cambridge’s color runs free of lines and limitations.

Notice that in the right of the image from Oxford above, rectangular taxonomic beds can be seen.  Compare those with the shape of these rose beds in Cambridge.

Instead of a focus on families of plants, the overall organizing principle of the site is one of display, with woodland, fen, grass, meadow, autumn, and winter beds for example.  The winter garden is a kaleidoscope of ideas for seasonal color with pastel hellebores, bright winter aconites, rich yellows and reds of Cornus sericea and Cornus alba, and fragrant Daphne bholua.


As an educational site, Cambridge naturally has a requisite area referred to as “systematic” beds for the study and teaching of taxonomy, but instead of the traditional rectangular beds, the plantings are gathered in irregularly shaped islands.  Finally, I must mention the garden’s main walk, flanked on both sides by a stunning display of aged trees and ending in a fountain that draws the eye across the main lawn to the glass houses.

So, what then is to be made of this difference between Oxford’s and Cambridge’s botanic gardens?  No more than is to be made of the fact that gardens founded in the past 100 years tend to go by the name botanical rather than botanic. Or that the Birmingham Botanical Gardens highlights the variety of collections within it by using the plural Gardens. Oxford is older.  Cambridge is larger.  One honors the horizontal and vertical; one celebrates the curvilinear. Rock gardens, ponds, ancient trees, bright tropical flowers and bug eating plants in glass houses thrive in both.  Each labels plants meticulously; each marks its own history; each writes some larger history of human cultivation. Each preserves, celebrates, organizes, educates, and invites us into the extraordinary richness of botanical life in this created world after Eden.

The time I spent in both gardens this past winter confirmed for me that obvious contrasting qualities should not blind us to less observable comparisons.  Differences are instructive; they are not, however, necessarily evaluative.  Dissimilarities and disparities can aid in helping us understand why something is the way it is without leading us to make judgments about the worth of what it is.   And as I come to the end of this post, I realize so, too, with individual people and with cultures.  Our differences can be observed, even categorized and studied, but they need not be indicative signs of worth.  Variety can exist without value judgment, without villainy.


© Susan K. Hagen and After Eden, 2018



10 Replies to “botanic Oxbridge”

  1. I’ve seen only the Cambridge Gardens but now look forward to a visit to Oxford. Thanks for the descriptions of both—good job!


  2. It seems to me that the landscapes are as important as the specie in them. Many of the specie have become more available since they were first installed in some of these old gardens. (I realize that many of the specimens are not original, but replacements for much older specimens.) However, the landscapes are not duplicated, and not often imitated, merely because they are so ‘old’. Even where modern specie and cultiars have been added, some gardens demonstrate the style of the time in which they were developed, much like architecture does.


    1. Tony, thanks for the comment. It is nice to have a horticulturist as a reader. As we would expect, both gardens have related displays. Oxford’s “Plants That Changed the World and the places they came from” traces botanical “immigration to Britain and Ireland.” Cambridge has “The Chronological Bed” that arranges a series of bed in the order that some plants were introduced to the British Isles.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is good that they take horticulture seriously. Our native gardens are taken almost too seriously here, but the botanical gardens are sometimes embarrassing. One of my colleagues and I still joke about the California fan palms flanking the driveway of the Winchester House that are labeled as being from Africa. Seriously; ‘California’ fan palm – from Africa. The sign does not even specify a place in Africa – just ‘Africa’. hmmm.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. You will love them both. Get the modest little guidebooks as you enter. There is some interesting historical information for both gardens to be found in them.

      Liked by 1 person

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