A short history on the origin of the botanic garden

Botanic Garden - Oxford

Botanic Garden – Oxford England (click to expand)

During the Renaissance and early period of ‘Reformation’ in Europe, scholars began to take a second look at the writing of the early ‘pagan’ Greeks like Pliny the Elder, and to observe first hand the natural world around them. These early ‘scientists’ became the progenitors of the first botanic gardens.

The Jesuits may have instigated the change, but they were not the only religious order to see their duty lay in the world, not in cloistered monasteries.  During this period as many Christian monks became mendicants and turned their attention from contemplation to outreach and proselytization, they traveled to far away places in Asia and Africa, where they discovered flora and fauna not encountered at home.  Returning to Europe, they carried artifacts collected in these foreign places, including plants, the skeletal parts as well as whole animals, and minerals.  For example, one item, called ‘dragon’s blood’ and very popular with those who practiced magic, was really the resin from an exotic tree, thought to have medicinal, or healing properties.

The acquisition of new and unusual items led some Christian ‘gentlemen’ particularly in Italy, Germany, and England, to become collectors.  These collectors set up closets and cabinets of curiosities, some of them eventually evolving into modern museums.

Wikipedia says (written by one of my historian colleagues):

cabinet of curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined. They were also known by various names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer (“art-room”) or Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”).

Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnology, archeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.”

[…} Besides the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe also formed collections that were precursors to museums.

Some Christians, disturbed by the upheaval and change they witnessed during this era eschewed the introduction of unknown flora and fauna as well as diverse and conflicting theologies while others welcomed the change with growing wonder. Many wished to re-introduce the ‘basics’ of the Old Testament.  Eventually, some came to believe one way to do this was to reestablish the Garden of Eden on Earth.

Thus the garden that had once been the apothecary’s domain became the domain of zealous Christians who believed if they could bring all the animals and plants in the world together in one location, they could re-create Paradise. From this, early endeavor botanic gardens and zoos were born.

So remember, the next time you visit a botanic garden…it is a little bit of paradise and you are nearer God’s heart in a garden than any place else on earth.

 This post will be linked to Nature Notes.  Thank you Michelle for this lovely meme.

23 thoughts on “A short history on the origin of the botanic garden

  1. Pingback: Nature Notes (#238)~Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit | ~RAMBLING WOODS~

  2. Great post… I don’t think we could ever re-create paradise, but we definitely need to take better care of God’s creation. I consider my gardens a gift from God and my own little glimpse of paradise. 🙂


  3. The iris are so beautiful (they are our daughter’s favorite flower and color and so make me think of her). Such interesting information about botanical gardens … I have heard or read the term ‘cabinet of curiosity’ before, it is interesting to learn the origin of it. And I always loved that quote at the end ….


  4. This is so very interesting. You know how much I love botanic gardens and love going to them whenever we travel. I never realized there was such history behind them. Thank you, Dianne.


  5. Thank you for this interesting history. I would have thought it would more the work of aristocracy than that of the Christian clergy that introduced the world to botanical gardens.


    • Often, members of the aristocracy like Charles I were obsessed with collecting and could afford to do it., However, with the rise of the Middle (Merchant) Class, wealthy non-aristocrats became collectors. Religious zealotry was not exclusive to members of the clergy.


  6. I had known only some of that. Thanks. Here, many of us are trying for low water gardens which are our form of heaven on earth.

    I swiped my tree to use on my blog today. Yes, mam, I gave you credit. 🙂


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