An Afternoon at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden

The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden sits at the nexus of Magdalen Bridge and the appropriately-titled Rose Lane in Oxford, England, on the edge of the River Cherwell. On a sunny afternoon this May, a friend who is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford took me to picnic in what is lauded as one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world— a dignified stretch of land with a striking view of Magdalen Collage tower that hosts a garden often referred to as “one of the most compact yet diverse collection of plants in the world”.

Oxford’s Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 with a mission “to promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature”; at its conception it served as the neighboring University’s original physics garden, where plants were grown for medicinal research– a mission that continues today. The garden is cordoned off into sections surrounded by a medieval stone wall that gives the space a Gothic vibe, which is underscored by Oxford’s Christ Church and Radcliffe Camera, two local attractions one must pass in order to get to the garden. On site, there’s a conservatory full of jasmine, a Lily House filled with carnivorous plants, a water garden, a “fruit, vegetable and herb collection” with six foot tall rhubarb plants (the tallest I’ve ever seen), an herbaceous border filled with tulips, and botanical family beds filled with sweet-smelling iris and gorgeous handkerchief trees. We enter the space with reverence, combing over the interesting plant specimens and delighting in the variety in each bed, but we soon lapse into giggles as a brother chases his sister around a bed of skunk cabbage and tries to blame the smell on his sibling.

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Groups of friends boating on the “moat” that surrounds the garden glide by on the river, which is lined with Chinese Poppies. The University of Oxford opens the gardens to students, and several of them are stretched out in the sun, studying alone or with friends– this is perhaps the garden’s most compelling asset; despite its age, it is a living, functional recreation space adored by locals and students alike. We make a beeline through a wall covered in English Rose espalier and settle for a spot near a magnificently-purple Paulownia Tomentosa tree, which is commonly called “the princess tree” or “foxglove tree”. “I love this garden!” a woman shouts to her friend as we start our picnic under its radiant, blossom-filled boughs. “There’s always something new to see.”

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