Travel: Oxford Botanic Garden has plants with purpose

06/15/2014 12:00 AM

06/14/2014 8:49 PM

Our guide pauses between the giant rhubarb plant and the white mulberry tree to draw attention to the virtues of the stinging nettle – “a weed,” as he says, “in anybody else’s garden,” but nurtured here. It’s a nutritious vegetable that tastes a bit like spinach. Its fiber resembles linen, and it produces a fine yellow dye. And because it thrives in soil that’s rich in phosphates and nitrogen, he explains, the nettle is commonly found in graveyards, which explains why it’s sometimes “used forensically”: A clump of nettles can mark the site where a murder victim lies buried.

This is no ordinary garden tour, because this is no ordinary garden. The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, Britain’s oldest, was founded almost 400 years ago, when the 1st Earl of Danby donated 5,000 pounds to start a “physic garden,” producing plants to support medical practice. One original tree survives – an English yew, a kind of tree that today is the source of drugs used to treat breast and ovarian cancer.

The garden’s ongoing commitment to scientific inquiry is balanced by the sheer aesthetic pleasures of a place that’s home to more than 5,000 plant species on less than 5 acres of land, making it one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. There’s inspiration here both for anyone who wants to spruce up his own back yard (a herbaceous border and a rock garden) and for the practical-minded (vegetable patches and herb gardens). There are plants for the imaginative (a waterlily shaped like a giant pie dish that can bear a child’s weight) and for the ghoulish (a jaw-dropping variety of insect-eaters).

But the true focus are the rectangular “family beds” laid out within the 17th-century garden walls, where plants are grouped according to their botanical family, geographical origin or uses, including contemporary clinical medicine, where labels refer to the organ or symptom they treat, from lung cancer (Himalayan mayapple) to heart arrhythmias (foxglove).

To visit, then, is to walk a path between self-indulgence and self-improvement – or find some combination of the two. Stroll across the lawns, or read a book on one of the curved wooden benches around the central fountain, and you’ll find other people doing just that. You can choose an audio tour, narrated by the gardeners as well as author Philip Pullman, who set part of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy here, and borrow a backpack of activities for children.

Or you can book a guided tour, as I did on an early-summer Saturday, when Stephen Harris, curator of the university’s preserved plant collections, introduced a group of about 10 of us to the wonders of wisteria flowers and the mystique of the white mulberry, “the silkworm’s soul food.” As for the nettle, Harris boldly plucked a stem and held it up. And there they are! The remarkable hairlike needles that inject the plant’s “toxic cocktail.”

Harris talks not only about the plants’ structure and sex life, but also about their impact on human civilization: about the complex chemistry involved, for example, in extracting the blue woad dye that the Celtic warrior Queen Boadicea favored from the yellow-flowering plant; and about the economic upheaval of the mid-19th century, when mulberry-growing frenzy consumed North America, resulting in financial disaster for many an aspiring silk magnate.

And he explains the changing logic of the plantings: In the past, plants were classified according to their shapes. More recently, DNA has revealed their evolutionary relationships, and that has led to some surprising shifts in the flower beds: Spectacular passionflowers, it turns out, are related to the more sober yellow alder; and plantains, the broadleaved bane of many a front lawn, are cousins of the showier foxgloves and snapdragons. The garden has just embarked on an ambitious multiyear project to dig up and rearrange many of the flowering plants according to the latest molecular findings.

This little oasis is in central Oxford, on the east end of High Street, across the road from Magdalen College’s famous 15th-century tower. Set back from the road, behind a rose garden that was planted over the city’s ancient Jewish cemetery, it was a favorite spot for such literary figures as J.R.R. Tolkien; Lewis Carroll, who came here with Alice Liddell; and, more recently, Pullman.

For a botanist like Harris, this is hallowed ground, shaped, quite literally, by the ideas of such great plant scientists of the past as Carl Linnaeus. Harris still teaches university students here but spends most of his time among the dried plants in the university’s herbaria.

It’s something of “a novelty,” he explains to the tour group, “to be out among living things.”

He’s referring to the plants, of course, not the people.

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