Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus at Plantage Middenlaan 2A, established in 1638 by the city council, is one of the oldest botanical gardens. Initially named Hortus Medicus, its purpose was to serve as a medicinal herb garden for medical practitioners and pharmacists, who received training and took exams there. In 1682 the garden moved to its current location in the Plantage neighbourhood. Some buildings and bridges of the Hortus have been designated as national monuments.
Hunt for Cures
Since 1450 Amsterdam was hit 37 times by bubonic plague epidemics until the end of the 17th century, sometimes killing more than 10% of the population. Many other infectious diseases ran rampant due to the horrible unhygienic conditions, especially in the poorer parts of the city. Even though it would take until the 19th century before people started to understand the causes for these diseases, the search for cures certainly promoted the use of medical botanical gardens.
Traders from the Dutch East India Company brought plants and seeds back in the 17th century, either to be used for medicines or for researching potential commercial possibilities. A coffee plant from the Hortus collection may have been the ancestor for the coffee culture in Central and South America and the seeds of two oil palm trees from Mauritius the base of all palm oil trees in Southeast Asia.
Although the garden is only 1.2 hectare (3 acres) in size, there are over 4000 different plants species here from all over the world, including endangered varieties. You find plants here from seven different climates — a number of greenhouses have plants from deserts, tropics and subtropics and there is also a butterfly house and a monumental palm greenhouse. And of course a medicinal herb garden. The Hortus café is housed in the monumental Orangerie.
A Little History
The Hortus Medicus was started in 1638 by Johannes Snippendaal in the Reguliershof, a garden and orchard (lusthof) in the spot where the convent of the Canons Regular once stood, which burned down in 1532. It was located more or less where Keizersgracht and Utrechtsestraat cross. P.C. Hooft and Constantijn Huygens were involved in transforming the medical garden into a Hortus Botanicus, a garden for scientific purposes, modeled after the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden from 1590.
The city council made quite a bit of money from the Amsterdam Hortus by selling native herbs as well as reproduced exotics. There was also a lively exchange of plant species varieties with other botanical gardens. When the city expanded, the garden needed to move to a different location — initially, in 1660, to the Binnengasthuis (former inner city hospital) terrain near the Grimburgwal, in 1682 to its current location.
When Louis Napoleon was King of the Netherlands (from 1806 until 1810) he had plans to extend the Hortus Botanicus with a zoo — for one year his collection of animals was housed in the Orangerie. After his brother had removed him (for being too concerned with the well-being of the Dutch) and he had left, the plans for a zoo in the Hortus were abandoned.
The entrance gate of the Hortus dates from the early 1700s, the hexagonal pavilion from the late 1600s, the Orangery from 1875. The Palm House is from 1912 and the Hugo de Vries Laboratory dates from 1915. Hugo de Vries (1848–1935) was a Dutch botanist and one of the first geneticists. He is known chiefly for suggesting the concept of genes, and for his mutation theory of evolution in his study of evening primroses.
When the University of Amsterdam stopped paying for it in 1987, claiming it served no further scientific purpose, the garden almost went bankrupt. It was kept alive by a foundation of individual sponsors and these days is also helped by the city council. Since 1990 the garden is not associated with the University of Amsterdam anymore. The garden does not receive any of the financial support for the cultural sector and relies on visitors for 85% of her income. The anti-COVID regulations put the Hortus in dire straits financially.
One very special plant which can be seen in the outside pond of the garden during the summer months is the Victoria amazonica water lily with its enormous (up to 3 m or almost 10 ft) round leafs. The often repeated myth that it flowers only once a year is simply not true — in warm summers it flowers almost every week. It has a beautiful flower (around 40 cm or 1.3 ft in diameter) which opens at dusk and only lasts for two nights — it is white on the first night and pink on the second night.
Another special plant is the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), a type of coniferous tree from the time of the dinosaurs. Long thought to be an extinct fossil, in 1994 Australian scientists discovered it was still growing inside a nature reserve. It only exists in one place on earth, the Blue Mountains in New South Wales (Australia) in the Wollemi National Park.
In the Aboriginal language wollemi means “watch out, look around you”. Wollemi pines can live for an extremely long time, some are thought to be between 500 and 1,000 years old. The Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam received a license in 2006 to sell Wollemia offspring — the original is kept inside a protective cage. The proceeds of the saplings go to nature protection in Australia. I feel for the poor Wollemi in the Amsterdam Hortus, not only having to cope with colder Dutch climate, but also being separated from its plant neighbours by a cage protecting it from the two-legged visitors…
Hortus Gallery (August 2021)
Website Hortus Botanicus: https://www.dehortus.nl/en/
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