Padua Botanical Gardens: five hundred years of university research and teaching.
The Botanic Gardens of the University of Padua was founded as medicinal garden alongside the dreaming spires of the University, to grow native and exotic plants for scientific and teaching purposes.
When they were founded the Gardens were used exclusively for medicinal plants, which at the time was the main therapeutic resource used. Almost all medicines were made from herbs. There was still, however, much uncertainty about the identification of many of the plants listed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Therefore there was much bona fide error, many snake oil doctors, and often wrong, useless, and sometimes harmful plants were used.
The medicinal garden was not only a quantum leap in teaching terms (allowing students of medicine to examine plants from close up, so they could identify proper drugs and not be taken in by fakes), and was also the start of experimentation in the botanical field.
Padua's Garden, from the 16th century onwards, has had a profound effect on science, both in Italy and Europe. For the many overseas students either studying medicine at Padua or passing through the town, the Gardens were an inspiration they would follow later when they returned home. For this reason, the Gardens in Padua have often been called "the mother" of all others throughout the world.
Many of the botanists who took over as Prefects of the Garden were to become extremely famous. They enjoyed the admiration of others for their erudition, so much so that many species of plants – and even genii – were dedicated to them.
Padua has the oldest Botanical Gardens – still to be found in its original location and with its original layout – in the world. It has also maintained its original function as a centre for scientific research and teaching tool, and has continuously adapted these functions to the changing requirements of science, especially botany.
Since its foundation, Padua's Botanic Gardens have been the hub of a network of international relations, and have seen exchanges of plants, seeds, and all types of scientific material. The Gardens became an important centre for study and research, at the cutting edge in the cultivation and acclimation of exotic plants. So it was that in Padua, for the first time in Italy – and often in Europe – many exotic plants were grown for the first time, which were later to become widespread, either because they were so popular (lilacs, hyacinths, jasmines, freesias, etc.), or because they started to grow spontaneously in Italy (American aloe, false-acacia, tree of heaven). This tradition in introducing exotic species and exchanging plants with other countries has never stopped, and nowadays the Gardens still exchange seeds with more than eight hundred scientific institutions throughout the world.