BACK in 1621 it was founded to grow medicinal plants.

Now almost 400 years later, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden boasts about 5,000 different plant species, has about 30 staff and welcomes hundreds of visitors a year.

To celebrate the 400th milestone, botanic garden staff will begin a 400-week countdown from Sunday, November 24 – exactly 400 weeks until the 400th anniversary in 2021.

They will tweet a picture of a different plant every week and publish it on their website – the plants will be relevant to the season and will be culturally and scientifically interesting.

Dr Alison Foster, senior curator at the botanic garden, said: “The first curator at the garden was Jacob Bobart.

“Some time between 1633 and 1644 he was appointed and he started amassing the plant collection.”

By 1648 there were 1,600 plants.

Dr Foster said: “Still here today is one of the Yew trees that was planted by Bobart.

“The Yew tree is going to be the first in the series of 400 plants we will be publishing.”

The two-hectare site is bounded to the north by the High Street, the east by the River Cherwell, to the west by Rose Lane and to the south by Christ Church meadows.

The land is mostly owned by Magdalen College, but Christ Church College also owns part of the land, which the botanic garden has expanded into. The staff also manage the university’s Harcourt Arboretum in Nuneham Courtenay.

Dr Foster added: “I think the work in the botanic garden and the arboretum is more relevant than ever “Plants underlie everything – food, medicine, climate change.

“We are a really relevant part of the university.

“It is a place where people can come to for pleasure but it has a different reason for being in conserving plants.

“We are here for educational research.

“We want to engage with as many people about plants as possible and make it fun.”

Undergraduates studying biological sciences and related subjects at the University of Oxford visit the garden regularly.

More than 6,500 school children visit the garden each year as part of the garden’s Schools Education Programme and more than 5,000 adults attend courses and tours at the garden.

Tom Price, gardens curator, said: “The Yew tree is our oldest resident, planted in 1645 by our first curator; Jacob Bobart.

“It encompasses our role perfectly: one of heritage, beauty and conservation. “The leaves from this species are now used to produce an important chemotherapy drug for the treatment of secondary cancer.”


Most popular plants and attractions:

At the Botanical Gardens:

  • Yew tree – oldest tree (Taxus baccata)
  • Jade vine – longest plant (Strongylodon macrobotrys)
  • Cannabis – most useful plant (Cannabis sativa)
  • Euphorbia stygiana – rarest plant (Euphorbia stygiana)
  • Chocolate tree – tastiest (Theobroma cacao)
  • Euphorbia resinifera – hottest plant at 16 billion scoville units (Euphorbia resinifera)
  • Black pine – Tolkien’s favourite tree (Pinus nigra)
  • Giant amazonian water lily – strongest plant – in the lily tank in the glasshouses (Victoria cruziana)
  • Tulips – in the herbaceous border in late spring
  • New borders – in the lower garden (new sustainable borders, designed by James Hitchmough)
  • Handkerchief tree – (Davidia involucrata)
  • Giant lemon – (Citrus medica) in the conservatory

At Harcourt Arboretum, part of the Botanical Gardens in Nuneham Courtenay:

  • Peacocks
  • Giant redwood – (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
  • Rhododendrons in flower
  • Magnolias in flower
  • Bluebells in bluebell wood
  • Meadow in the summer
  • Autumn colour


  • Audio trails – Free for visitors to use. Borrow an audio pen and an interactive printed map that activates the audio from the speakers of the “pen” – two tours – Tales of trees and Chemistry Discovery trail
  • Geocaching activity at the arboretum in the school summer holidays – in collaboration with the Institute of physics – borrow a GPS unit for free and explore the arboretum following the geolocators and find an activity to do at each trail stop.
  • QR codes on plant labels – use your smartphone to link to our website or to films about the plants you are standing by.
  • Touchscreen visitor feedback survey kiosk at the Arboretum
  • Coming soon – a database of our plants available via the website
  • Follow them on twitter: @OBGHA
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