Hortus Botanicus: A Dutch Garden That Changed the World

Originally published in DUTCH the Magazine, May/June 2023

Four centuries ago, there were no Etos drugstores or neighborhood pharmacies in the Netherlands. Rather than paracetamol and other modern medicine, 17th-century doctors prescribed holistic cures. Like their Asian counterparts, who’d remedied illness with plant-based treatments for some 5,000 years, Dutch medical professionals relied on herbs and plant extracts, not man-made drugs developed in scientific laboratories, to relieve patients’ ills in the Golden Age. While researching medicinal herbs, surgeons also sought therapies for diseases spread by sailors returning from far-flung continents.

Founded in the 17th century as a medicinal garden, Hortus Botanicus is now a serene botanical oasis in Amsterdam’s leafy Plantage district.

To serve these purposes, Amsterdam’s city council founded Hortus Botanicus (initially Hortus Medicus) in 1638, on the site of a former monastery. In what was essentially an outdoor holistic pharmacy vital for city healthcare, pharmacists took exams and physicians conducted botanic experiments. Rather than microscopes and petri dishes, they were surrounded by seeds and plants imported from Asia and Indonesia by Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie/VOC) traders for medicinal and possible commercial use.

In what was essentially an outdoor holistic drugstore, Dutch pharmacists took exams and physicians conducted botanic experiments in the Golden Age.

Plants That Transformed Cultures 

While most specimens in Hortus’ 17th-century collection were unknown in Europe at the time, several provided roots that have transformed cultures. These include a single coffee plant – part of a Coffea arabica crop cultivated by the VOC in the Dutch East Indies to circumvent the high price Arabs were charging for coffee – that spawned Central and South America’s entire coffee culture. The first shipment of propagated seeds reached Hortus In 1706, where they thrived in a greenhouse. Their offspring were exported to the Caribbean and Central America, as well as South America, now home to the world’s largest coffee producers.

Two oil palms from Mauritius produced seeds that were propagated throughout Southeast Asia, becoming a major revenue source in the Dutch East Indies and present-day Indonesia.

Equally significant are two small oil palms retrieved from Mauritius. These produced seeds that were propagated throughout Southeast Asia, becoming a major source of revenue in the Dutch East Indies and present-day Indonesia. While palms might conjure up luxury vacations for Europeans, they’re valued in tropical regions for more practical reasons, namely for the fats and fibers they yield. The oil palm is one of the world’s main sources of vegetable cooking oil, made by squeezing its fleshy fruit or crushing the kernel at its core. The woody vines of palms are the primary building material for rattan chairs. 

Some trees at Hortus Botanicus are rare or remarkably old. The name, origin and age of each specimen is included on the information panel at its base.

In its trading heyday, Hortus Botanicus was a conduit for the global spread of both useful and decorative plants. By the late 17th century, it had purchased tulips, hyacinths, orange trees, asparagus, hollyhocks and olive trees from growers and traders. Okra and a gift pineapple plant from Suriname also were added to the collection. Plans for a zoo expansion – a pet project of Louis Napoleon during his brief reign as King of the Netherlands – evaporated when the “Lame King” abdicated in 1810. 

Cataloging the Garden 

In 1646, Johannes Snippendaal became superintendent at Hortus. While more than doubling the collection, the Dutch botanist cataloged the entire lot in a document describing 796 different species. The majority were medicinal, but a few noteworthy ornamental plants also were included in what became known as the 17th-century pharmacopeia of Amsterdam. Fast forward to 2007, when Hortus completed its own tour de force: translating Snippendaal’s entire catalog and cultivating a garden with all the plants in its contents. Those thriving in today’s Snippendaal Garden also grew in Hortus Medicus nearly four centuries ago. 

In addition to doubling Hortus’ collection, Dutch botanist Johannes Snippendaal cataloged the entire lot in a document describing 796 different species.

Alas, along with exotic and medicinal plants, VOC ships carrying cotton infested with disease-ridden rats and fleas also introduced bubonic plague to Amsterdam. Herbal medicine was no match for the epidemic, which claimed some 50,000 lives from 1663–1665. About 10% of the Dutch capital’s population succumbed to the 17th-century plague.

Hortus Highlights 

Hortus’ Semicircle Garden demonstrates how closely related species grow near each other while those with little common genetic material grow far apart.

Just inside Hortus’ Golden Age entrance gates, the Semicircle Garden demonstrates a core principle of plant systematics: how closely related species grow near each other while those with little common genetic material grow far apart. As the Netherlands’ only garden that categorizes flowering plants according to molecular systematics, it reveals secrets about their evolutionary development. While designed in 1863, its symmetry and box hedges suggest formal garden architecture popular before the more expressive style of the Romantic movement during which it was created.

Palm trees are scattered throughout Hortus Botanicus, as they grow in different climates. Some species are hardy enough to grow outdoors. Most are in the greenhouses, particularly in the tropical part of the Three Climate Greenhouse.

In 1885, famed Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries took the helm, bringing international acclaim – notably for his evening primrose research – and numerous additions to the three-acre garden. By the end of his tenure in 1918, Hortus included the monumental Palm Greenhouse and Hugo de Vries Laboratory, both commissioned by the governing board to please the illustrious geneticist. With their complicated masonry, organic appearance and exterior-interior integration, both represent Amsterdam School expressionist-style architecture popular in the early 20th century. The board also approved a new entrance gate across from de Vries’ house at Plantage Parklaan, sparing him a long walk around the garden.

A Trio of Greenhouses

Designed by Johan Melchior van der Mey, the Palm Greenhouse is now a protected monument. Since its construction in 1912, it has housed Hortus’ largest and oldest specimens, including a 2,000-year-old agave cactus and 350-year-old Eastern Cape giant palm fern (cycad). Cycads, which belong to an ancient species now on the endangered plant list, are cultivated at Hortus and scattered throughout the garden. Also notable in the Palm Greenhouse are a philodendron with impressively long aerial roots, as well as cinnamon and ficus trees allegedly planted by de Vries himself for educational purposes.

The Palm Greenhouse is home to Hortus’ largest and oldest specimens, including a 350-year-old Eastern Cape giant palm fern.

Equally striking is the Three Climate Greenhouse, a giant, ultramodern hothouse designed in 1993 by Zwarts & Jansma Architects. The eye-catching structure creates conditions for three distinct climate zones – the subtropics, desert and tropics – each with its own temperature, humidity and air circulation. The canopy walk takes visitors from the subtropics into the tropics, offering views of palms, South African clivia and lilies, carnivorous plants, and a dramatic glass roof. Other routes lead through dry shrubland and jungle environments. Future plans call for a new, sustainable layout that will incorporate stories of biodiversity and climate change.

You might need to shed a few layers in the Butterfly Greenhouse, a small hothouse housing hundreds of tropical butterflies. If you’re lucky, you’ll see more than a few flying around in the steamy interior. What you may not discern is what they’re doing: laying eggs on plant leaves.

The larvae are transferred daily to a separate greenhouse. When their contents are about to emerge, they return to the Butterfly Greenhouse to hang in a special cabinet until developing into butterflies. In a symbiotic dance, the newly-free insects drink nectar from flowers, then transfer pollen to surrounding blooms, sustaining the growth cycle. Plants used for food, fiber and medicine, as well as cacao trees, tea, rice, pepper plants and sugar cane, also thrive in the sauna-like environment.

Funding and Support

In its early years, Hortus generated profit for Amsterdam city council through herb sales and the cultivation and trade of exotic plants. When global trade no longer covered its expenses, the University of Amsterdam helped with funding. By the 1980s, Hortus had lost scientific importance for the university, which halted financial support. As bankruptcy loomed in 1987, a community of supporters prevented the garden’s closure.

Hortus Botanicus is now an independent foundation that relies on visitor revenue for more than 85% of its income.

Today Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam is an independent foundation that relies on visitor revenue for more than 85% of its income. Friends of the Garden, an association with more than 8,000 members, provides additional support. Along with numerous membership options, individuals as well as companies can adopt a plant, bench or school field trip to support the garden. 

Hortus Today

Set in the leafy Plantage district in Amsterdam-Oost, Hortus Botanicus is easily accessible by foot from Artis Zoo, Rembrandt’s House and the Resistance Museum. While no longer a source for medicinal herbs, it’s still a serene botanical oasis, as it’s been since the Dutch Golden Age.

Individuals and companies can support Hortus by adopting a plant, bench or school field trip.

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