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Uncovering the Secrets of Cambridge Botanic Garden

Published on February 22nd 2020
Cambridge University Botanic Garden in the winter sun
Like a book that you enjoy reading and re-reading, Cambridge University Botanic Garden is a comforting presence to dip in and out of while discovering something new every time. Over many years, that is just what I have done.
A close up of a pond

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Cambridge University Botanic Garden is the most visited garden of its kind in the UK and it’s not just botany students that flock to its extensive collection. Among the visitors are more than 100 species of bird, including a pair of sparrowhawks and the increasingly rare song thrush. Established in 1846, the garden boasts over 8000 species encompassing nine national collections from fetching Fritillaries and elegant Bergenias to unusual shrubs. The much older western side is framed by a canopy of mature trees and home to Systematic Beds, with herbaceous temperate plants laid out to aid teaching. The eastern half of the garden, which was developed in the 1950s opens out onto a drought-tolerant meadow, a scented garden and spectacular planting arrangements. In between, pollinators dance among the bee borders, while those feeling brave should sniff out Titan Arum, aka the Corpse Plant, so-called for its pungent whiff. A visit to Cambridge University Botanic Garden wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the infamous apple tree, said to be a descendant of the species under which Newton discovered the theory of gravity. Family-friendly activities range from craft workshops to educational talks and tours.

Cambridge Botanic Garden opened its gates in 1846. It was created by John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany and formidable teacher who wanted to showcase plants to students and the public.
The meandering paths that lead you past trees, shrubs and herbs arranged in family relationships, illustrates the ideas of that time about variation within species.
These ideas were later taken to a familiar conclusion by Henslow's most famous student, Charles Darwin.
University of Cambridge Botanic garden in winter
The planting reflects the relationships between plants
The oldest part of the garden has the older, more established trees all arranged in family groups. This part, in the west of the garden, was designed to be place of beauty and botanic study.
Here you can see the similarities in beeches, oaks and birches.
The tree collection established then was inspired by the many introductions arriving in the 19th century.
Among the historic trees are the first specimens of dawn redwood and giant redwood to be planted in this country.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides at University of Cambridge Botanic Garden
Metasequoia glyptostroboides - dawn redwood
Still thriving here are the well-grown Pinus nigra subsp. pallasiana_ and Cedrus libani planted by Henslow on the Main Walk.
No matter the time of year, any time I go to Cambridge Botanic Garden, I find something to admire and enjoy. Autumn is best showcased around the lake and rock garden. One of my favourites is Liquidambar styraciflua 'Worplesdonn'.
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Liquidambar styraciflua on lake
Liquidambar styraciflua on the lake
In the 1950s, the garden was extended to fully occupy the eastern part of the site.
Here, there is a strong sense of 20th-century ecology, especially among the Scented, Winter and Dry Gardens.
They are all small and domestic in scale and the plants you will see can all be sourced from garden centres and nurseries.
In 1979, Cambridge Botanic Garden was the first botanic garden in the UK to create a Winter Garden, and in 2019 it celebrated its 40th birthday.
the entrance to the winter garden at the university of cambridge botanic garden
The entrance to the Winter garden
I love seeing the stems, berries and foliage that shine or sparkle in the winter garden scene.
The Scented Garden is one that I go back to time and again. With its examples of plants that have aromatic leaves and flowers, it's hard not to.
the scented garden
The Scented Garden
The Dry Garden showcases the plants that will thrive in hot and dry soils and won't need too much watering.
The dry garden at university of cambridge botanic garden
The Dry Garden
Although Cambridge Botanic Gardens offers a place to relax and enjoy the scenery, the gardens hold more value for those who seek it.
First and foremost, the garden is always described as a living plant collection housed within a series of gardens on a 16ha heritage-listed site.
The old main gate at university of cambridge botanic garden
The old main gate
The collection includes 8,000 species, including nine Plant Heritage National Collections.
It also offers a 'cradle-to-grave' education programme so that every age group, from three-year-olds right through to adults, so everyone can take advantage of what the site offers.
Currently, 10,000 school children visit the garden each year, and the overall number of visitors is around 300,000 and rising.
The gardens are also home to some of the leading research programmes on plant evolution, ecology, taxonomy and conservation.
Understanding Plants Sainsbury Lab
The Sainsbury Laboratory opened in 2011 and researches the processes behind plant development
There are also many species of wildlife present. Some 25 years of bird-nesting on the site had been recorded, and there is a bee garden specially designed for attracting pollinators.
Bee border
The Bee Borders are specially designed for pollinators
The original Systematic Beds, which were used to group plants into families and species, were designed in 1846 by Andrew Murray, the first Curator of the Cambridge Botanic Garden.
They comprise over 160 island beds arranged across some 11ha and now form a significant part of the citation in the garden's Grade 11 listing.
During recent years, they have undergone a series of horticultural renovations and curatorial improvements to modernise their scientific relevance.
THe systematic beds at the cambridge university botanic garden
The systematic beds
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Near the Systematic Beds is one of the newer introductions to the garden, the Rising Path, a beautiful wooden structure that rises from ground level to give an elevated view over the systematic beds.
the rising path at cambridge botanic garden
The Rising Path offers visitors an overview of the groupings of plants and the way the beds have been reworked
Among the views from the building is one towards Cory Lawn and Cory Lodge.
Christopher Bradley-Hole and Brita von Schoenaich (Bradley-Hole Schoenaich Landscape Architects) were commissioned to create a new landscape for this area to unify the heritage architecture of Cory Lodge and the contemporary style of the Sainsbury Laboratory.
Growing against the wall of Cory Lodge is my favourite Ginkgo specimen that has been trained as an espalier since 1987. On the Cory Lawn, there is also a huge Indian bean tree.
I once planted this potential giant in a small urban garden before I learned how large it could grow: an immediate benefit of visiting the Cambridge Botanic Garden regularly!
Near the Cory Lodge is a peaceful and spacious place to stop for a restoring drink or meal. The restaurant terrace of the Cafe is cooled in summer by the shade of the geometric shapes of a line of table-top pruned limes, Tilia henryana.

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