University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

The Garden’s Systematic Beds

Keeping heritage, science and horticulture in balance


To err may be human, but so too is to order: putting names to things is how language develops in both epochal and personal time.  In putting names to plants and grouping plants into families on the Botanic Garden’s Systematic Beds, there is plenty of scope for both error and order!  In consultation with peers and colleagues, we have spent much of the last year trying to work out which is which, as we embark on the Understanding Plant Diversity project, funded by The Monument Trust, to revitalise the Systematic Beds for research, teaching and enjoyment.

Scientific understanding of how plants are grouped into families has changed since the Systematic Beds were first laid out in the Garden to show this in 1846 by our first Curator, Andrew Murray. Now, modern scientific understanding has prompted us to have a major family sort out.

For thousands of years, humans have grouped plants into families based on observations using the naked eye. Today scientists also study the genetic composition of plants to determine relationships. These contemporary methods still largely support traditional groupings but sometimes discoveries at the molecular level have resulted in new families being formed, families being renamed and plant species changing families. To keep the Beds research-relevant, we have developed a planting renovation plan for the Systematic Beds that will to a great degree accommodate contemporary understanding of the evolution of plant diversity by re-locating some plant families.

murray-map-jpegTo ensure we achieve a strengthening of the scientific underpinning of the Beds while respecting their heritage importance and protecting their unique beauty, we have also been researching their history and foundation. Murray’s inspired design concept, which he presented at his 1845 job interview for the post of Curator, was to translate the leading text book of the time, written by Alphonse de Candolle, into a living display of plant diversity, delivered through a beautiful ‘gardenesque’ design of irregularly-sized island beds – you can literally ‘read’ the book through the Beds starting on page one with the buttercups (which is why we all studied the buttercup as the standard flower in biology, even though there’s nothing very ‘typical’ about a buttercup!).

The independently commissioned research has found that the Systematic Beds are completely unique in their design and concept and intellectual foundation. The renovation plan will be guided by these core, unique design principles and we plan to re-emphasis key elements of Murray’s vision, including a closer alignment to the original bed layout which has been eroded over the years through partial upgrades, and to reinstate larger, closely-planted beds to make a more immersive and sensory experience.

Work has begun this autumn to renovate the plantings, the first stage of the three-year project which will also see the development of an interpretation hub to open up the Systematic Beds to all for learning and enjoyment.

Three of the five sections of the Systematic Beds are in need of a thorough overhaul, starting with the opening and closing chapters of de Candolle’s text book— Thalamiflorae and Monochlamydeae.

These two sections have been closed off and plants have been propagated or lifted and removed to a custom-built behind-the-scenes facility. The turf has been stripped and the earth rotovated or hand dug where cultivation comes close to the root protection zones of our major trees. We will then bring our new stone burier into play to prepare the ground for re-turfing. The soil will be treated with a nematode, a biological pest control which we hope will see off the chafer grubs—the rooks, muntjac and badgers cause extensive grass damage in their search for these tasty morsels. New turf will be laid in the spring and allowed to settle and establish over the summer. We will then be able to cut the new beds in autumn 2017 and improve the soil. Then begins the process of re-uniting our dispersed species from their temporary homes into their family groupings and re-planting.

We will follow on with the third section —Corolliflorae on the east side of Systematics — in autumn 2017.

The challenge ahead will be to compose displays of plant diversity to intrigue and delight, that meet modern first class horticultural standards and that also observe the curatorial and taxonomic rigour that our heritage Systematic Beds require by definition. It will be a deft balancing act.

Follow progress on Instagram @cubgsystematics in the New Year.

Juliet Day, Development Officer, Botanic Garden

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2016 by in Behind the Scenes, Culture, Goal 1, News, Research and tagged , .
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