Visit to the Botanic Garden, Cambridge

Virginia Woolf’s Gardens Summer Course, 2019

Wednesday 17 July 2019. Garden historian Caroline Holmes gave us a fascinating lecture about the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and led us on a tour of the Garden. Below are some of Caroline’s notes.

University Botanic Garden, Cambridge

For over 160 years, scientists and gardeners have worked with diversity in design and natural history. These include 19thC scientists such as John Henslow, Charles Darwin, and Richard Irvine Lynch.

During the early years of the 20th century much of the pioneering work undertaken on plant genetics by William Bateson, Charles Chamberlain Hurst and Edith Rebecca Saunders was carried out at the Cambridge Botanic Garden, and it was later used for researches on plant physiology by Frederick Blackman and George Brigg, and on plant pathology by Virginia Woolf’s contemporary Frederick Tom Brooks (1882-1952).

More recently, John Gilmour, Tim Upson, and Professor Beverley Glover have been charting the development of Botany globally and within the Garden, disseminating information and influencing domestic gardening and plantsmanship.

The first British botanic gardens were established at Oxford, Edinburgh, Chelsea and Kew. Discussions for a garden in Cambridge began in the late sixteenth century. In 1760, five acres of land were purchased in the city centre. 

1825: John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) became Cambridge’s Professor of Botany. No botany lectures had been given for 30 years. Henslow was an early exponent of studying plants in their own right, inspiring in his pupil Charles Darwin (1809-1882) a love of natural science. Henslow recommended Darwin as gentleman naturalist and geologist on the voyage of The Beagle

1831: A 16-hectare green field site one mile south of the city centre on the Trumpington Road was acquired by University from Trinity Hall.

1846: The first tree was planted and finally the Garden opened to the public, demonstrating 1,600 hardy species and over 80 families. The design of the layout was carried out by Henslow, assisted by Charles Cardale Babington (1808–1895). A botanist and archaeologist who was a Cambridge contemporary with Darwin, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851. He became Professor of Botany in 1861 and wrote several papers on insects. He also wrote Manual of British Botany (1843), Flora of Cambridgeshire (1860), The British Rubi (1869) and edited the publication Annals and Magazine of Natural History from 1842. His herbarium and library are conserved by the University of Cambridge.


Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Darwin studied first at Edinburgh, then at Christ’s College Cambridge where he was greatly influenced by John Stevens Henslow (see above) and Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) priest and one of the founders of the study of geology.

1831-1836 Voyage of The Beagle. Darwin’s brief was to observe and collect specimens of plants, animals, rocks and fossils. On his return he had doubts about the doctrine that species were fixed and unchanging. Within months of his return he was informed that the specimens he had collected  were separate species, not just varieties, and the patterns he saw inspired his ideas about natural selection in 1838.

1842-1882 Darwin lived at Down House in Kent. He researched and published many works, including On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) and Fertilisation of Orchids (1862), which explores the evolutionary interactions between insects and the plants they fertilised.

Caroline Holmes

Photos by Jeremy Peters @JezPete