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Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden

Royal Botanic Garden's 350th Birthday

What began as a modest herbal garden has become Edinburgh's
favorite green space and a powerhouse of scientific research.


In 1670, had you walked down the thoroughfare now known as the Royal Mile to just beyond the lum reek of Edinburgh and the adjoining burgh of Canongate, you would have found shovels busy at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. There, amid the palace's long- established formal plantings, a modest physic garden was being created, the first of its kind in Scotland and only the second botanic garden to be created in Britain.

The plot was established by two founding members of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Dr. Andrew Balfour and Sir Robert Sibbald, both of whom had undertaken the "grand tour" of Europe and subsequently felt that Edinburgh needed a physic garden for the study of medicinal plants. Neither of them, nor indeed the gardener they hired to tend it, James Sutherland, could have possibly imagined that, three-and-a-half centuries on, their venture, following several changes of location, would have evolved into a 70-acre botanical paradise hosting some 13,500 plant species from across the globe, and regarded as one of the world's leading botanic gardens.

This year the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) marks its 350th anniversary, and while the worldwide onset of coronavirus has, inevitably, disrupted plans for conferences, concerts and expeditions, probably shunting many of them into next year, the garden -- along with its three outlying gardens across Scotland -- remains an internationally renowned centre for botanical and horticultural research, conservation and study, as well as being a verdant "green lung" just a mile outside the city centre, beloved of locals and visitors alike.

The RBGE's 350th year also sees it embark on an ambitious £70 million programme to provide very necessary restoration of its historic public and research glasshouses and the eventual creation of a new state-of-the-art teardrop-shaped glasshouse, an artificial "biome," as a spectacular new introduction to the garden and its collections.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2020 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © National Botanic Gardens of Scotland; Dennis Barnes/Scottish Viewpoint