Plant Life Balance

What exactly is a botanic garden?

Digging deeper into some of our favourite places.

We love visiting botanic gardens anywhere we travel to. Wandering through the different climates and plant displays, especially glasshouses and ferneries (bigger the better), brings us joy and relaxation. But what exactly is the purpose of a botanical garden?

We’ve done some digging, and it didn’t take long for us to uncover a variety of definitions – in Australia it’s even defined in Federal legislation! Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) described a botanic garden as “… institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education.”

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation ACT 1975 – Section 3, “botanic garden” means a scientific and educational institution the purpose of which is the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and appreciation of plants by:

  1. growing them in a horticultural setting; and
  2. establishing herbarium collections; and
  3. conducting research; and
  4. providing displays and interpretative services.

Other descriptions included requirements like a relatively permanent location, seed storage and information exchange with other botanic gardens, an underlying scientific basis, and being open to the public.

So, basically a library/museum for living plants of all kinds.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon – a legendary series of tiered gardens and aqueducts that supposedly existed between 800-500BC in what is now Iraq – are arguably the earliest record of a public botanic garden that meets the modern definition. Many details of the gardens are lost, but artistic and written accounts suggest it was really something! Its mythical status arguably inspired many of the great gardens of history as well as those still around today.

Later, around 800AD, medieval physic gardens began to appear that championed the medicinal study, experimentation and application of herbs and plants. Physic gardens are considered one of the earliest forms of organised botanic study.

Modern botanic gardens

The origins of the modern style we enjoy today can be traced back to Renaissance Italy where the botanic science began to bloom in the 16th century. Botanic gardens were typically attached to a university and “apothecaries” (physicians, of sorts) would lecture students about different plants. The oldest botanic garden still in existence in its original location is the Orto Botanico di Padova, Italy, which is home to the Goethe Palm, planted in 1585.

Botanic gardens spread throughout Europe, Asia and America during the 17th century as places of scientific study and wonder. Carl Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature for naming organisms was also published around this time. In the 18th and 19th century, botanical gardens became tools of colonisation by the British Empire in particular, as they explored Southeast Asia and the Pacific in what is considered the last mass introduction of new species.

One of the most famous botanic gardens is Kew Gardens in London’s Covent Garden, dating back to 1772. It has over 50,000 different plant specifies and has influenced many other gardens, including the Royal Botanical Gardens in both Sydney and Melbourne which contain plants propagated from Kew Gardens.

Today there are over 1,800 botanic gardens worldwide, and over 140 in Australia alone.

Botanic gardens are vital to preserving and celebrating plants from around the world. They can teach us so much in a single visit, while obviously providing soothing recreation at the same time. 

Isn’t it time you spent more time in your nearest botanic garden? Check our nursery finder to find your closest Plant Life Balance-accredited nursery.

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