Bagging botanic gardens

I’m not sure whether bagging botanical gardens is better or worse than bagging Munros, Michelin stars or the numbers off of rolling stock, but it keeps me off the streets…

Edinburgh botanical gardens Gunnera [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

This Gunnera at Edinburgh makes me look even more like a lawn-ornament

London (Kew)

Just ten stops down the District Line from $WORK lies the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The gardens have three enormous glasshouses, a number of smaller glasshouses, and 121 hectares of trees, beds and desperately awful architecture to explore. Unfortunately, it also has an entry fee (for non-concession adults) of £14.50, which is a little steep, and possibly one of the reasons that disappointingly few of my students seem to have visited it, despite its proximity.

Kew gardens temperate house [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Temperate House (closed for renovations at the time of writing)

My favourite indoor displays at Kew are the two rooms of carnivorous plants in the Princess of Wales Conservatory (don’t miss the newer cloud-forest full of Nepenthes), and the ever-changing contents of the Alpine and Waterlily Houses. The latter often has large clumps of sensitive plants (Mimosa pudica and relatives) to poke. I also enjoy the very Victorian approach to health-and-safety in the walkway at the top of the Palm House.

Kew gardens Nepenthes [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Nepenthes robcantelyi

Botanerd highlights.

  1. Play “palm or cycad?” at the two ends of the Palm House.
  2. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. The Princess of Wales Conservatory has a very good selection of huge flower-free ferns and spikemosses (Selaginella).
  3. There’s a gigantic Ginkgo just round the back of the Princess of Wales Conservatory; and the oft ignored (and therefore much less busy) far end of the gardens has a fantastic collection of conifers, including AraucariaSequoia, Sequoiadendron, Torreya, Cunninghamia, and Cryptomeria, in addition to all the yews, cypresses, pines, firs, larches, cedars and spruces you can eat.

Kew gardens Araucaria [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Monkey-puzzle (Araucaria araucana) at Kew

London (Chelsea)

Small but perfectly formed, the Chelsea Physic Garden is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world (Oxford, below, claims the top spot). It specialises in plants used by humans, including (when I last went) a special display of plant fibre ropes. Entry about £10.

Chelsea physic garden ropes [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Hemp rope smells nicest and can be drawn very fast over skin without causing friction burns, which is an important consideration for, erm, rigging – yes – rigging

 Botanerd highlights.

  1. Count the number of exciting ways you could get killed by the plants in the Pharmaceutical Garden display.


I don’t remember the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh being this sunny either time we visited, but apparently it was on at least one trip. Unlike Kew, the glasshouses are squidged together, so if the weather’s misbehaving, your fern to rain ratio will be much higher than in London. Unfortunately, like Kew, at the time of writing, some of the glasshouses are shut for renovations. Console yourself with the fact that entry to the gardens themselves is free.

Edinburgh botanical gardens [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Edinburgh botanical gardens

 Botanerd highlights.

  1. Edinburgh is the only place I’ve ever seen a clubmoss (Lycopodium) on display. See if it’s still there.
  2. It’s also the only place I’ve ever seen a Gnetum (picture at the end of this post).
Edinburgh botanical gardens Lycopodium [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Lycopodium pinifolia at Edinburgh


Sitting on the slopes of Montjuïc, just below the Olympic Stadium, the Jardí Botànic de Barcelona is my most recent bagging. Unlike the other gardens here, it is entirely outdoors, with no glasshouses, and therefore specialises in plants from Mediterranean scrub habitats like Chile, South West Australia and California. Entry fee to the gardens is a very reasonable €3.

Barcelona botanical gardens Xanthorrhoea [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Grass-trees (Xanthorrhoea) at the Barcelona botanical gardens

Botanerd highlights.

  1. Australian grass-trees and giant Chilean Puya bromeliads.
  2. As you’re on the side of a hill, the views are also fantastic, and the easiest way to get there is via cable-car, so you get to soar over the local conifers too.


The photo below of De Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam doesn’t do it justice, but it’s well worth the €8.50 entry. The glasshouses are very well laid out, and they have a very good selection of carnivorous plants, obscure ferns (including Marattia) and cycads.

Amsterdam botanical gardens [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Amsterdam botanical gardens

 Botanerd highlights.

  1. The aforementioned carnivorous plants and obscure ferns.
  2. I wonder what this could possibly be?
Amsterdam botanical gardens cannabis [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

The source of the nice rope at Chelsea


Claiming to be the oldest botanic garden in the world (and I’ve no reason to doubt them!), the University of Oxford Botanic Garden is a snip at £4.50 entry, and has a good mixture of outdoor beds and glasshouses. The glasshouses are small, but absolutely rammed with stuff, including Pachypodium (below), assorted ferns, jade vines, a lovely Amorphophallus rivieri (well, lovely until you stick your nose over it), but – as it turns out – no Orchis fatalis.

Oxford botanical gardens Pachypodium [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Oxford botanical gardens Pachypodium

  Botanerd highlights.

  1. This is the only place I’ve ever seen a Psilotum, which had me squealing with excitement, much to the disdain and bafflement of my long-suffering companion on these trips.
  2. Like the rest of this garden, the carnivorous plant glasshouse crams a lot of variety into a small space.


The Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem claims to be the second-largest in the world (after Kew), and now has a dedicated moss garden (which unfortunately post-dates my visit) as well as the usual beds and (extensive) glasshouses. Entry fee is €6. UPDATE – I have now seen the moss garden with my own eyes and it makes me weep with happiness.

Berlin botanical gardens [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Berlin botanical gardens

Botanerd highlights.

  1. Several of the botanic gardens mentioned above cultivate Welwitschia mirabilis, a very strange plant from the Namib that grows only two enormous strap-like leaves in its lifetime, but only Berlin seems to have been completely successful: their plants are verdant and frequently in flower (‘in cone’, really, as this plant is closely related to the pines and other conifers).
Berlin botanical gardens Welwitschia [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Welwitschia mirabilis at Berlin

(Dis)honourable mentions

I didn’t quite make it into the San Francisco Botanical Garden, but perhaps one day I’ll return with more time, and having not been recently fleeced at the California Academy of Sciences ($30 entry!)

Brussels has a wholly confusing pair of botanic gardens, the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, which is just north of Brussels, and the Botanical Garden of Brussels, which sits on the real botanic garden’s old site in the middle of Brussels. I got the former mixed up with the latter, much to my disappointment. It’s perfectly pleasant, but not really a botanic garden.

Darwin’s House at Down in Kent has a small glasshouse with a good collection of carnivorous plants. Well worth a visit, and a wander down the sandwalk.

Edinburgh botanical gardens Gnetum [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Gnetum at Edinburgh

Where next?

In particular, I’d love to know where I can see the following obscure corners of the vegetable empire:

  • Ophioglossum or Botrychium (adders-tongue fern).
  • Hornworts (Anthoceros), and/or a really good moss and liverwort display (preferably closer than Berlin!)
  • Quillworts (Isoetes).
  • Amborella. UPDATE – spotted at Berlin!
  • Utricularia tenella or Utricularia multifida (previously Polypompholyx tenella and Polypompholyx multifida, until Peter Taylor cast the fairy aprons into the eternal darkness of taxonomic obsolescence).


  1. Hi Steve – saw your twitter request for Abies etc., cones – drop me an email, I can help (I’ve got over 350 species of conifers in my cone collection 😉

    • Guido on 2022-10-16 at 18:42
    • Reply

    Nice article, but Oxford Botanic Gardens isn’t the oldest botanic garden: that honour belongs to the one in Padua, Italy (even the one in Leiden, Netherlands is older than the one in Oxford)…

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