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Glasgow City of Botanists

Main Range Glasshouses at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens: Photo credit (Paul Matthews)

Following a recent agreement between Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, and the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Science Centres and Botanical gardens across Europe will be joining forces in 2015 to deliver events celebrating local biodiversity. OPAL Community Scientist, Joanne Dempster has been learning about the great scientists and explorers who founded the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and put Glasgow at the forefront of Botanical Science.

Thomas Hopkirk (1784-1841), Botanist

Thomas Hopkirk, born in 1784 in Dalbeth (now Tollcross), was a prominent Botanist in Glasgow. After studying at Glasgow University he published one of the first books on British plant species named “Flora Glottiana: a catalogue of the indigenous plants on the banks of the River Clyde and in the neighbourhood of the City of Glasgow”.

In the writing of the book Hopkirk traversed “…both sides of the River Clyde, from its Falls, above Lanark, to its junction with the sea.” and in doing so amassed an impressive assortment of botanical specimens.

Keen that these should be displayed he formed the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow by Royal Charter and the Glasgow Botanic Gardens opened on its original site at the end of Sauchiehall Street, at the time on the very edge of Glasgow.

He was supported in this endeavour by William Hooker, another member of the Royal Botanic Institute and the Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University. Hopkirk was made an honorary Doctor of Laws by Glasgow University in 1835 in recognition for his achievements in science.

The gardens moved as the city expanded, and it opened on its present site next to the River Kelvin in 1842, a year after Hopkirk’s death.

Map showing the original situation of the Glasgow Botanic Gardens when founded by Hopkirk in 1817. The Gardens can be found on the left edge of the map, clearly out with the city of Glasgow. Reproduced with the Permission of the National Library of Scotland; an extract from “This map of the ten parishes within the royalty and the parishes of Gorbals Barony of Glasgow”. Printed in 1822. Original can be found at maps.nls.uk/detail.cfm?id=349

Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785 1865), Regius professor of Botany Glasgow University

Originally from Norwich, William Hooker was one of the most eminent Botanists of his time. He spent his youth studying Ornithology and Entomology as a pastime but his focus switched to Botany after his discovery of a rare moss. In his later role as the Regius Professor of Botany in Glasgow University he was instrumental in founding the Glasgow Botanic Gardens alongside Thomas Hopkirk in 1817. In the Botanic Gardens early days it played an important part in the teaching of botany at the university, providing materials from the gardens to the old site of the university on High street. Hooker remained Director at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens for twenty years and during that time the collection grew in strength, largely in part to David Douglas, a botanical explorer. Hooker continued to support plant collecting expeditions all over the world, from the Antarctic to Africa and his contribution to plant science lead to his appointment as director of Kew Gardens in 1841.

David Douglas (1799-1834), Plant Collector and Explorer

Douglas was born in Scone, Perth, in 1799, a Gardener by trade he expanded his knowledge of practical horticulture over seven years gardening at Scone Palace. Following this he attended college to learn more about the science behind plant culture and eventually studied botany taught by William Hooker at Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. Impressed by Douglas, Hooker recommended him to the Royal Horticultural Society of London and Douglas’s career as a plant collector began.

Douglas made three separate expeditions to North America, in search of new plants to bring back for cultivation at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. On one expedition he climbed what was thought to be the highest mountain in North America and named it “Mount Brown”, after Botanist Robert Brown, and its neighbour “Mount Hooker” after William Hooker.

Douglas is famed for the sheer number of plants particularly pine and spruce which he brought to the UK and Europe. The Douglas-Fir, a popular Christmas tree, is named after him and over 80 plants contain douglasii in their name in homage to him. A specimen of Douglas-Fir growing near Inverness is now the tallest tree in the UK at 66.4 metres, and the tallest conifer in Europe. Other notable species he introduced are the Sunflower and Sitka Spruce, which is one of the UK’s most commercially important trees. The life of a plant collector was usually a short one, with dangerous expeditions leading explorers further and further in search of new and exciting plants, and on an expedition to Hawaii in 1834 Douglas died in suspicious circumstances. Over his short life he contributed a huge amount to the plant collection at Glasgow’s Botanic gardens, bringing over 240 plant specimens across from America.

To see some of the other plants introduced by Douglas visit the Glasgow Botanic Gardens in its current location on Great Western Road. The arboretum houses a selection dedicated to the plants that he brought over the Atlantic on his expeditions. For more information on the Glasgow botanic Gardens visit www.glasgowbotanicgardens.com

The Kibble Palace; Built by John Kibble, inventor, engineer and photographer in 1865, moved to the Botanic Gardens in 1871. Photo credit (Paul Matthews)


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