University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Rose Lane. (01865) 286690.

A visit to England’s oldest Botanic Garden offers so many different experiences. First founded as a physic garden in 1633, ingredients for medicaments are still grown here (such as the rosy periwinkle used as a leukaemia treatment). Plants are meticulously labelled so gardeners can easily track down new plant varieties that take their eye. The Garden holds 8,000 plant species, including the National Euphorbia collection, and is actively involved in conservation. Man’s dependence on plant resources is demonstrated in many of the garden beds, showing visitors how flower power makes the world go around.

Global growing conditions are simulated by walled, rock and bog gardens in addition to the controlled environments of the Glass Houses which range from dry desert to tropical rainforest conditions. Inhaling the warm air of the Palm House is reminiscent of my grandmother’s greenhouse, only here lemongrass, blackpepper and arrowroot are grown. Star attractions of the Garden include the large round ‘pie dish’ like leaves of the Victoria water lily, the 100 year old cacti, the jewel-like beauty of the alpine plants and the Panama hat palm. Popular features include a rose garden, a fountain and a lily pond set around a picture-postcard rock garden.

Man’s total reliance on plants is demonstrated throughout the Garden. The ‘Food Art’ section grows British and Mediterranean food crops such as lollo rosso and cabbages. Younger visitors enjoy seeing where their weekly supermarket shopping comes from. Bananas, papayas and lemons grow fulsomely on trees and the plants that yield coffee, cocoa and sugar can also be tracked down. Other plants are delightful not least for their names such as ‘the sea buckthorns’, ‘the spurges’ and ‘the mulberries’. However delicious the names sound, signs warn visitors not to touch as medicinal herbs (witch hazel, deadly nightshade, digitalis and feverfew) are grown here along with plants that bite back. Indeed, not all plants are animal friendly; insectivorous plants cope with nutrient deficient soils by digesting small insects so watch out for the Venus fly trap of Dionaea and the bladder trap of Utricularia!

Watching the visitors mull around the grounds, it is evident that everyone finds a favourite plant to be enthralled by. For J. R. R. Tolkein this was the black pine tree, one of the largest trees in the Garden and this same tree later inspired the writing of Philip Pullman. Opening hours vary with the seasons, (9am-6pm May to August; 9am-5pm March, April, September and October) with last admission 45 minutes before the gates close. Adult admission costs £2.60 (£2.00 for concessions; school children are admitted free of charge when accompanied by an adult)

A short stroll takes you from the North America borders to the Japan and China borders on to the tall willowy bamboo garden. The Autumn and Spring walks meet at an achingly beautiful apex where the flowers of the water garden frame the tower of Magdalen College. With strategically placed benches, you are sure to find your own personal moment of calm, which is broken only by the peel of the 7-tonne Tom Bell, from across Christ Church meadows. The Garden sells packets of seeds to take away with you so you can start your own Botanic Garden at home! Inhaling the scent of the rose garden as the light starts to fade, the serenity of this quintessential Oxford moment is a priceless souvenir.

Lita Doolan