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Leiden Classics: On the origins of the Hortus Botanicus

The Leiden Hortus Botanicus is the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. Although perfect for a ramble, it is much more than an open air museum. PhD students carry out their research here and the Hortus makes a serious contribution to biodiversity through the exchange of rare seeds with other gardens.

Exotic plants

A garden where students can study medicinal plants was what a group of scientists wanted who approached the Leiden City Council in 1587, twelve years after the foundation of the university. They already had an idea for a location: the small wasteland area behind the Academy Building, on the Rapenburg. In 1590, the Council granted permission for a ‘hortus medicus’. Flemish plant collector and Professor Carolus Clusius was its first Director. It was his dream to design a garden that would include all the known plant species of the time. He introduced previously unheard of plants such as tomato, potato, tobacco and tulips, and as a result ensured that they became widely known throughout Northern Europe. He also introduced exotic plants that were brought back by the Dutch East India Company.

Peter the Great

Under the directorship of the famous physician, botanist and anatomist Herman Boerhaave (1709 -1730), the Hortus acquired many more rare plants and seeds. Boerhaave was also Rector of the university, in addition to occupying three chairs at the medical faculty. His name and fame attracted students from all over Europe. Even the Russian Tsar Peter the Great anchored his boat on the Rapenburg to visit Boerhaave and learn from his expertise.

Universities are losing their Hortuses

That was then, but how are the Hortuses doing today? Having one’s own academic Hortus Botanicus is no longer a given, and has not been for a long time. Budget cuts have meant that in recent decades a number of universities have had to give up their botanical gardens. Besides Leiden, only the universities of Utrecht, Delft and Amsterdam (VU) still have their own Hortus, and the latter will soon also be changing hands.

DNA research

The Leiden Hortus is luckily still alive and kicking. In early September of this year, Queen Máxima opened the renovated tropical greenhouses. Thanks to the renovation, there is now more room for scientific research. Together with their colleagues from NCB Naturalis, the Leiden researchers are carrying out a large-scale DNA study, which will hopefully lead to new genealogies of important plant families such as orchids, ferns and cycads. The Hortus is also exchanging rare seeds with other botanical gardens throughout the world in order to preserve biodiversity. In other words, the plan that that small group of scientists presented to the Leiden City Council 426 years ago has come to fruition. The small wasteland area behind the Rapenburg has grown into one of the crowning jewels of the university.

(12 september 2013)

In 2013 the Hortus Botanicus consists of the Front Garden, the Winter Garden, a complex of tropical greenhouses, the Von Siebold Commemorative Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Orangery, the system garden, the visitors’ centre of the Observatory and the Observatory Garden. The Front Garden, established in 1594, is the oldest part of the Hortus. It also contains the oldest plant, a laburnum planted in 1601, and the oldest tree, a magnolia from 1682. The 19th-century Victoria greenhouse still houses the remarkable Victoria Amazonica, a giant water lily. Its enormous leaf can carry a weight of up to 40 kg. Every summer around Midsummer Night, a photo shoot for babies is organised on the Victoria leaf. Another important public attraction is the tropical titan arum. This flower, the largest in the world, only flowers once every eight years or even longer. 

Last Modified: 12-09-2013

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