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The Cambridge University Botanic Garden and John Stevens Henslow

Updated on November 7, 2015


This page is dedicated to Derdriu, who has been a valued supporter of my pages having read every one of my pages to date.

Simply wishing to thank her for her continued support is not, in itself, a very good reason for recommending Derdriu's own Internet pages. The reason for recommending her pages is that Derdriu writes some of the most comprehensively informative pages on the HubPages site. As an arborist, much of her subject matter is flora - or at least nature - orientated, though other diverse subjects such as poetry and cuisine are also covered. And she often writes about little appreciated species of plant and animal in more wide-ranging yet readable detail than you will find elsewhere on the web.


The City Of Cambridge in the county of Cambridgeshire is one of the most attractive and charming of university settings. It is a city of historic buildings, of pleasant open spaces, of punting on the River Cam, and of thousands of students and student bicycles. It is of course the great colleges of Cambridge which are best known - colleges which comprise one of the foremost centres of knowledge and learning in the world.

But there are many other peripheral institutions which also contribute to this process of knowledge and learning - some are housed in large impressive centres and some could be passed by without a second glance. But perhaps the most attractive of all the peripheral institutions, is the Cambridge University Botanic Garden - subject of this page.

As well as discussing this garden, I will also include a feature on the garden's founder - John Stevens Henslow.

The 'Dry Garden' at Cambridge
The 'Dry Garden' at Cambridge | Source


The University of Cambridge first set aside an area of land specifically for the development of a garden as early as 1762. At that time, the intention was to establish a 'physic' garden along the lines of the more famous (and still well maintained) Chelsea Physic Garden, developed in London a hundred years earlier. Physic gardens were very much the forerunner of botanical gardens in that they served an important scientific function, though perhaps without the attention to attractive landscaping and design which is so important in modern gardens. The primary role was to grow herbaceous plants used in the teaching of medical students. As such, the new Cambridge Physic Garden was created right in the heart of the University City.

However, the timing was not good. Botany as a science was unfashionable in the late 18th century, and little use was made of the resource. The Physic garden just struggled along for more than 50 years until the arrival in the city in 1825 of a new and enthusiastic Professor of Botany, John Stevens Henslow. It was this man who would provide the inspiration necessary to kickstart interest in the Science of Botany at Cambridge University, and the Physic Garden was the place to start.

About half of the photos on this page were taken by the author. Other photos are credited accordingly, and I am grateful for their use on this page.

Scenic view of the Gardens in summer
Scenic view of the Gardens in summer
The Lake at Cambridge Botanic Gardens
The Lake at Cambridge Botanic Gardens | Source
The Main Walk at Cambridge Botanic Gardens
The Main Walk at Cambridge Botanic Gardens | Source
The Pathway at Cambridge Botanic Gardens
The Pathway at Cambridge Botanic Gardens | Source


Professor John Stevens Henslow was just 29 years old when he took over the Professorship of Botany at Cambridge University. He wanted to expand the role of the Physic Garden to serve not merely medical research, but academic study of the plant species themselves. Specifically he was interested in the displaying and cultivating of the many new species of trees which at the time were being introduced from the four corners of the world, and particularly from Western North America.

Henslow immediately appreciated that the Physic Garden in the city centre was just too small and impractical for these purposes. In 1831 he acquired a 16 hectare (40 acre) plot of land just south of the city from Trinity Hall - one of the Cambridge Colleges - in order to create his new Botanic Garden. Initially development of this site was delayed by various legal issues, but eventually work did get underway with the first plantings under the direction of the first Curator Andrew Murray.

Funds provided by the University were insufficient to work on the entire site, so Murray concentrated development on the western half of the site, designing a pathway around the perimeter of the gardens, and a broad 'Main Walk' which traversed the Gardens from east to west. A smaller pathway would intersect the Main walk in a north-south direction, dividing the entire developed gardens into quarters. In the north west, Henslow's trees would be the key feature forming a 'Woodland Garden' surrounded on three sides by a U-shaped lake. Trees were also planted along the length of the Main Walk, around the perimeter of the Gardens, and throughout much of the rest of the land. However, in the south west, Murray laid out a series of 150 'Systematic Beds' comprising more than 1500 species of herbaceous plants grouped into 100 botanical families - a major feature of important scientific interest.

In 1846, the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens finally opened to the public.

Flowers in the pathway borders at Cambridge Botanic Gardens
Flowers in the pathway borders at Cambridge Botanic Gardens
John Stevens Henslow
John Stevens Henslow | Source


John Stevens Henslow was born in 1796 in the English county of Kent. His childhood education led to him studying science in Cambridge at St John's College, where he graduated in 1818. Like so many scientifically inclined individuals he took a keen interest in all disciplines of science, even including mathematics and chemistry, and he acquired as much knowledge as he could. His considerable expertise in geology led to him accepting the chair as Professor of Mineralogy at the University in 1822. However, another subject - the study of plants - was increasingly fascinating Henslow, and just three years later he took up another post as Professor of Botany. This was to become very much his chosen branch of science and his interests in the field included the study of variation in species, an interest which no doubt he helped to instill in at least one of his brightest students (see 'Henslow's Protégé)

Henslow - a confirmed Christian - later pursued yet another career as a country clergyman, and his work at the university probably suffered as a result, though he did continue to lecture in botany. And he was an inspiring lecturer, regularly leading his students in plant-finding field trips, and inviting them to informal dinners with after dinner discussions in science. Despite his profession as a parish priest, Henslow would continue to study and explore later making numerous finds in archaeology and palaeontology as well as botany. For a time he even tutored the children of Queen Victoria, and in later life he also became a noted philanthropist.

Henslow retained the Professorship of Botany at Cambridge University until his death in 1861.

Charles Darwin in 1854
Charles Darwin in 1854 | Source


One might imagine that John Stevens Henslow's many diverse scientific achievements and his establishment of the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens would be regarded as his lasting legacy, but no. Instead, it was an action he took in 1831 which would indirectly lead to the most significant of all discoveries in the world of the life sciences. Already I have mentioned how Henslow inspired the students under his tutorship. One such student he first met in 1828 became a close friend and follower of the professor, and in return, Henslow clearly saw great potential in the student.

In 1831 Henslow was offered a post as ship's naturalist on a survey vessel embarking on a voyage of adventure to South America. He declined the offer out of respect for his wife's wishes, (and perhaps to further his plans for Botanical research in Cambridge?) but he suggested instead that his young student friend might be a more than suitable replacement. The vessel was H.M.S Beagle and the young student was Charles Darwin. The rest is history.

Despite Henslow's Christian beliefs, he remained a firm life-long friend of Darwin as the great naturalist developed his theories on natural selection, nurtured whilst on the Beagle expedition. What's more, his unique place with a foot in both camps - theological and scientific - led to Henslow chairing the famous 1860 debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce on the Theory of Evolution. Upon his death in 1861, Charles Darwin wrote:

'I fully believe a better man never walked this earth.'

The South American Berberis darwinii at Cambridge Botanic Garden - named for one of the University's most celebrated alumni, and John Stevens Henslow's protege, Charles Darwin
The South American Berberis darwinii at Cambridge Botanic Garden - named for one of the University's most celebrated alumni, and John Stevens Henslow's protege, Charles Darwin
Sorbus decora - The Showy Mountain Ash. One of the Garden's many attractive small trees
Sorbus decora - The Showy Mountain Ash. One of the Garden's many attractive small trees
Flag Irises in the Cambridge Botanic Garden add a bright splash of colour in the spring
Flag Irises in the Cambridge Botanic Garden add a bright splash of colour in the spring


After a period of limited development, the 20th century saw further progress at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and particularly so since 1934 when a valuable financial donation made funds available for cultivation of the eastern half of the gardens.

There has been a change of emphasis in keeping with changes in approaches to scientific garden design. Plantings according to species classification were the key to 18th century layout of the Garden in the western half (as in the botanical family orientated Systematic Beds), but by the mid-20th century increased recognition of the importance of ecological environments led to a more habitat-based approach.

As a result new zones of planting were established such as the 'Dry Garden' which survives and thrives without supplementary watering. There is also a marshy 'Fen Display'. A 'Limestone Rock Garden' was constructed next to the lake, and the 'Mediterranean Beds' feature plants characteristic to that region. More such 'Themed Gardens' will be covered in the next section.

Development has not merely been limited to the floral displays. A fountain complex now stands on the eastern Main Walk, and to the north of the Gardens, a series of greenhouses have been built. A garden shop, cafe, and picnic area have been installed to make the Gardens more public-friendly.

And development continues. On 27th April 2011 the Sainsbury Laboratory was opened by Queen Elizabeth. A purely scientific endeavour, the lab will be home to more than 120 researchers studying growth mechanisms in plants.

The Rock Garden around the Lake. Beyond is the Woodland Garden
The Rock Garden around the Lake. Beyond is the Woodland Garden | Source
Woodland flowers
Woodland flowers
Rock Garden flowers
Rock Garden flowers
The Winter Garden - Seasonal change. In this photograph there is more greenery but less flower than in the image shown below
The Winter Garden - Seasonal change. In this photograph there is more greenery but less flower than in the image shown below | Source


We have already looked at how much of the Botanic Garden has changed from systematic beds to habitat-based beds to reflect more recent thinking as to the best way to display plants. But many other types of themed garden exist within the grounds, and just a few of these are mentioned here.

There is a 'British Wild Plants' feature which exhibits native species, including many local Cambridgeshire plants. A 'Chronological Bed' will be of interest to historians, demonstrating the sequence of plant introductions to Britain, whilst a 'Rose Garden' celebrates one of the most popular of all flowering shrubs, and a plant traditionally associated with England. Further beds are themed for explosions of colour at particular times of the year, such as the Autumn and Winter seasons.

Finally we must mention the 'Genetics Garden' in which crop developments and hybridisation experiments are re-created. This is particularly appropriate as much historic research into genetics including the discovery of DNA was undertaken in Cambridge. Indeed the very term 'genetics' to describe the study of inheritance was coined by the biologist William Bateson here in 1905. Bateson carried out much of his field research in the Botanic Garden.

The Winter Garden, with winter-flowering heathers in full bloom early in the year
The Winter Garden, with winter-flowering heathers in full bloom early in the year | Source
One of many colourful plants in the display
One of many colourful plants in the display
Thymus serpyllum - the Creeping Thyme
Thymus serpyllum - the Creeping Thyme


In Britain, the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens - aka Plant Heritage - has a scheme whereby major gardens or even some esteemed individual specialist growers are designated as the keepers of a 'National Collection' of a particular group or genus of plants. Such national collections then have the responsibility to try to establish as many varieties or species within that group as possible for posterity. Cambridge University Botanic Garden has nine such National Collections.

With links to the Official Website pages, these are:

1) Alchemilla

2) Bergenia

3) European Fritillaries

4) Geranium (species and hybrids)

5) Lonicera (species and hybrids)

6) Ribes

7) Ruscus

8) Saxifraga

9) Tulipa

The Lake
The Lake


To the north of the Garden is the range of glasshouses which have been extensively refurbished and reorganised in recent years. As is to be expected, the various houses are themed and temperature and humidity controlled to suit particular groups of plants.

These include:

1) Arid Lands - Cacti and succulents and other plants of desert and dry conditions.

2) Mountains - A display of alpines and rock garden plants.

3) Tropical Rainforest - Palms, orchids, bromeliads, and humidity loving plants.

4) Continents Apart - The unique flora of Australia and diverse species of S.Africa.

5) Oceanic Islands - A variety of species of plants endemic to islands.

6) Life Before Flowers - A collection of ferns, cycads and mosses.

7) Carnivores - The bizarre world of pitchers, sundews and Venus flytraps.

Part of the greenhouse complex at Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Part of the greenhouse complex at Cambridge University Botanic Garden


Address : 1 Brookside, Bateman Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England, CB2 1JE

Telephone : 01223 336265

Website :

Map :

Opening times :

  • 10am - 6 pm April to September
  • 10am - 5 pm February / March / October
  • 10am - 4 pm November to January

Price :

  • Adults - £4
  • Concessions (over 60s and students) - £3.50
  • Children - Free


The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is now home to at least 8000 species of plants and many more varieties, some of which originated in the garden, whilst the arboretum is considered the finest in the region. History is everywhere, both in the plants and garden design ideas of Henslow's day, and behind the scenes in the Garden Library which contains 9000 horticultural volumes dating back as far as the 17th century. Of course the original academic nature of this Cambridge Garden should never be forgotten and as well as continuing research, an active programme of learning events for the public including everything from birdwatching to nature illustration to horticultural training is undertaken to benefit the people and to instill interest in the next generation.

The gardens today attract more than 200,000 visitors per year. They offer attractive displays of plants, continuing scientific interest, and of course a refuge from city life for local people. Whatever your own interests, when in the vicinity, the Cambridge Botanic Garden must be worthy of a visit.

The Long and Winding Path through the colourful Cambridge University Botanic Garden
The Long and Winding Path through the colourful Cambridge University Botanic Garden | Source

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