Oxford University Botanic Garden - UK's oldest physic garden that 'inspired Alice in Wonderland'

The University of Oxford Botanic Garden plays a vital role in saving our environment. ITV News Meridian's Heather Edwards visits the UK's oldest physic garden.

A hidden oasis nestled among Oxford's dreaming spires bursts with wild and wonderful flowers and juicy berries - and sinister 'killers'.

This year, the Oxford University Botanical Garden is celebrating a special anniversary.

The university planted the country's first Physic Garden on the banks of the River Cherwell 400 years ago, to grow specimens for use by its medical students.

This botanical Eden that inspired the great minds who brought the world Alice in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings is the UK's oldest.

Today, it has plenty more stories to tell.

'Keeper of the garden,' Professor Simon Hiscock, explains how thousands of different plants have been collected over the years from every corner of the globe.

The gardens, founded in 1621, are not just scientifically important.

They are also believed to have fired the imaginations of the likes of authors J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis, who were themselves Oxford professors.

The 400-year-old Oxford University Botanic Garden is the UK's oldest. Credit: ITV Meridian News

But it's not just the medicinal properties of the plants that heal.

The garden has been a green space for people to retreat to during the pandemic's lockdowns.

Prof Hiscock, Oxford's Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum director, says: “This garden has been an oasis here in Oxford during the various lockdowns and that has been so important for people to just come and sit and relax and get away from the world of pandemic.”

Continuing the work of all the botanists that have gone before him, Botanist Chris Thorogood travels the world searching out new plants to study.

He also knows all of the garden's secrets.

Under a Yew Tree, shiny black berries twinkle innocently - but admirers beware.

Botanist Chris Thorogood handles deadly nightshade. Credit: ITV Meridian News

The deadly nightshade is one of the most poisonous plants in the UK, and is powerful enough to kill a person, Dr Thorogood says.

“These glossy berries - they’re quite beautiful, but they belie the toxicity of this plant.”

In the glasshouses lurk a different type of killer.

Visitors to the garden can watch tropical pitcher plants trap the insects unfortunate enough to fall into their pouches.

The carnivorous plants's maws are filled with juices that break down their prey for digestion, releasing nutrients that feed them.

Oxford Professor Simon Hiscock says the physic garden has been an 'oasis' during lockdowns. Credit: ITV News Meridian

As they look to the future, the keepers of the Botanical Gardens want to raise awareness of the importance of plants for all our futures - as many are now at risk.

Dr Thorogood says: “The plants are so important. We depend on them for our very existence. For the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the med we take. We really can’t  live in this world without plants.

“And yet the reality is, two in five of the world's plants species are threatened with extinction, and that’s really worrying.”

“One of the things we care very deeply about at the botanic gardens is to share that message of the importance of plants with the world.”

  • To mark the Oxford University Botanic Garden's 400th anniversary a new rose has been created that will be launched at the Chelsea Flower Show next year.