Author: Ben Green

Oxford Botanic Garden

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Oxford Botanic Garden
Ben Green

The Stafford contingent boarded at 7.45am on Sunday morning joining the Rudyard boarders who had left at 7.00am. Everyone hoped for a sunny day but followed Cromwell’s advice “trust in God but keep your powder dry”. There was a fine array of waterproofs which, in the event, were not needed.

Timothy Walker met us in the Garden. As ever, he kept us informed and entertained as he switched roles between lecturer, raconteur and stand-up comedian. (What I would have given for such a lecturer in my college days.)

We were taken through a brief history of the Garden which, thanks to Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, who gave £5,000 for the establishment of a physic garden, was founded in 1621. Much of the site on the banks of the Cherwell, adjoining Christ Church Meadows, had been a Jewish Cemetery until the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. Being subject to flooding it required 4,000 cartloads of muck and dung to bring the level well above the flood plain. The Earl further required that the walls were to be of a standard to match those of All Souls College, the Magdalen Tower or any of the finest buildings in the city. As we looked back at the Danby Gate we were told that it was designed and built in 1633 by Nicholas Stone, master mason to Inigo Jones. Timothy translated the Latin inscription for us; on the entry side ‘For the Glorification of God’ and on the side we looked at ‘For the Furtherance of Learning’.

Earl Danby appointed a retired German soldier, Jacob Bobart in 1642 to be the first Hortus Praefectus, a post which Timothy Walker now holds. Bobart designed the garden and acquired a considerable reputation as a gardener. Then, as now, the core of the garden was laid out in systematic beds. These are kept right up-to-date with their classification and naming for the benefit of the students. Later I wished that I had the chance to quiz Timothy when I saw that the former Convallariaceae were mostly grouped in the Ruscaceae not in the Asparagaceae, as in the latest Plant Finder. Another surprise was to see the ginger family, the Zingiberaceae lumped into the banana family, the Musaceae. (I can see my enthusiasm for keeping up-to-date waning a little.)

The importance of using as many taxonomic features as possible was illustrated for us when Timothy tested us on key features of the deadnettle family, the Lamiaceae, as we looked at the plants. (Our Group coped well and the lesson was well-learnt.)

On to the Euphorbiaceae bed where we were shown Euphorbia stygiana which had been saved from near extinction in its native habitat in the Azores. The species was studied, propagated and disseminated from the Botanic Garden where a National Collection of Euphorbiaceae is maintained. Intermediate forms between E. stygiana and E. mellifera, a native of the Canaries and Madeira, were found in the Garden. It was established that these were hybrids between the two species. They are now known as Euphorbia x pasteurii, in honour of the Oxford botanist who established their status, not the great French microbiologist. That this hybrid comes true from seed illustrates one of the routes for the creation of new species.

Moving down the garden we were shown the oldest surviving plant there, an English Yew, one of the many planted by Jacob Bobart in 1645. The female partner of this male tree had been removed to preserve the iconic view of the Magdalen Tower standing behind the Danby Gate. It served to illustrate a discourse on the medicinal value of plants and how chemicals capable of combating ovarian and testicular cancer had been extracted from the bark of the American Yew. Follow up research enabled these chemicals to be extracted from other yew species and then genetically modified yeasts were used to boost production. This male tree had produced female parts on some branches giving fertile fruits from which new trees had been produced. Timothy explained that, with plants, the cells retain the ability to use genes which would have become redundant after differentiation in most animals. Thus aerial shoots can produce roots as cuttings or layers and roots can produce shoots.

We had a brief tour of beds laid out in groupings reflecting the medicinal uses of the plants, then we were led beyond the walls to the lower garden. Here we admired the rock garden and pool, herbaceous borders and the lower bog garden. Recent developments included a vegetable garden, to widen the interest for visitors; the produce of this garden is donated to charities.

Then Timothy led us to the most impressive tree in the main garden, a Black Pine planted in 1800. To my eyes this tree is as important a landmark as the Magdalen Tower or even the Radcliffe Camera. We were told of its literary connections – J. R. R. Tolkien, a committed Christian held it in awe as did Philip Pullman coming from an opposite view of religion. With those thoughts Timothy left us to lunch and to explore the rest of the garden.

After eating sandwiches by the Mediterranean border, which gave me ideas for my walled garden, I first explored the geographic beds. Inevitably I was drawn to the systematic beds where some of the family groupings puzzled me. Then to the trees. Some, like Gymnocladus dioica, the Kentucky coffee tree and Corylus colurna, the Turkish hazel, had fascinating bark whilst Liriodendron tulipifera had perfect flowers even down to eye level and below. The splendid Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the Dawn Redwood, was planted in 1949 which must make it one of the first introduced to this country. It was only discovered in China during the second world war and the first seeds were germinated in the UK and the USA in 1948. All the trees seemed to have benefited from the exceptionally deep soil and exceeded the size of many of similar age elsewhere.

Whilst looking in the wooded border near the far wall of the garden, I was delighted by the sight of a clump of Paris verticillata in perfect bloom and my delight did not end there. On the river side of the wall stood a Betula albosinensis (planted in 1990 if my interpretation of the code was right). It had shiny pink and white-shaded bark patterned with dark lenticels.

Time to go came all too soon. For some it meant leaving the riverside, where the antics of the punters added interest: for some it was goodbye to the cafes and hostelries on the high street; for some it was to return from Christ Church Meadows and for many of us it was a wrench to leave the Garden only partly explored. I have visited the Garden several times before and will surely return before long.

First published in the Staffordshire Group Newsletter Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 33.
© Copyright for this article: Ben Green

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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