A Walk Through the Cambridge Botanic Garden

4 March 2008

Jess Bowie visits the Botanic Garden to see what it has to offer out of season and why it affects garden fanatics so powerfully

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The Botanic Garden is Cambridge’s best kept secret. That’s not actually true, but it always makes for a good opening for articles of this sort. Everybody knows about it, but still, it’s easy to disregard the fact that there are 40 acres of beautifully landscaped garden plonked in the middle of the city. It’s a pleasantly strange feeling coming here, and possible to forget entirely where you are.

Originally founded in 1846 as a teaching resource for botanists and hardcore horticulturists, the Garden has, over the past 150 years, become a much-cherished spot for students and locals alike. That’s because, despite the grandeur of its fountains and evergreen-lined pathways, it’s not at all a “Keep Off The Grass” kind of place. Indeed it has–to use a phrase utterly inappropriate for a garden–many interactive elements. Woodland nooks and crannies, bamboo canopies and stepping-stones across the lake all provide the perfect opportunity for visitors to…er…interface with nature.

A highlight of a trip here is the Glasshouses (although you are kindly asked not to throw stones). As one might expect, they’re warm, damp and contain a weird and wonderful collection of tropical plants: piranhas, and Philippine climbers with spectacular, jade-coloured flowers sit alongside more familiar species like tea, coffee, banana, rice, and cotton. Along the length of the corridor is also an impressive collection of orchids, the enjoyment of which is only slightly marred–or indeed slightly enhanced–by a sign stating that the name “orchid” derives from the Greek word for “testicle”. Anyhow, once you start wandering around in here, it’s hard to leave, particularly if that means facing the February frost.

Visiting the Botanic Garden in winter has its advantages, though. If you’re lucky you’ll see the ducks sliding around on the frozen lake–quite a crowd puller when I went–or at least reap the benefits of the Winter Garden, whose colourful berries, barks and foliage are beautiful, and a real treat for the nostril.

Any intelligent design subscribers out there should, however, be warned: at times the Garden has a rather Darwinian feel. Not only was it founded by Darwin’s teacher and mentor John Stevens Henslow, but areas like the Genetics Garden, and signs bearing such phrases as “a hotbed of competition” are liable to offend creationist sensibilities.

In spite of this blatant drawback, the Botanic Garden is great. It has a strange effect on people, too. One woman I spoke to had moved all the way from Scotland just to be near it (!) and a teenage boy was inspired to do a National Diploma in horticulture after coming here as a child. Perhaps no need to go this far, but it is well worth a visit. Most important of all, it’s completely free with a student card.