It is a matter of dispute whether or not it is actually the world’s oldest botanical garden. However, the Padua Botanical Garden is certainly of historic and scientific importance. It is also one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Veneto region, and a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll.
Why Is The Padua Botanical Garden A UNESCO World Heritage Site?
According to UNESCO, this was the world’s first university botanical garden (more about this in a minute…) As such, it is seen as the forerunner of European botanic gardens, and as a major contributor to the “birth of botanical science… and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture”.
Apart from its historical significance, the Botanical Garden of Padua is important for its collections, both of plants (including some rare species) and of books. UNESCO also cites the design of the garden, preserving “its original layout, a circular central plot symbolizing the world surrounded by a ring of water representing the ocean”.
The Oldest Botanical Garden In The World?
The Padua Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico di Padova) was created in 1545, built by Benedictine Monks as a way of learning about medicinal plants. These plants were not just useful; they were also very valuable, and the walled garden at the centre was built as a deterrent to thieves.
The question over its claim to be the oldest botanical garden in the world is based on the fact that the Pisa Botanical Garden was founded two years earlier, in 1543. However, the Pisa garden was transported to its current location in 1591: it may be technically older but it has spent less time in a continuous site. This is relevant in the case of a botanic garden, where the age of individual plants can be recorded. (The oldest specimen in Padua is Goethe’s Palm, dating back to 1585 – see Visiting the Botanic Garden below.)
The Padua Botanical Garden Today
The garden retains its original layout. At the centre is a large circular wall, topped with statues. Within the walled area the gardens are laid out in a geometric pattern of four square plots with smaller circles inside. These shapes are intended to represent “an ideal and ordered catalogue of the plant kingdom”.
The Padua Botanic Garden is still used for scientific research. It contains more than 6,000 plant species, arranged in thematic groups such as alpine plants or Mediterranean flora. Outside the walled area a group of new greenhouses is devoted to the study of biodiversity, with a range of different environments from temperate to tropical rainforest habitats.
Visiting The Botanic Garden
It has to be said that these gardens are not extensive, but they make for an interesting and enjoyable excursion while visiting Padua. When I was there the garden was autumnal, but there was still some colour from flowering plants from around the world. It was quiet and peaceful with few other visitors and no sound but the trickling of water from the fountains scattered around the grounds.
The central walled garden has fruit trees, vegetables and herbs arranged in their geometric beds. There are statues and lily ponds, and a tall greenhouse with a single palm tree. This tree is Goethe’s Palm, which – having been planted in 1585 – is almost as old as the garden. (Apparently the poet was also a naturalist and was closely associated with this garden).
The area surrounding the walled garden has woodland, a rockery area and other plantings. At the far end are the greenhouses, where you may find temporary exhibitions. (At the time of my visit the exhibition was “How Nature Works”, an intriguing juxtaposition of plants and electronics.)
There is an entrance charge for the Botanical Garden (currently €10). The garden is on level ground and is fully accessible.