This research project focuses on the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) – in particular the eastern half of the Botanic Garden from the 1950s – so the answer to the question: ‘Where?’ may seem entirely obvious. Nevertheless, by their very nature, botanic gardens are outward-looking national and international, as well as local, institutions. Indeed one of CUBG’s key aims is ‘to extend knowledge of the Botanic Garden, its collections and its activities within the local, national and international communities’. The interests of the CUBG have always extended far beyond the confines of the thirty-eight acres plot between Hills Road and Trumpington Road in Cambridge.
Another key aim of CUBG is ‘to maintain a correctly-named and professionally-curated living collection representing the diversity of terrestrial green plants’. Diversity is an old French word which means ‘different or varied’. It was in the 1980s that the word was allied with ‘bio’ to create the term ‘biodiversity’, the ‘diversity of plant and animal life’, yet the desire to collect and study plants from across the globe has long been one of the keystones of this Botanic Garden and indeed all botanic gardens.
The annual reports of the Botanic Garden reveal local, national and international connections of the Garden were thriving before and after WWII, although these were curtailed during the war years (1939 – 1945). For example, in 1934, the then-director, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1921-1950) (pictured left) used his annual travel allowance towards a Christmas collecting trip to Barbados and Trinidad. Such exotic trips were atypical however. More usual in the 1930s were visits to European botanic gardens. Gilbert-Carter visited Walsertal in Austria in 1937, Norway in 1938, the Savoy region of France in 1939 and Denmark in 1940. At the same time, Bob Younger, his Garden Superintendent (now known as Curator), travelled the breadth of Britain, visiting botanic gardens, private gardens and commercial nurseries to collect and swap seeds. After WWII, Gilbert-Carter’s final foreign visit as director was to the Copenhagen Botanic Garden, Denmark in 1947. Gilbert-Carter retired in September 1950 and John Gilmour succeeded as director in March 1951.
Each year, contributions are received from – and distributed to – British and international botanic gardens and horticultural institutions. The CUBG annual report for 14th November 1951 notes the annual donations for that year; contributions were received from sixty-seven Botanic Gardens and horticultural institutions from Adelaide to Zürich, as well as fifteen British botanic organizations.
In addition to such institutional exchanges, as part of Cambridge University, the Botanic Garden is also the recipient of seeds, plants and other materials from students, staff, associates and other generous donors. Another entry in the 1951 annual report notes contributions from over fifty donors, including seeds and fern spores from Colombia, succulents from South America as well as seeds from the Aegean and Western Anatolia. In the following year – 1952 – several plant-collecting exhibitions were being sponsored in Spain, New Zealand, Ecuador and Turkey, ‘which have resulted in the addition of a large number of interesting plants to the Garden’.
Although the Cambridge University Botanic Garden may geographically be confined within thirty-eight acres, it is a microcosm of the wider world. This world is seen through the lens of British and international botanic gardens, Cambridge alumni, academics, travellers, explorers and scientists, all of whom are interested in preserving, studying and understanding the flora of the world we inhabit.