The Gardens of the Ancients

The idea of the modern botanic garden dates from the Renaissance, but it is possible that gardens which resembled them existed long before. Certainly plants valued for their medicinal properties were collected, grown, and studied in gardens in many parts of the world. Chinese tradition says that the emperor Shen Nung experimented to find the medicinal properties of plants as early as the twenty-seventh century BCE. But since no writing existed at the time and his materia medica Shen Nung Pen Ts'ao Ching dates only from the seventh century CE, the possibility of a garden somewhat like a botanic garden in ancient China is only that, a possibility.

The systematic garden developed by the Greek scholar Theophrastus (372-288 BCE) is much better documented. The author of two major works on plants and botany Historia de Plantis (History of Plants or Inquiring into Plants) and De Causis Plantarums (The Causes of Plants), he was a trusted associate of Aristotle, who bequeathed to him his library, garden, and the leadership of his school. Among the students was Alexander the Great who appears to have sent back plants from his campaigns through Central Asia, which were then planted in Theophrastus's garden.

Other illustrious gardens featuring plants gathered for study were established in pre-Spanish-conquest Mexico. The Mexican emperor Montezuma's garden brought together plants from tropical regions as well as Mexico's highlands. Hernando Cortez was impressed by them when he and his men overran Mexico in the 1520s. He described the great gardens he found there as unlike anything known in Europe at the time.

Things would soon change, however, in part because of the plants brought back to Europe by explorers like Cortez.

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