Dear Readers, I have always been interested in the history of botanical gardens, and their role in conservation, so this talk by Dr Shahina Ghazanfar intrigued me. Dr. Ghazanfar works for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and her specialisms include the plants of Oman and Iraq. The title of the talk is a little misleading, as the subjects covered ranged much more widely than I expected, but I learned a lot, and that is always a good thing! The talk covers a) the history of plants and human beings, and how they are intertwined, b) the history of botanical gardens in the ancient Middle East and elsewhere, and finally c) the cultural history of plants, and how specific it can be to place. Dr Ghazanfar concludes with thoughts about the role of the botanical garden in the future, specifically to the preservation of a plant’s cultural context.
Dr Ghazanfar began by explaining that plants have always been the companions of human beings: even before agriculture, there’s evidence that favoured plants were carried as seeds and used for medicinal or ritual purposes. But once people became more sedentary, the first gardens were planted, mainly for food – it helped to know where to find key crops, rather than having to spend time foraging.
From Neolithic times (12000 BCE) plants and domesticated animals were moved from their places of origin, to such an extent that it’s now hard to know where some of our key crops actually originated. However, there is evidence that there were food surpluses from about 3000 BCE which drove trade between different parts of the world – East Africa, the Middle East, South East and Southern Asia were already economically involved with one another, and linguistics has been able to show the way that plants from one culture were incorporated into another.
Dr Ghazanfar moved on to talking about Egypt in particular. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the art of cultivation was taught to humans by the gods, in particular Osiris, and the fertile floodplains of the Nile were vital for the survival of the civilisation. Floral collars were an important part of funerary rites – they included olive, which was not native to Egypt but was grown specifically for this purpose. Plant inventories of the time include such plants as tamarisk, pomegranate, myrtle, figs, sycamore, willow, moringa, date and doum palms and carob, most of which are alien species cultivated for particular purposes.
Doum Palm (Hyphaene thebaica) (Photo Two)
Wine and viticulture were known in Egypt and Mesopotamia from as far back as 3000 BCE, and in 128 BCE traders from the areas now known as Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) brought vines and wine to China for the first time.
Moving on to botanical gardens, Dr Ghazanfar explained that the first such gardens were physic gardens, for medicinal plants, or were meant to showcase different methods of cultivation. Subsequently they were for pleasure or status, to show off the strange and varied plants that could be grown. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that they began to have scientific and conservation importance. However, they have always had a role in preserving history and culture.
The earliest known botanical garden is the Royal Garden of Thotmes (3000 BCE), adjoining the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and planted by Nekht, the head gardener of the temple. It contained vine pergolas and doum palms surrounding a rectangular pond containing lotuses, and was most likely a pleasure garden.
The Ancient Greeks didn’t appear to have botanical gardens, although Aristotle does mention a garden that he left to Theophrastus (270-287 BCE) after his death – Theophrastus subsequently improved it, and left a guide to the 500 plants that it contained.
What, though, of the most famous of the botanical gardens of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Dr Ghazanfar explained that these were most likely not in Babylon but in Nineveh at the Palace of Sennacherib, in the north west corner of what is now Iraq. It would have had an extremely sophisticated watering system, as the plants were arranged in tiers. Mostly the plants were grown for their decorative values, but some that provided the more exotic fruits for the palace would also have been grown. Sennacherib was an Assyrian king who ruled from 705-681 BCE, and there are drawings from the garden during the time of his successor, Ashurbanipal, which show the plants arranged in beds. It’s difficult to see what plants were included, but some clearly resemble cypresses and date palms.
Relief of the gardens of Nineveh (Photo One)
At approximately the same time, the King of Babylon also had a garden, and there are cuneiform tablets from this time split into sections, with details of which plants were planted in which bed. Frustratingly, we still don’t know which plants were represented, but it certainly shows a fine degree of organisation.
However, Dr Ghazanfar considers that the Chinese emperor Wu Tai (140-86 BCE) was the creator of the first botanical garden as we would understand it. He sent out collectors not just to other parts of China but right into Central Asia and the Middle East to bring back plants, and is credited with being the first person to cultivate the vine, pomegranate, safflower, common bean, cucumber, lucerne, coriander and walnut in China.
In Spain, gardens in Cordoba, Toledo and Seville built during the 8th to 11th centuries are thought to be the precursors of the Renaissance garden, though they were largely designed to enable agricultural experimentation – during the Al Andalus period there was a great flowering of scientific inquiry by Islamic scholars, and treatises were written on subjects such as the production of linseed oil from flax.
The oldest academic botanical garden that is still in its original location is the Orto Botanico di Padova in Padua, founded in 1545. It represents an understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, and has contributed to many of the sciences, from ecology and chemistry to botany and pharmacy.
Botanical Gardens of Padua (Photo Three)
The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was established in 1635 as the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants by Guy de la Brosse, Louis XIII’s physician.
In 1673 the Chelsea Physic Garden in London was founded as the Apothecary’s Garden, with the aim of teaching apprentices how to identify and use plants. However, the University of Oxford Botanical Garden is the oldest botanical garden in the UK, founded in 1621 as a physic garden but now one of the most compact yet diverse collections in Europe: in only 4.5 acres it contains representatives of over 90% of all known plant species, and I personally recommend a visit if you’re ever amidst the dreaming spires and need a break.
When people think about botanical gardens in the UK however, their thoughts are inexorably drawn to Kew. Founded in 1759 by Princess Augusta, mother of George III, it didn’t become a public garden until 1841. The director, William Hooker, greatly expanded the area of the gardens from 10 to 75 acres, commissioned the famous glass houses, and set up a museum of economic botany. By his death in 1865 Kew was a leading scientific institution.
Some of the key botanical introductions at Kew were the Ginkgo, first planted in 1762 (and this original tree is still growing well today), and the Pagoda tree (Sophora japonica). This latter tree is actually native to China, not Japan, and one of the original trees still survives. Five were imported to the Duke of Argyll’s estate in 1753, and this tree was transplanted to Kew when still a sapling in 1762. It’s one of the few plants that survives from Princess Augusta’s original garden.
Pagoda tree in Kew Gardens (Photo Four)
Kew has had an important role in the conservation of many endangered plants. The smallest water lily in the world, the Rwandan Pygmy Lily (Nymphaea thermarum) disappeared from the wild after its habitat was destroyed – this is the world’s smallest water lily, with flowers less than 1 cm across. Fortunately the botanists at Kew were able to grow some of the plants from seed. At the other end of the scale, the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) grows a frankly embarrassing flower some three metres tall, more or less when it feels like it – its flowering was described by Dr Ghazanfar as ‘rare and unpredictable’.
Dwarf Water Lily (Nymphaea thermarum) (Photo Five)
Titan Arum in flower (Photo Six)
In India, there are many important botanical gardens, but to mention two: the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden(founded in 1787) in Kolkata is famous for its 250 year-old banyan tree: banyan trees grow by expanding via aerial roots, and this tree now covers some 4 acres. The Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty, founded in 1848, is a high-altitude garden which was a pioneer in growing many medicinal and food plants in India, most notably Cinchona from Peru, which is the source of quinine for the treatment of malaria.
Dr Ghazanfar moved on to talking about the relationship between a plant in its native habitat and its culture, and how the connection is often lost when a plant is cultivated elsewhere. She also described how, with climate change, some plants can no longer survive in their original environments. She sees a role for botanical gardens in preserving these links.
The Date Palm, for example, is mentioned extensively in both the Koran and the Bible. In the Koran the plant is described as a source of food, fibre, shade and enjoyment. Medicinally, it is thought to help with childbirth, and the Koran specifically mentions the importance of conserving the plant. In Islamic thought, it symbolises wisdom.
In the Bible, the Date Palm symbolises holiness, resurrection, justice, righteousness and honour, and many place names derive from the sites of Date Palm groves.
In Hinduism there are five sacred trees mentioned in the Vedas – Cannabis, which is associated with Lord Shiva, Tulsi, Sandalwood, Jasmine (also identified with Lord Shiva), and Neem or Indian Lilac, associated with the Goddess Durga.
Pomegranate is another plant associated with both the Koran and the Bible: in the Koran it is seen as a blessing and as a symbol of paradise, as an exhortation not to be wasteful and to share equitably. In the Bible, it’s a symbol of feminine beauty. However, it has been a symbol of prosperity, fertility and rebirth in both the Jewish and Ancient Egyptian religions, and was recommended by the Prophet Mohammad as a fruit that purged the body of hatred and anger. Pomegranates are grown in many, many places now, but in so doing they lose the depth and breadth of cultural associations that they had originally.
Dr Ghazanfar concludes by saying that botanical gardens in the future could include the cultural significance of the plants in their collections as well as just their medicinal and culinary uses, so that these would not be lost in future, which seems like an excellent idea to me.
Photo One by By Noah Wiener , Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh – http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/hanging-gardens-of-babylon-in-assyrian-nineveh/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57158048
Photo Two by By Marco Schmidt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2855208
Photo Three by By By A. Tosini – G Agostini “dis. in. pictra” – lithographed by “Kiev”? in Venice – older version uploaded by User:Esculapio – Unknown source Reprinted in “L’Orto botanico di Padova nell’ anno 1842” by Roberto De Visiani (1842), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518901
Photo Four by deror_avi, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By C T Johansson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18578430
Photo Six by By Sailing moose – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70296828