1990s Sustainability for Survival

University Review of Botanic Garden  Department of Plant Sciences  Key Events ●  The Dry Garden Sustainability ● The Genetics Garden  The Grass Maze Apple Day  150th Anniversary of First Planting Key People 

Survival of the Fittest   During the early 1990s, the Botanic Garden underwent a five-year Review process by the University into the Department of Plant Sciences.  The Botanic Garden’s role had changed over the decades and the University wished to re-assess the Garden’s usefulness as an asset.  Director, Donald Pigott argued a strong case that the Cambridge University Botanic Garden was a world-class institution and took the difficult decision to introduce entrance charges to boost the Garden’s finances.

IMG_0301The Future of the Botanic Garden as a scientific and research institution was called into question as the University of Cambridge reviewed the direction of the Department of Plant Sciences on the retirement of Professor of Botany, Richard West (1977 – 1991).  The Review spelt out its concerns: ‘Although the Garden constitutes an important scientific and historical asset of which the University is custodian, its importance for teaching and research has declined as work at the molecular or cellular level has become increasingly prominent in plant sciences.’  As scientific enquiry had changed focus away from whole-plant botany to molecular biology, the historic role of the Botanic Garden had changed and require re-negotiation for the 21st century.

After a long five-year Review process, it was finally agreed that the Botanic Garden would be retained and financially supported by the University.  Nevertheless, it was critical that the Garden have a ‘continuing involvement… in the University’s academic work and programme of education’.  The new Director of the Botanic Garden, John Parker, was appointed as Professor of Plant Cytogenetics in 1996.  In addition, he also took on the role of Curator of the Herbarium.  It was Professor Parker’s task to raise the profile of the Botanic Garden, both within the University and the local community to appreciate and utilise this historic botanic asset.

IMG_0662For John Parker, the 1995 Review report gave him the backing to put forward many changes in the Botanic Garden after years of uncertainty.  He begin to make links with the different departments in the University encouraging them to make use of the Garden’s facilities. One visible change was the introduction of four-colour professionally-printed annual reports from 1998 – 1999.

‘The Botanic Garden is a world resource and a jewel in the crown of the University. I hope this report will stimulate your desire to come and visit, enjoy and learn from this wonderful place.’  John Parker, Annual Report 1998 – 1999.

During the late 1990s, the Garden was being used by scientists and researchers from a wide range of University of Cambridge Departments.  Research projects were listed in the Annual Report under: Ecology,  Plant Biophysics, Taxonomy, Insect Ecology, Aerobiology, Biodiversity, Plant and Animal Development, Ornithological Studies, Plant Ultrastructure, Plant Genetics, Plant Nutrition and Photobiology. In the 1990s, the annual report continues and emphasises the tradition of listing the scientists and their scientific publications that were generated using the Botanic Garden’s facilities.

The Genetics Garden tells the story about hybridity from the earliest cultivated cereals. (Left) Khol Rabi, part of the Brassica family, (right) experimental plots of wheats.

Key Events in the 1990s
1990              General Board appointed to Review the Botanic Garden
1990              John Major (Conservative) PM between 1990 – 1997
1990              Renovation of Rock Garden
1990              The Ozone Project with schools for Royal Society for Nature Conservation
1991              Garden entry charges introduced to generate vital income
1991              The School of Botany becomes the Department of Plant Sciences
1993              Taxonomist, Dr Peter Yeo, retires from the Garden after forty years
1993              Buff Wood, East Hatley sold to save costs
1993              The Grass Maze planted
1995              Norman Villis promote to Superintendent
1995              Professor Donald Pigott retires after 11 years as Director
1995              The University Review Board publishes its report on the Botanic Garden
1996              Professor John Parker appointed Director and Curator of the Herbarium
1996              150th Anniversary of the first plantings of the New Botanic Garden
1996              Cambridge City Council grant funding of the Garden ends.
1997              The Kyoto Protocol signed
1997              Dr Tim Upson appointed Garden Curator
1997              Tony Blair (Labour) PM between 1997 – 2007
1997              Dry Garden developed
1997              The Cory Laboratory refurbished
1997              Apple Day introduced
1998              The Genetics Garden
1998              Education and Interpretation Officer post created and temporary classroom
1998              Plans for new Botanic Garden Education Centre drawn up
1999              RHS Conference on Hybridisation and Exhibition of William Bateson


The Dry Garden
Before the retirement of Superintendent Norman Villis in 1997, he and the horticultural team embarked on a project which would provide a sustainable legacy for the Botanic Garden. The Dry Garden was developed in conjunction with the Cambridge Water Company who were concerned about the depleting water reserves in the region.  As the climate changes the Eastern region of Britain has seen changing rainfall patterns.  The Dry Garden demonstrates to visitors that it is possible to create an attractive, decorative garden in an average suburban garden through the selection of plants that naturally survive in drought conditions. Norman Villis was keen to include native British plants along with hardy Mediterranean favourites.

The Dry Garden was opened by the then MP for Cambridgeshire, Anne Campbell, ironically on a rainy day, hence the umbrellas carried by the visitors.  One of the key features of The Dry Garden is that it has never been watered.

Experiments were also carried out using specialist gel products which claim to help retain moisture in container or terracotta pots.  These proved to have some small positive effect.
The Garden is now well established with mature plants and provides an attractive space for people to wander and to sit and contemplate the plantings.

Sustainability  The Dry Garden promotes the careful selection of plants to conserve water with changing patterns of rainfall.  In the 1990s, to ensure the sustainability of the Botanic Garden as a scientific research institution, Donald Pigott introduced entrance charges to the Botanic Garden.  Although controversial at the time, Donald Pigott said that the decision was ‘inevitable’ and that he was willing make the unpopular decision, if it secured the future of the Garden.  Listen to Donald Pigott talk about why charges were ‘inevitable’.


The Grass Maze was another of Norman Villis’ plantings.  It was devised as an exciting display for children to explore.  The soft low grasses allow children to follow the path of the Maze without their parents losing sight of them.  The grasses are tough enough for children to run through on their way out of the Maze.

The Genetics Garden was devised by Professor John Parker, Professor of Plant Cytogenetics and Director of the Botanic Garden. The concept was to explain the complex story of plant hybridity and human and natural selection in the development of modern food crops as well as flowers.  The first Genetics Garden has since been moved from its original site.  In 1999, the RHS held a Conference on Hybridisation to commemorate of the first Conference on Hybridisation in 1899, which led to the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work.  An exhibition about the ‘Father of Genetics’ William Bateson was held in the Garden.

Print[1] Education and Public Engagement   As part of the drive to encourage the education of all ages about plants, Professor John Parker employed the Garden’s first Education Officer in 1998.  Having a dedicated Education Officer allowed the Garden to offer quality courses in a wide range of subjects.  A temporary classroom was created in 1998 in order to host these courses. Plans were drawn up for a major new Education Centre.  This plans were put on hold while the Sainsbury Laboratory was being created in the 2000s.  Nevertheless, public Engagement and Education has become a growing section of the Botanic Garden.  Each year courses are held on horticulture, painting and many different aspects of plants.

Apple Day Variation John Parker, Director of the Botanic Garden and a Trustee of the National Fruit Collection, introduced the idea of Apple Day, a celebration of all things apple, in November 1997. Visitors to the Garden are able to experience the abundance of apples, crabapples and pears grown in Britain. Apple Days encourage the appreciation of diversity of varieties, advice on pruning and propagating, as well as scientific investigations.

150th Anniversary of First Planting  In May 1996, an Open Day was held to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Opening of the Garden in 1846, marked by the planting of a Tilia x europaea by the then Vice-Chancellor, Rev. Ralph Tatham.

Key People 
Professor Christopher Donald Pigott (above left)  Director, Cambridge University Botanic Garden 1984 – 1995.   An experimental botanist and the leading expert on the genus Tilia, the Lime or Linden tree, Donald Pigott navigated the Garden through the difficult terrain of the five-year University Review.  He regarded retaining the Garden as a Botanic Garden with its scientific and research connections as his most important achievement during his directorship.  Professor Thomas ap Rees, Professor of Botany, acted as Director between 1995 – 1996, until the appointment of Professor John Parker in 1996 (above right).

Professor John Parker Director of the Botanic Garden; Professor of Plant Cytogenetics and Curator of the Herbarium 1996 – 2010

Dr Tim Upson  Curator, 1997 – present.  The role of Superintendent changed in 1997 to Curator. Tim Upson was previously at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew and Reading University.  (Below right) Dr Tim Upson and Professor Donald Pigott in the Cory Library, Professor Pigott donated a copy of his recent monograph on Tilia to the Cory Library.

Dr Peter Yeo retired  as Taxonomist of the Botanic Garden in September 1993, after 40 years.  Peter Yeo joined the Garden in 1953 in the newly-created post.  Peter Yeo was in charge of accessioning and labelling the plants as well as helping to build up the Herbarium.  Over his career, Peter built up an expertise in Euphrasia, Bergenia, Ruscus and Geranium. He published many papers and monographs.

Garden Voices from the 1990s  Click to listen to Norman Villis on the development of The Dry Garden.  Donald Pigott on his quest to save the Botanic Garden in the 1990s and Prof John Parker talking about the Botanic Garden demonstrating its importance as a University and City  Voices from the 2000s.  
From the Air  
Click to see an aerial view of the Garden in the 1990s.

Follow the story of the Botanic Garden as it has grown, expanded and changed: A Garden through time1950s Brave New Garden1960s Ecology by Design1970s Conservation, Conservation, Conservation1980s Biodiversity2000s Engaging with Plant SciencesThe Future is Now.