The evergreen charm of the world’s oldest botanical gardens is truly fascinating, says David Whitley
The main circle of Padua’s Orto Botanico has a delightful old-fashionedness about it. Each plant gets its own small rectangular bed, and the small signs identifying them are hand-written. It’s divided neatly into segments, bearing all the hallmarks of a methodical, scientific mind.
It’s not difficult to imagine that this was pretty much how it looked four-and-a-half centuries ago, when the city of Padua was under the control of the Venetian Republic. Padua was already a prestigious seat of learning, and it was decided that the medical students there needed a hand.
This led to the creation of the world’s first Botanical Garden in 1545. Common medicinal herbs were planted for use in experiments and treatments, and to help students distinguish between them. Over time more exotic plants were added from all over the world. The oldest specimen still standing is a palm tree that’s somewhat ludicrously surrounded by its own bespoke greenhouse.
On historical value alone, the Orto Botanico would be a mildly interesting quirk. But it’s a far more recent addition that makes it unexpectedly riveting. In 2014, the Biodiversity Garden was opened.
This is essentially a giant, interconnected greenhouse that plays home to 1,300 plant species, with temperatures regulated to be similar to what the plant would experience in its native environment.
Around these plants, however, are a series of displays that turn a big futuristic greenhouse into a walk-through education on botanic history. And it leaps all over the place, providing a brain-expanding bombardment of “I didn’t know that” information snippets.
For example, chimps will pick out certain plants, which have little nutritional value but demonstrated pharmacological properties, then chew on the bark or stem to get at the chemical compounds which play a preventative role in combatting diseases such as malaria.
Then there’s the Pacific Yew (taxus brevifolia), which had long been used by the Native Americans of the Pacific coast. The wood made excellent hunting bows, and the leaves were added to water to make a tonic. It was only in 1958 that the US National Cancer Institute discovered that there was something to that tonic. A substance in the bark called taxol, it turned out, was incredibly useful as an active ingredient in cancer medication.
Most interesting of all, though, is learning how human interactions have spread plants across the world and changed what they look like. Over the millennia, humans have deliberately selected and encouraged genetic mutations that would be harmful in the wild. For example, apples are originally native to China and Kazakhstan, but are now three times bigger than they once were due to cultivation. Peas have changed even more — they’re ten times bigger than they are in the wild.
There are also maps that show how certain crops and products made from them have spread. Rubber trees, for example, originate in the Amazon, but colonial-era transportation by European powers has ensured they’re now mainly grown in Southeast Asia.
Sugar cane, it turns out, originated in New Guinea. It spread to China, then Persia, before the Arabs introduced the Europeans to it. As the Spanish, Portuguese, British and French colonised the Americas, they took sugar cane with them, and it became the key cash crop.
The links between plants and the rise and fall of civilisations are surprisingly strong. And the place where the deliberate, scientific study of plants started is a wonderful place to understand this.