From Roots to Riches – new radio series on our changing relationships with plants

IMG_9315Radio 4 and Kew Gardens have teamed up to produce a fascinating new series presented by Kew’s Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis, Plants: From Roots To Riches. The series ‘will explore our changing relationships with plants, from Carl Linnaeus and the birth of modern botany, right through to the modern day’.

To read more about this major new series follow the link below:

Plants:  From Roots To Riches began this week on Radio Four and can be listened to via the BBC Radio 4 website:   Plants:  From Roots to Riches

Welcome to Changing Perspectives

Welcome to the Changing Perspectives: a Garden through time website.  This digital exhibition focuses on the fascinating stories that have emerge from the development of the Cambridge Botanic Garden from the 1950s to the 2000s.  It follows the various plantings, the ideas and people behind six decades of changes in society, science and our relationship with the environment.  It is these shifting ideas and the inspirational people who worked here that have shaped the Botanic Garden we see today.

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The Botanic Garden appeals to a wide range of visitors on many different levels.  It is a beautiful green space close to Cambridge city centre, it has world-class plant collections, it sits within a heritage landscape that is changing constantly across the seasons.  Each visit to the virtual and physical Garden offers different things to explore and learn.

The Botanic Garden staff have been infinitely patient and helpful during the creation of Changing Perspectives. I have learned a great deal in the process of researching the exhibition.  I hope that this virtual exhibition will encourage visitors to explore the many fascinating displays and collections of the living Botanic Garden and to inspire you to learn about the fascinating wealth of scientific and horticultural ideas.

Pippa Lacey

In the midst: going to the source(s)

IMG_0662The Changing Perspectives: a Garden through time project at Cambridge University Botanic Garden is just over half way and research is revealing some of the fascinating stories, ideas and philosophies behind the making and shaping the garden since the 1950s.  For this project, a variety of written and living sources are being consulted.

curtis%2823%291These include the Botanic Garden’s annual reports, specialist botanical publications such as the esteemed Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and significantly some of the key people who have been involved with the Garden, botany or plant science from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century.

2583%20JSPIn May, Emeritus Professor John Parker (pictured right) Director of the Botanic Garden for fifteen years (between 1996 and 2010) was interviewed for the Changing Perspective project on a visit to the Garden.  Professor Parker’s directorship coincided with a major new chapter in the Garden’s history – the construction of the Sainsbury Laboratory of Plant Science.  Since its inception, learning and research have been integral to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  As a champion of public engagement and of the appreciation of plants through knowledge, Professor Parker promoted an active agenda of education for all ages during his years in the Garden.   Today, the Botanic Garden’s educational programme includes primary and secondary school children, as well as children and adults of all ages wishing to learn about plants, nature and the environment on a more creative or informal basis.

During his visit, Professor John Parker gave a talk on behalf of The Galapagos Conservation Trust in the John Gilmour suite.  Entitled ‘The Five Weeks that Changed the World’, his talk linked the Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin with his mentor, Cambridge Professor of Botany and founder of the new Botanic Garden, John Henslow.  The plant specimens collected by Darwin on the Beagle’s voyage to the Galapagos are now part of the historic Cambridge Herbarium collection.  These are held in the Herbarium’s new home within the Sainsbury Laboratory of Plant Science.

The Changing Perspectives project continues the approach of the University of Cambridge Museum to make its incredible collections more accessible to wider audiences.  The results of this research will be presented in an online digital exhibition of the contemporary history of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden from the 1950sThe Changing Perspectives: a Garden through time exhibition website will be launched in Autumn 2013.  Watch this space.

Stories from the Archives: Where? International Botanic Connections

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.

Why? Garden motivations and influences


Laying out winding gardenesque-style pathways in the new eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in the 1950s. 

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is unusual in that only half its area – the western section – was developed by Andrew Murray and his team in the nineteenth century.  The eastern half of the 38-acre plot was rented out for allotments and experimental beds until the 1950s. Understanding some of the motivations behind why and how the eastern section developed alongside the existing nineteenth century garden are key areas of interest for this history project. What ideas helped to shape the various plantings and developments into the twenty-first century at the Botanic Garden? What was the vision of those who planned and managed the new garden section?  Was the idea to integrate the new twentieth century section into the existing nineteenth century gardenscape, or was the plan to develop a new era in garden development?

Early research suggests a mixture of the two approaches was adopted. Director, John Gilmour (1951 -1973) and his superintendent, Bob Younger, wished to preserve the gardenesque feel of the historic garden, so winding pathways were designed to echo those of the original garden.  At the same time, the team planned new and innovative areas in the recently requisitioned eastern half.  It was a heady, if muddy, time for the garden team. One that required an abundance of vision and foresight to imagine the future potential for the overgrown allotments.

According to Norman Villis, garden supervisor in the 1990s, who joined the Botanic Garden as a young man in the 1950s, one of the philosophies for the eastern garden was that space would consciously be kept for those who came in the future.  Any garden is by definition a work-in-progress, with a constant element of experimentation and trial and error, which makes a Botanic Garden a stimulating ongoing physical and intellectual challenge.

It is fascinating to discover the various narratives about the eastern garden as we begin to excavate some of the motivations behind the various decisions and choices taken; and to follow how these unfold during the course of this research project.   Next instalment coming soon…

Who? Botanic Garden breaks new ground

John Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden between 1951-1973. Image: CUBGJohn Gilmour, Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden 1951-1973

Innumerable people have been involved in development of the eastern section of Cambridge University Botanic Garden in different capacities since 1951. One key figure in the physical and ideological shaping of this new section of the Garden was the post-WWII director, John Gilmour.

Dr John Scott Lennox Gilmour (1906 – 1986) became Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden at an exciting time in the Garden’s history. After the Second World War, Britain experienced social change, increasing optimism after years of wartime austerity and an interest in leisure pursuits. This was matched by John Gilmour’s enthusiasm, energy and botanical scholarship. At the same time, the unlocking of vital funds enabled the new eastern half of the garden to expand and flourish. John Gilmore was a Cambridge graduate (Clare College), having swapped medicine for botany. After graduating he became Curator of the Herbarium and Botanical Museum in the Cambridge University Botany School in 1929, before his appointment, at the age of 25, as Assistant-Director of Kew Gardens. He moved to RHS Wisley in 1946 as Director, before returning to Cambridge, in 1951, as Director.

According to the veteran horticulturalist and broadcaster, Bill Sowerbutts, speaking to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio 4′s Desert Island Discs in 1973, after WWII, once food had again became fairly easy to obtain, British gardeners ‘revolted’ against growing vegetables, revelling in flowers instead. This turning away from utility to something more creative and exploratory in British domestic gardens echoed what was happening in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Until 1951, the 20-acres in the eastern section of the Garden, originally purchased in 1831, had been leased as allotments for vegetables and fruit. Thanks to Reginald Cory’s generous 1930s bequest, John Gilmour and his superintendent, Bob Younger, were able to begin the transformation of the eastern half of the garden. They retained the Gardenesque (garden-like) style of the earlier and well-established mid-19th century western garden. The layout and design of the eastern garden’s new paths and plantings have strongly influenced the contemporary eastern garden that is visible to visitors today. Here plantings are organized as plant communities, rather than in family groupings.

During Gilmour’s directorship numerous major garden undertakings were begun. These include the construction of a Rock Garden (1954 – 1958) with a ‘doline’ (sunken) feature; a Scented Garden, developed for blind visitors in 1955, with assistance from the local Rotary Club; The Cory Laboratory and experimental glasshouses in 1957 and the Chronological Bed in 1958. This latter innovative planting presents a living timeline of the introduction of plants into the British Isles from across the globe since the 1500s.

John Gilmour’s personal passion for British wild flowers was instrumental in the development of an ecological limestone mound with British wild plants from the Eastern region (1962). In 1967, renowned British designer and silversmith, David Mellor, was commissioned to design a focal point at the eastern end of the Main Walk. The resulting Lily Fountain consists of seven large giant bronze water lily leaves each with a central column of water. It continues to be a popular feature in the Garden.

John Gilmour retired as Director in 1973, having bequeathed to the Botanic Garden a considerable enduring legacy of botanical developments and landscaping designs.

Beginnings: First steps in the Garden

ImageReginald Radcliffe Cory on the French Riviera, 1933.  Cory’s generous bequest to the Botanic Garden enabled the development of the eastern section from the 1950s. 

The beginning of a research project is a particularly exciting time. There is the delicious element of the unexpected, not knowing what you may discover, which paths will appear or unknown connections may emerge from your explorations and questions.

Since my project focuses on the social history of the eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden through time, understanding the timeline of people and developments seems a useful navigational point to begin.  While historic people, decisions and events have influenced the development of the contemporary eastern garden, it was only after the second world-war that work began on this half of the garden, following a generous bequest from Reginald Radcliffe Cory (Trinity College).  Cory is a key figure in enabling the development of the eastern garden, therefore Cory’s story is an important one.  It dates back at least to the 1920s and his relationship with the first academic director of the botanic garden, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter.

The main emphasis of my project will be on key people and developments from the 1950s.  For example, since 1951 there have been six directors and acting directors – John Gilmour, Max Walters, Donald Pigott, Thomas ap Rees, John Parker and the current acting director and curator, Tim Upson.  The newly-appointed director, Beverley Glover, takes up her post in July 2013.  Each director has overseen a range of developments in the garden;  each has been influenced by prevailing ideas about the environment, biology and horticulture.

A serendipitous opportunity to attend a SHARE Museums East training day at the Cambridgeshire Archives (Shire Hall) and the Cambridgeshire Collection (Central Library) offers some additional fascinating resources to explore.  It is hoped that information from these local archives will add further colour and texture to the botanic garden history.

Changing Perspectives: A Garden through time

The Grass Maze in Cambridge University Botanic Garden

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden reflects the shifting perspectives of human relationships with our environment, our scientific priorities and our preoccupations.  Established in its present 38-acre (16-hectare) site south of Cambridge city centre in 1846, the first garden was established at Cambridge University in 1762 as a small physic garden.  During the nineteenth century, the western half of the New Botanic Garden was planned and planted under the direction of John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany and mentor to Charles Darwin, and Andrew Murray, first Curator of the Garden. This Grade II heritage landscape is renowned internationally for its systematic beds and its ‘Gardenesque’ style.

During the 1950s, following a generous bequest from a former Trinity College student, Reginald Cory, development of the eastern half of the garden began.  Although this post second world war garden echoed the ‘Gardenesque’ layout of the existing western half of the garden, unlike the 19th century garden, the development of the eastern area was ‘in a piecemeal way without a master plan’.  The resulting garden therefore enables us to chart the changing perspectives echoed by the various plantings through the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century.  My project traces the social history of the eastern garden over seven decades – from the 1950s to the present – to examine contemporary social and scientific priorities and to document how people have responded to the changing gardenscape.