The year is 1845 and a 35-year-old Andrew Murray is being considered for the post of curator at the new Botanic Garden in Cambridge. Just how would he organise the plants in the garden if he were appointed? The possibilities are endless: in alphabetical order? according to flower colour? with beds in a fiercely regulated grid? or arranged chiefly with an eye to beauty?
Murray had done his homework. He knew that the Chair of Botany at the University, John Stevens Henlow, was very enthusiastic about the ideas of plant classification described by Swiss botanist Augustin de Candolle. Murray suggested a series of "Systematic Beds" planned to illustrate de Candolle's work. Needless to say, he got the job!
The way in which Murray and Henslow's garden is set out is unique and it's recognised as a site of historical and scientific importance. It is currently undergoing a major face-lift, including the feature pictured above. It's called the "Rising Path" and not only provides a raised platform to give an overview of this part of the garden, but also the space underneath contains a display explaining the origins and layout of the beds.
The model above reveals the overall plan of the garden, with hedges dividing off the main plant types. In the centre oval are the monocotyledonous plants - those having just one seed-leaf - while outside are various groupings of dicotyledons.
Some groups like the Crassulaceae or stonecrops, houseleeks and kalanchoes can be represented in a small bed.
Other groups, like the carrot family, are much larger and require more space. OK, I'd have guessed that parsnips and cow parsley would be in the same group, but I didn't realise that things like eryngiums or sea hollies would be snuggled up alongside them in the same bed!
Right next door to the carrots and sea hollies we find the asters and daisies.....
Here I also encountered a gaggle of schoolchildren engaged in an end-of-term photography competition. The many varieties of flowers grown here make for beautiful pictures anyway, even if the main aim is to afford botany students the opportunity to study the structural variations and similarities of the plants.
If I were still a schoolboy I might have enjoyed a class photography competition. I was always tardy about handing in work, so here it is just 50 years late!...
And here's a pleasing story, which I noticed on the display beneath the Rising Path, and which should prove instructive for the young photographers. When Charles Darwin was recommended by John Stevens Henslow for the voyage on the Beagle, it was not, as one might expect, because of his botanical expertise. No, it was because he knew that Darwin was extremely observant and would be sure to notice anything of interest.