Skip to main content
Select Source:

Botanical Gardens


BOTANICAL GARDENS. Botanical, or botanic, gardens are tracts of land set aside for the cultivation of a diversity of plant species, grown not as cash crops—although botanical gardens may have commercial purposes—but rather for study and pleasure. Botanical gardens, including arboretums (tree collections), have served a variety of purposes throughout American history: re-search, education, conservation, plant development, and entertainment. Botanical gardens may specialize in local flora or present plants from around the world, within the limits of the local soil and climate unless the plants are placed in a greenhouse.

The arrangement of the botanical garden must balance an aesthetic presentation with educational purposes and spaces open to visitors, and yet useful for botanists and conservationists, although most botanical field re-search is carried out in environments other than public botanical gardens. Botanical gardens are often home to experiments with hybridization and the development of new plant species (cultivars).

In the eighteenth century, it became fashionable to construct gardens around Carl Linnaeus's classification system, which made comparisons within plant families easier. Moreover, the distinctions between more rustic English gardens and more geometric and orderly French gardens have also influenced American designers of botanical gardens. In addition, American gardens presenting species from around the world often group them by origin, sometimes fashioning each section to look like the native area. Alternately, plants are sometimes grouped by the geological features where they are found. However, American botanical gardens, especially those further north, must account for seasonal changes in planning their design, sometimes closing during the winter.

European Gardens

European botanical gardens originated in the Renaissance during the sixteenth century. During the Middle Ages, botanical investigations had been greatly hampered by the inability of manuscripts to depict plants accurately, as each copy was made anew. The invention of printing in the 1450s, combined with the recovery of ancient botanical texts, allowed the study of botany to flourish in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

It is believed that Luca Ghini created the first botanical garden in Pisa in 1543, but such gardens quickly spread throughout Italy and beyond into Europe, often connected to schools of medicine and focusing on medicinal herbals. Early medicinal gardens in America were modeled on these, most famously and perhaps first, a garden founded in 1694 outside Philadelphia by German Pietists.

Gardens of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Philadelphia was also the first center for public botanical gardens in the American colonies. Botanist John Bartram initiated the Philadelphia Botanical Garden just outside the city in 1728. The five-acre garden featured both native and exotic plants and Bartram traveled around America looking for worthy additions, some of which he sent to European gardens. The garden closed during the American Revolution.

Colonial powers often used botanical gardens to grow spices and exotic goods, but because of colonial America's relatively cold climate, gardens designed for overseas trade never became as prevalent as in India, Malaysia, or the West Indies. However, throughout American history botanical gardens have stimulated American agriculture by providing seeds for many commercial plants. The distinction between a garden and a nursery has never been absolute, as evidenced by the nursery founded in 1737 by Robert Prince in Flushing, New York. The nursery cultivated exotic trees and plants to sell to Americans and one famous patron was George Washington. In 1793, William Prince expanded the holdings and named it the Linnaean Botanic Garden. Many plants gathered during the explorations of Lewis and Clark were sent there. The garden thrived until the Civil War, collapsing in 1865.

Other nursery gardens, however, were spectacular failures, notably the Elgin Botanical Garden founded in Manhattan by physician David Hosack in 1801. This garden, which included greenhouses and hothouses to allow for the cultivation of species from warmer climates, was an early influence on the young John Torrey, an influential botanist. Hosack planted thousands of species on the twenty acres of land for medicinal, educational, and commercial purposes and spent vast sums on importing, growing, researching, and displaying plants from around the world. Bankrupted by the expense, however, Hosack had to sell the garden in 1810 at a net loss to New York State, which gave the land to Columbia College. The garden, on which Rockefeller Center stands, was quickly terminated.

The idea for a national botanic garden was first suggested in 1816 and one was established in Washington, D.C., in 1842, after a more modest attempt failed in 1837. The United States Botanic Garden, which, expanding, shifted locations in 1850 and 1933, became the receiver of plants collected on expeditions, which were then cultivated, studied, displayed, and dispersed. The garden today has over twenty-six-thousand plants, including ones that are rare, of historic value, are medicinally important, or are the subject of study. Meanwhile, the U.S. National Arboretum, also in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1927. Almost 450 acres are devoted to the display and study of trees and other flora. It is supervised by the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and has hybridized and introduced 650 new plant species to the American landscape.

Although other short-lived attempts to establish botanical gardens were made in the nineteenth century, it was not until 1859 that another (and the longest-running) public, non-governmental botanical garden was successfully opened in America. The Missouri Botanical Garden, which was begun in 1859 by Henry Shaw, an English merchant motivated to create a garden on his lands in St. Louis by a trip to London in 1851, including a visit to the renowned Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The Missouri Botanical Garden, operating into the twenty-first century, serves as the home for the Center for Plant Conservation, a coalition of over thirty botanical gardens nationwide that attempts to preserve endangered native American plants.

The Proliferation of Botanical Gardens

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a marked increase in the number of public botanical gardens, many of them affiliated with universities or other research centers. Some were bequeathed to the public by devoted amateurs. Notable among the botanical gardens begun in this period include the Arnold Arboretum (1872), the New York Botanical Garden (1891), The Smith College Botanic Garden (1893–94), the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1911), the Huntington Botanical Gardens (1912), Longwood Gardens (1921), and the University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley (1928).

The Arnold Arboretum is affiliated with Harvard University, which had begun the much smaller Harvard Botanic Garden in connection with the Botanic research facilities in 1805, but the Arboretum estate was bequeathed by James Arnold for an open-air collection of both local and exotic woody plants. The Arboretum consists of 265 acres in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. It was created by Frederick Law Olmsted and its first director, Charles Sprague Sargent. Although suffering great damage in a 1938 hurricane, it remains one of the outstanding American gardens, known for its scientific research, plant development, extensive herbarium, and East Asian collections.

The New York Botanical Garden has 250 acres in The Bronx, and is a National Historic Landmark, along with the Missouri Botanical Garden and the recreation-only Boston Public Gardens. Many botanical gardens produce journals of their research, but the New York Botanical Garden has its own press, producing journals and books. In 2002, the garden opened the International Plant Science Center for its herbarium and library, both of which are among the largest in the world. The garden is renowned for its scientific research; climate change, molecular biology, plant diseases, and biodiversity are studied.

Smith College, which has a strong tradition in the botanical sciences, considers its entire campus, as reworked in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted, to be an arboretum, in addition to the botanical garden, which was officially begun in 1894. Today there are a variety of botanical resources at Smith College, including an herbarium and smaller gardens, that supplement the study of botany.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has fifty-two acres in the middle of New York City. As a small, urban garden, much of the scientific research focuses on plants native to the New York area and on the recent Center for Urban Restoration initiative with Rutgers University, which studies ways to ameliorate the environmental impact of urban development. Historically, a key element of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's popularity has been its success in introducing botany to and encouraging horticulture among people living in the largest American city.

The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, were initially part of the estate of Henry Huntington, who began working on his botanical gardens in 1903 and officially founded the gardens in 1912. On the 150 acres there are several specialized gardens demonstrating landscapes from around the world, including subtropical and jungle. The garden is especially known for cultivating exotic succulents.

The Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania offer 1,050 acres dedicated mostly to display and education, although there is also a center for research. Prior to the founding of the gardens, the estate—known as Peirce Farm—had a remarkable tree collection, which Pierre du Pont bought. In the early twentieth century, he began converting it into a public garden known for its beauty and extravagance. It was largely based on Italian and French models, but included display gardens exhibiting species from around the world.

The University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley was originally established in 1890 as a garden specializing in native species. Upon being moved to a different campus location in 1928, the collection began to expand to include exotic species. Although the garden is only thirty-four acres, the collection is known for the diversity and depth of its holdings.

Also notable is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the largest desert gardens in the world. Founded in 1937, the southwestern climate allows the garden to cultivate and display in a natural setting plants that could not survive elsewhere in America.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, botanical classifications and research became oriented toward physiology rather than morphology. This increased the amount of scientific equipment necessary for a botanical garden and encouraged a move away from Linnaean displays.

Botanical Gardens and Conservation

The suburbanization of the American landscape in the twentieth century has threatened the prominence and viability of public botanical gardens, especially those in cities. Urban renewal projects of the 1970s and 1980s, when combined with economic growth, perhaps resulted in an urban revival of the 1990s, in which botanical gardens again began to flourish.

Although botanical gardens remain significant for recreation and education, the most important trend in botanical gardens worldwide during the twentieth century has been an increasing awareness of the their potential to assist in conservation efforts. Industrialization, pollution, urbanization, suburbanization, the destruction of rainforests, climate change, and the spread of invasive species as a result of globalization are all currently threatening biodiversity, with plant species going extinct every day.

Botanical gardens can offer ex situ conservation from species that are being ousted from their original habitats. The first attempt to involve botanical gardens around the world in coordinated conservation efforts was made in 1987 with the founding of the Botanic Gardens Conservation Secretariat. At the start of the twenty-first century, the Center for Plant Conservation houses 580 rare native American species. But according to its statistics, 730 of the 20,000 American native plant species are now officially endangered, while about 4,000 are considered threatened. It seems that conservation has become the most important research function of botanical gardens today.


Correll, Philip G. Botanical Gardens and Arboreta of North America: An Organizational Survey. Los Angeles: American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, 1980.

Directory of Gardens of North America. Kennett Square, Pa.: American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, 1998.

Hill, Arthur W. "The History and Function of Botanic Gardens." Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 2 (February–April 1915): 185–240.

Hyams, Edward. Great Botanical Gardens of the World. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

MacPhail, Ian, comp. Hortus Botanicus: The Botanic Garden and the Book. Chicago: Morton Arboretum, 1972.

Mulligan, William C. The Complete Guide to North American Gardens. Boston: Little Brown, 1991.

O'Malley, Therese. "Your Garden Must Be a Museum to You." In Art and Science in America. Edited by Amy R. W. Meyers. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1998.

Piacentini, Richard. The Plant Collections Directory: Canada and the United States. Kennett Square, Pa.: American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, 1996.

Caroline R.Sherman

See alsoGardening .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Botanical Gardens." Dictionary of American History. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Botanical Gardens." Dictionary of American History. . (January 16, 2018).

"Botanical Gardens." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from

botanical garden

botanical garden, public place in which plants are grown both for display and for scientific study. An arboretum is a botanical garden devoted chiefly to the growing of woody plants. The plants in botanical gardens are labeled, usually with both the common and the scientific names, and they are often arranged in cultural or habitat groups, such as rock gardens, aquatic gardens, desert gardens, and tropical gardens. Botanical gardens perform diversified functions, e.g., the collection and cultivation of plants from all parts of the world, experimentation in plant breeding and hybridization, the maintenance of botanical libraries and herbariums, and the administration of educational programs for adults and children.

The two most important gardens in the United States are the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Park, New York City (est. 1891) and the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Mo. (est. c.1860 and affiliated with Washington Univ.). The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, formerly Blaksley Botanic Garden, Santa Barbara, Calif. (est. 1926), is noted for its collection of desert and subtropical ornamental plants. Other well-known botanical gardens are the Arnold Arboretum, near Boston, Mass. (est. 1872 as part of Harvard); Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, N.Y. (est. 1910); Highland and Durand-Eastman parks, Rochester, N.Y.; Bartram's Gardens, Philadelphia (founded 1728); the United States Botanic Gardens (est. 1820) and the National Arboretum (est. 1927), Washington, D.C.; Fairchild Tropical Garden, Coconut Grove, Fla. (est. 1938); Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Fort Worth, Tex. (est. 1933); Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, Anaheim, Calif. (est. 1927); Huntington Botanical Garden, San Marino, Calif; the botanical gardens at Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, Canada; and the numerous botanical gardens of Europe, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, known as Kew Gardens, London; and the Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

See D. Wyman, The Arboretums and Botanical Gardens of North America (rev. ed. 1959); V. Heywood et al., ed., International Directory of Botanical Gardens (5th ed. 1990); S. Oldfield, Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"botanical garden." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"botanical garden." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (January 16, 2018).

"botanical garden." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from

Botanical Gardens and Arboreta

Botanical Gardens and Arboreta

Botanical gardens and arboreta are living museums. Their collections are plants, and like any museum specimens , they are carefully identified, accessioned , labeled, and displayed for public enjoyment and education. They provide a rich opportunity for both the professional and interested public to learn more about the diverse world of plants, how to grow them, and the benefits they offer to society.

People have been collecting and displaying plants for hundreds of years. During the sixteenth century the study and use of herbs for medicinal purposes motivated the founding of botanical gardens. The first were in Italy, at Pisa in 1543, and Padua and Florence in 1545. These gardens were initially associated with the medical schools of universities. Physic gardens, developed by professors of medicine who were the botanists of this period, served as both a teaching resource and a source of plants to make medicines. Interestingly, these original gardens are still in existence today. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the focus shifted towards taxonomy and the collection of specimens from around the world. Herbaria and libraries joined living collections as components of botanical gardens. Today, botanical gardens and arboreta are devoted mainly to plant culture and the display of ornamental plants and plant groups of special interest. Botanical exploration, taxonomy, and research can also be part of an individual garden's efforts. The latest estimates, derived from research for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/World Wildlife Fund for Nature Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy, indicate that there are approximately fourteen hundred botanical gardens and arboreta in the world. These may range in size from one or two acres to thousands of acres.

Botanical gardens and arboreta may be based on a design that gathers the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants in their respective taxonomic groups. Or, they may be grouped according to the region of the world where the plant grows in its native environment. Often, plants are used to create small, landscaped display gardens such as a rhododendron, wildflower, medicinal, or Japanese style garden, or examples of gardens for the home landscape.

In addition to their gardens and outdoor plant collections, botanical gardens and arboreta may include herbaria for the collection and preservation of dried plant specimens, libraries, research laboratories, production and display greenhouses, conservatories for the indoor display of tropical plants, educational classrooms, areas for interpretive exhibits, and public amenities such as a gift shop or restaurant.

Such diverse resources and facilities require a skilled staff of workers. The most important consideration in maintaining botanical gardens and arboreta is good plant-care practices. Horticulturists, trained in these practices, spend time on everything from lawn maintenance to systematic pruning of tree and shrub collections. Horticulturists are also responsible for collecting new plants, propagating seeds and cuttings, and maintaining accurate records of growth and health characteristics.

Other types of professional staff depend upon the objectives of the individual garden. They might include a plant pathologist or specialist in plant diseases, a landscape architect, research scientists, educators, librarian, and a membership and fund-raising specialist. A director is responsible for coordinating the entire botanic garden program.

Botanic gardens and arboreta may be independently established, part of a government agency, or connected to a college and university. Funding to support their activities may be derived through memberships, fees, tax support, or endowment funds, or a combination of these methods.

see also Curator of a Botanical Garden; Taxonomy.

Paul C. Spector

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Botanical Gardens and Arboreta." Plant Sciences. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"Botanical Gardens and Arboreta." Plant Sciences. . (January 16, 2018).

"Botanical Gardens and Arboreta." Plant Sciences. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from

botanical garden

botanical garden Large, garden preserve for display, research and teaching purposes. Wild and cultivated plants from all climates are maintained. The first botanical gardens were established during the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, gardens existed in Pisa, Bologna, Padua, and Leiden. Aromatic and medicinal herbs still exist in the Botanical Garden of Padua. The first US botanical garden was established by John Bartram in Philadelphia in 1728. Famous botanical gardens include the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, near London (1759), the Botanical Gardens of Berlin-Dahlem (1646), and the Botanical Gardens in Schönbrunn, Vienna (1753).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"botanical garden." World Encyclopedia. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

"botanical garden." World Encyclopedia. . (January 16, 2018).

"botanical garden." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 16, 2018 from