18 January 2019

What is a botanic garden?

Maybe dating back to the 4th century BCE, the purpose of a botanic garden has changed. Sharon Willoughby, Historian and Head of Interpretation, explains how Kew fits into that journey.

By Sharon Willoughby

The Rock Garden

We all think we know instinctively what a botanic garden is – a beautiful garden where plants are labelled. 

When you sit down to think about the origins of botanic gardens and the complexity of their changing role through time, definitions become a little slippery and interesting. 

Today many different types of gardens and arboretums cluster underneath the banner of ‘botanic garden’. 

Gardens differ in style, plants, size, age, location, numbers of staff and volunteers, and mission. 

The work of botanic gardens has become more international, so there has been a need for a better definition – and others may wonder ‘what’s the difference between a botanic garden and a park?

Exactly what is a botanic garden?

Today cultivation and preservation, as well as botanical displays and carefully-selected plant collections is what sets a botanic garden apart.

The International Association of Botanic Gardens decided in 1963 that a botanic garden is a place open to the public in which the plants are labelled’.(1)

In 2019, Botanic Gardens Conservation Internationals defines a botanic garden having met a list of criteria, either in part of whole, such as:

  • Having a reasonable degree of permanence 
  • an underlying scientific basis for the collections
  • proper documentation of the collections, including wild origin
  • monitoring of the plants in the collections 
  • adequate labelling of the plants
  • open to the public
  • communication of information to other gardens, insitutions and the public
  • exchange of seed or other materials with other botanic gardens, arboreta or research insitutions
  • undertaking of scientific or technical research on plants in the collections 
  • maintenance of research programs in plant taxonomy in associate herbaria.(2)

Today, botanic gardens like Kew Gardens and Wakehurst are made up of many parts: scientific institute, collecting museum, herbarium, library, conservation organisation, educational academy, theme park, shop, café, gallery and pleasure garden.

Just like Kew, all modern botanic gardens have a role in plant science, conservation and inspiring the public to appreciate the vital role of plants and fungi to life on Earth.

Where was the first botanic garden?

The origin of botanic gardens and the title of first or oldest is a highly contested title amongst the oldest European gardens.

Most writers agree that the oldest ‘still existing’ botanic gardens date back to the 16th century in the first gardens created to train medical students in plant identification – Physic Gardens. These gardens include Pisa built in 1544, Padua and Florence in 1545.

Others argue that the first true botanic garden to have both ornamental and scientific value was Leidencreated in 1590.(3)

Others say that the garden created by Pope Nicholas IV (1221-1292) in the 13th century is the first.(4)

There may have been earlier gardens that resemble modern botanic gardens in purpose such as the 4th century BCE garden of Aristotle at the Lyceum in Athens.(5)

It is here that Aristotle collected plants sent to him by Alexander the Great.  Theophrastus used the observations he made in the garden to write Historia Plantarum.

My favourite origin story suggests that Spanish Conquistadores during the conquest of Aztec Mexico in 1519-1521 were inspired by the extensive gardens of Moctezuma at Huaxtepec created in 1467. The idea being that this extensive medicinal garden inspired Renaissance gardens in Europe.(6).

Here in the UK, the first botanic gardens were Oxford Botanic Gardens (1621), the Chelsea Physic Garden (1673) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew created from two royal pleasure gardens in 1759. 

The history of botanic gardens can show a type of progression in role, starting with the physic gardens of the 16th and 17th century, each era reflecting the concerns of its age. (7)

For example, in the 18th century, Kew had a large role in the creation of tropical colonial gardens as the empire spread looking for new plants for commerce and science.

Botanic Gardens in the 18th and 19th century were inspired by the plant research and taxonomy conducted by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.  Civic Gardens in the 19th and 20th century emphasised the horticultural splendour of their living collections. 

Botanic gardens in the 21st century

Today there are 1,775 botanic gardens in 148 countries world-wide.(8)

Unlike their predecessors, they are primarily concerned with conservation rather than collection.

Botanic gardens are amongst the most visited cultural organisations. And, along with our passionate volunteers and knowledge-hungry visitors, we are an enormous community.

Together, we’re making great strides supporting present and future plant life on planet Earth.

Why not book a visit to Kew Gardens, and save when you book online


  1. Tim Entwhistle. (2018).Talking plants: The top 10 first botanic gardens
  2. Botanic Gardens Conservation International.(2019).Definition of a botanic garden
  3. Spencer, R. Cross, R.The origins of botanic gardens and their relation to plant science, with special reference to hortiulctural botany and cultivated plant taxonomy. Muelleria, 35: 43-93.Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
  4. Rutherford, S (2015), Botanic Gardens, Oxford and New York: Shire Publications p.9. & Piazzoni, A.M., Morello, G and Bernardi, G. (2016). Guide to the Vatican Gardens. History, Art and Nature. Rome, Italy: Logart Press. p.10.
  5. Pascoe, G. (2012) 'Long Views & Short Vistas': Victoria's Nineteenth-Century Public Botanic Gardens.  North Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Scholarly, p2. & Mueller, Baron F.v. (1871)The Objects of a Botanic Garden in Relation to Industries: A Lecture delivered at the Industrial and Technological Museum Melbourne', Melbourne. and Hill, A.W, Missour Botanic Gardens,The History and Function of Botanic Gardens.
  6. Rutherford, S (2015). Botanic Gardens, Oxford and New York: Shire Publications p.9
  7. Rinker, H.B. (2002). ActionBioscience.The Weight of a Petal: The Value of Botanical Gardens
  8. Botanic Gardens Conservation International.(2019).The History of Botanic Gardens

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