Botanical Gardens of Padua

Take a walk into the past. Or the present. Or even the future. You just have to enter the Botanical Gardens of Padua to do all three. Meet a dwarf palm belonging to the 16th century. Or take a look at the endangered local flora and visit the laboratories where research is being carried out to ensure that traditional plant wealth is preserved for the coming generations.

Created in 1545, this awesome horticultural expanse is documented as the world’s oldest existing university Botanic garden.

The idea for the creation of such a botanical garden originated in the number of costly mistakes resulting from the wrong identification or wilful misuse of medicinal plants in ancient times. These plants were called “simples” because they were found to be direct natural remedies for various disorders. Precise knowledge about the nurture and use of these plants was thought to be invaluable, and the Senate of the Venetian Republic approved the setting up of a garden to encourage cultivation and study of medicinal herbs.

Property belonging to the Benedictine monks of the order of St.Justine was chosen, and the Horto medicinale came into existence under the guidance of Francesco Bonafede, Lecturer of Simples at the University of Padua. The garden is believed to have been planned by Daniele Barbaro, a nobleman, and executed by Andrea Moroni, an architect.

The land allotted was trapezoidal in shape, and the garden was conceived as a circle enclosing a square, which was itself divided into

four squares by means of two main intersecting pathways. These smaller squares were divided into elegant flowerbeds of different geometrical shapes.

The garden was stocked with plants from many parts of the world, particularly those with which Venice had trade relations.

The custodian of the gardens, Luigi Squalermo, better known as Anguillara, was responsible for the inclusion of several rare and exotic species of plant life. The Gardens were the first home of various plant species from far-flung places, which were later passed on to other parts of the country and eventually took root in Italy. These include the Robinia pseudacacia, Solanum tuberosum, Helianthus annuus and Jasminum fruticans.

The rarity and value of the plants in the garden rendered it attractive to miscreants, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, and stringent action, going as far as exile, regular thieving occurred, eroding the plant wealth. Hence, an encircling wall was constructed. A balustrade of fine white stone, adorned with busts of famous figures looking into the garden, was added. Four gates were built in the 1700s, and two fountains were put in. These were embellished by now famous sculptures – one of Theophrastus, a Greek doctor of the 3rd century BC, and the other of Solomon and the Four Winds.

Like other institutions attached to centres of learning, the Botanic Gardens of Padua has evolved into a resource for scholars. What set out to be a sanctuary for medicinal plants gradually grew into a centre for the study of all branches of botany. But the medicinal plants remain an important feature. The section is periodically updated with the addition of more plants of therapeutic interest.

Over the years, various architectural changes were implemented in the garden to cater to the changing needs and aims of the project.

Several greenhouses were replaced by laboratories and a classroom with the capacity to accommodate about a 100 students was also added on. A herbarium and a library aid modern research.

The Botanic Garden of Padua has been divided into various sections, on the basis of types of plants. Despite constraints of space, the Garden offers visitors a rich variety of horticultural experience.

Marvel at the segment containing insectivorous plants – watch how the meat-eaters of the plant kingdom find sustenance – the leaves of a Venus Fly-Trap snap shut over an unwary bug and the pitcher plant ensnares the unwise bee in the sticky fluid it generates.

Take in the exotic locale of the rainforests enclosed in the glasshouse which is home to rare orchids, maintained in a hot and humid temperature.

In the recreated Mediterranean maquis, see the creeper-entwined thick evergreen trees and underbrush. Go from the Alpine rockery, with small, twisted trees and shrubs, to the miniature peat bog, and from there visit a desert, complete with plants that demonstrate how they adapt to conditions where water is scarce. An aquatic habitat filled with freshwater plants and a segment of succulents add to the variety.

The Botanic Gardens of Padua was the first in Italy to create an itinerary for the blind and partially-sighted. It includes a collection of aromatic and poisonous plants, with labels written in Braille.

For your tryst with the past, visit the dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis L.), planted in 1585. It is currently the oldest plant in the garden and is known as Goethe’s palm, because the celebrated author is believed to have studied the tree in detail for his study of the evolution of plants. He has dedicated a number of his works to this palm.

Enter the present through the section devoted to the Euganean Hills and Veneto region. It is devoted to rare plants from the area, and has a two-pronged aim: to familiarize the public with flora which is quintessentially Paduan as well as preserve germ plasma and study the biology of endangered plant life with a view to conservation. The best known local species is probably the Paduan Rue (Haplophyllum patavinium (L) Don. Fil), the only plant bearing the name of this region. Encroachment into its environment has rendered it an endangered species.

For a glimpse into the future, look at the laboratories where important research work is carried on. The Botanic Garden of Padua has made major contributions to the fields of botany, medicine, chemistry, ecology and pharmacy.

The Botanic Gardens of Padua now houses upward of 6000 plants. These include several historic specimens, like a ginkgo dating back to 1750, a southern magnolia planted in 1786 and believed to be the

oldest in Europe, an even older hollow-trunked Oriental plane (1680), the first Himalayan Cedar to be introduced into Italy, and a dawn redwood, which, though comparatively young (it was planted in 1961), is important because it sprang from the seed of a tree found in China long after the species was thought to have died out.

The garden also contains a fragment of the subfossil trunk of a 2650-year-old English oak, recovered during excavations in the area.

With so much horticultural wealth, it is small wonder that the UNESCO has designated the Botanic Gardens of Padua a World Heritage site.

The Botanic Garden is located just south of the Basilica di Sant'Antonio, at the
University of Padova,
Via Orto Botanico, 15
Tel. 049/656614 - Fax 049/656614

It is open to the public, on payment of an entrance fee, from 9.00 am to 13.00 pm and 15.00 pm to 18.00 pm from April to October, and from 9.00 am to 1.00 pm from November to March. It remains closed on all public holidays.