Leiden Hortus Botanicus two years ago, Berlin Botanical Garden last year and now, Madrid. Botanical gardens are not quite what we sometimes imagine, they are not gardens in the sense of personal choice of plants and settings, and the botanical part was always absolutely fused with the growth of trade, empire, and often with the manipulation of indigenous agriculture in order to better support the economy of the colonial power. Wandering around historic botanical gardens in the 21st century, which I love to do wherever I go, it’s easy to forget the reasons why such places were made, often back in the eighteenth century.
Scrambling to stay within commercial reach of the Dutch, the French and the English was a big pre-occupation for eighteenth century Spain. The Italians had founded Pisa and Padua Botanical Gardens in the mid sixteenth century, followed by the French crown investing in le Jardin du Roi in 1626, the predecessor for the present-day Jardin des Plantes.
The Spanish crown funded numerous botanical expeditions to the Americas in particular, searching for marketable crops as well as scientific knowledge. This was the heyday of the eighteeenth century enlightenment when the acquisition of scientific knowledge, including the natural sciences, was a driving economic and philosophical force in European society. The Real Jardin Botanico was initially founded in 1755 in Madrid, and moved to the current location in 1774. Britain joined the race with the establishment of what would become Kew Gardens in London in 1772.
Nearly three hundred years later, botanical gardens are now regarded as extremely valuable scientifically in the exploration of how plants contribute to ecology, the identification of possible medical applications of plants, and for understanding what is happening with our climate and the way that nature is adapting to change.
For me nowadays, a botanical garden gives a wonderful setting, often in busy city centres, for escape into an organised natural world, which is tended and cared for so that we can appreciate plants in their natural settings. It is always interesting to come across plants and plant communities that are new or different- I love just wandering and spotting shapes, colours, leaves, flowers.
On a cold, bright February day, the garden was only slowly waking up.
This shell-pink Camellia was beautiful, though I admit to being a Camellia philistine and not a lover of pink!
The winter sun was really strong, imagine the summer!, and really brought out the colour and filigree leaf shapes of the Cycas palm.
I am going to have to find a way to grow Hamamelis.
The Graells Greenhouse, dating back to 1836 was named for Dr Graells who invented the ‘gloria’ technique, an unusual form of heating for this greenhouse for tender plants. Underground channels were filled with rotting manure, covered over with metal grilles, which produced the heat and humidity needed for the plants and released both into the greenhouse. Not sorry to have missed the manure!
This small tree, Anagyris foetida, was spectacularly laden with flowers.
Looking like Christmas decorations, the peppers glowed in the sunlight.
Would that my backstage looked as thoughtfully arranged as this. But no….