1960s Ecology by Design

Key Events  Limestone Ecological Mound British Wild Flowers ● The Scented Garden  New Pinetum  Filmy Fern House David Mellor Lily Fountain ● Gilbert-Carter Memorial Grove Alpine House ● Key People 

The David Mellor Lily Fountain was installed in 1968 – 1970 at the end of The Main Walk leading from Trumpington Road.  The Lily Fountain, designed by Royal Silversmith and Designer, David Mellor (1930 – 2009), united the two sections of the original western garden and the newly developing eastern garden. Mellor took his inspiration for the seven giant water lily leaves from the giant Victoria cruziana waterlily.

Ecology and understanding plants in their natural habitats was an important scientific idea that gathered momentum during the 1960s. The development of the Limestone Ecological Mound in the British Wild Flowers section of the Garden showed a growing interest in the study and conservation of native wild flora. A local Fenland plant display area was developed next to the Ecological Mound.  During the 1960s, a large proportion of the new extension area was allotted to scientific research and experimentation focusing on the Cory Laboratories, which were located in the private section of the Garden.  Cory Labs from the Air.

With the clearance of the new Eastern Garden completed by 1960, Director, John Gilmour (1951 – 1973) turned his focus to new developments, such as the New Pinetum planted with conifer species and a Memorial Grove to commemorate former Director, Humphrey-Gilbert-Carter (1921 – 1950).  In 1959, the Garden received a further bequest from Mrs Ruth Roberts, widow of Arthur William Rymer Roberts of Trinity College.  Ruth Roberts’ bequest was used to extend and improve the Glasshouse range, including the construction of a Cool Orchid House (1960), improvements to the Filmy Fern House (1962) and enlarging the Alpine House (1965).

The Limestone Ecological Mound developed in 1962 was created to display British Native Wildflowers.  The mound was created from soil removed to make paths in the new eastern garden during the 1950s.  This creates a challenge for plants naturally conditioned to poor soils as the allotment soil was rich in phosphates.

Key Events in the 1960s
1960    Broad layout of Eastern Garden ‘is now complete’
1960    The Scented Garden is created particularly for enjoyment by blind visitors
1960   The Chronological Bed and plant collections as experimental area expands
1962    Ruth Roberts’ Filmy Fern House opens
1962    US author, Rachel Carson publishes influential book, Silent Spring
1962    Limestone Wild Flower Ecological mound is developed
1963    Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative) Prime Minister (1963 – 1964)
1964    First Fenland plant display created
1964    New Pinetum plantings begun on land released by the County Bowling Club
1964    Welsh tufa rock area planted with cushion plants
1964    Sussex sandstone in the rock garden replaced by Yorkshire millstone-grit
1964    Gift of 300 goldfish from Bury St Edmunds gas works added to lake
1964    6d leaflet-guide published incorporating a map of the new eastern Garden
1964    Harold Wilson (Labour) (1963 – 1970)
1965    Limestone Mound planting with wild-collected British calcicoles begins
1965    Wicken Fen species planted in the Fenland plant ponds
1965    Ruth Roberts bequest funds improvements to the Alpine House and displays
1965    47 Bateman Street was reacquired for the Botanic Garden and Botany School
1966    Severe attack of honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) leads to tree and shrub clearance
1966    Re-orientation of the lawn and walks following clearance
1966    New bore-hole sunk to irrigate the western garden and new Pinetum
1968    Work on the David Mellor Lily Fountain begins
1968    Euphrasia for Flora Europaea completed and work begun on specimens
1968    The Cory Fund finances the maintenance of Buff Wood
1969    Humphrey Gilbert-Carter botanic library gifted to the Garden and School
1969    Memorial Grove planted for Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (Director 1921 – 1950)
1969    Alpine House replanted with evergreens for year-round attraction
1969    Prams allowed in allow ‘a wider range of visitors’ to enjoy the Garden
1969    Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth established

IMG_0076Limestone Ecological Mound The term ‘ecology’ was not new, having been coined in the 1930s by another pioneering Cambridge botanist, Sir Arthur Tansley.  John Gilmour and fellow Cambridge botanists continued to research the native British flora, especially wildflowers. Young postgraduate, Donald Pigott – later Director of the Garden (1984 – 1995) – was involved in the collection of native flora for the Ecological Display. Together with another experimental botany student, David Coombe, Donald Pigott helped to collected the limestone-loving wild flowers and plants from various locations across the British Isles and Ireland for the Mound.


Donald Pigott was familiar with Chalk Down floras from his native Surrey and Westmoreland, whereas David Coombe was from the West Country and collected from the local Mendip Hills.  Donald Pigott recalls:  “I was invited by the Professor of Botany, [Sir Harry] Godwin to collect British plants and grow them on the Mound.  We also helped design it with the staff of the Garden, even though we were only PhD students at the time.”   It also illustrates that at this time, the Department of Botany at Cambridge, was closely involved in the development of these innovative plantings, helping to shape the Garden displays.  Professor Richard West described the two students as having ‘phenomenal knowledge’ of native British flora.

IMG_0426Gilbert-Carter Memorial Grove
Humphrey Gilbert-Carter, Director of the Botanic Garden (1921 – 1950), died in 1969 at the age of 84. In his memory, it was decided to plant a grove of woodland trees in the southern part of the Garden. Many of the trees are associated with specimens that Gilbert-Carter had planted in 1922.   Gilbert-Carter was particularly passionate about catkin-bearing trees, such as the Cambridge Oak.   Other tree species including the Cornus ‘Eddies’ White Wonder’, the Judas Tree (Cercis silquastrum) and the flowering Chinese Bitter Orange (Poncirus trifoliata).  The ground beneath the trees in the grove has been under-planted with cow parsley and grasses which are cut once a year to allow for a diversity of flowering herbs, grasses and insect life to thrive.

Scented Garden by Juliet DayThe Scented Garden  Enjoying plants’ sensory qualities is as old as time.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell 
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew…
Sonnet 98 William Shakespeare

The Scented Garden is a sensory garden that was conceived in 1960 with plants chosen for their scent and sensual appeal and planted in raised beds.  The Scented Garden marks a new openness to inviting visitors of all abilities to be able to enjoy the Botanic Garden.  This policy of social inclusion continues in the 21st century.  It can be seen through the development of the Schools Garden, for instance.  At one time it was debated whether children should be allowed to enter the Garden.  Today, children are actively encouraged to come and enjoy the Garden.  The Schools Garden enables school children to develop their own plants.  The development of the Scented Garden planting was supported by the Cambridge Rotary Club particularly for the enjoyment of blind visitors and was opened in 1955.  The garden was updated in 2008 and continues to be a popular section of the Garden with visitors of all ages.

Scented GardenIMG_8309
The Sensory Garden was devised in 1960 with scented plants, to be appreciated especially by blind visitors.  Funds were raised by the local Rotary Club for a shelter.

New Pinetum  This planting of conifer tree species in the south-west corner of the western Garden was made possible by the release of two-thirds of an acre of land that had been leased to the Country Bowling Club on Brooklands Avenue.  The area was cleared and sown with grass in 1963 before the planting of conifers began in 1964.  This area was planned on ‘broadly systematic lines… with each genus represented by a selection of species designed to illustrate its range of variation as fully as possible’.

Filmy Fern House   Now known as Life Before Flowers, the 1962 Filmy Fern glasshouse display featured non-flowering plants, such as mosses, ferns and cycads (gymnosperms). This display was made possible by a generous donation from Ruth Roberts. These plants are interesting to botanists as their reproduction depends on water-borne sperm.

John Gilmour by the Isaac Newton Apple treeKey People 
John Scott Lennox Gilmour
Director 1951 – 1973
Bob Younger and John GilmourBy the 1960s, John Gilmour and Garden Superintendent, Bob Younger, had worked together throughout the 1950s, providing a continuity of leadership over the next decade. Now the back-breaking work of clearing the allotments and initial planting the New Development Area had begun, this enabled the team to put their energies in developing new ideas, such as the British Wildflower Limestone Mound, also known as the Ecological Mound.

Bob Younger  Garden Superintendent 1947 – 1974
‘Mr Gilmour and Mr Younger, though entirely different personalities have something in common,  They have always been approachable and always give a sympathetic hearing to everyone…’ Sid Glover.

Garden Voices from the 1960s  Listen to Professor Donald Pigott and Dr Tim Upson talking about the ideas behind the Ecological Mound and the challenges for the current curator Voices from the 2000s.  Donald Pigott recalls how his pioneering dot maps helped to influence the production of the first Atlas of Great British Flora in 1962.

Garden from the Air in the 1960s

Follow the story of the Botanic Garden as it has grown, expanded and changed: A Garden through time, 1950s Brave New Garden1970s Conservation, Conservation, Conservation1980s Biodiversity,1990s Sustainability for Survival2000s Engaging with Plant SciencesThe Future is Now.