If you have had enough museums, canal houses and crowds, slip away to the Hortus Botanicus. For the last 375 years, it has been a beacon for botanists, but also for ordinary people seeking peace and quiet. Although the area is small (a little less than a standard city block), the Hortus is packed with treasures, and if you want to learn something about plants, it is also the most engaging possible textbook. Originally a garden for herbal medicines, the garden took on a new role with the Dutch explorations around the world, cultivating many plants which were brought back as a few seedlings. Some were the backbone of important commercial ventures, coffee being the most notable example.
You can simply wander around the garden and look at the huge mature trees from around the world, or enjoy the flowers. Except in the dead of winter, there’s always something in bloom, and even then you can probably find a hellebore peeking out. If it’s pouring, take refuge in the huge contemporary greenhouse with its many climates, or keep company with one of the oldest potted plants in the world in the convservatory from the early 20th century. It’s a male Eastern Cape Giant Cycad, its female companion a mere 200 years old, whom the gardeners pollinate to produce seed which is distributed around the world.
If you want to do more than wander, two trails will guide you around: one which gives information on some of the garden’s magnificent trees (everything from the ancient gingko to the contemporary London plane), and another which will do no less than teach you how plant life developed on earth! Having only the vaguest idea about this, I was fascinated to discover the huge advance that seeds represented over “blowing in the wind” as Bob Dylan put it. The information about each era is signposted in Dutch and English right in the middle of the plants which were typical of that time.
If you’re a gardener, you’ll love the huge variety of plants, representing seven different climates (indoors and out). Look closely at the half moon of boxwood-lined beds right in front of the main building. They are newly arranged to represent the latest classification of plants using their molecular (DNA) characteristics rather than external appearances. Even just looking at them aesthetically is a pleasure.
Finally, when you want a break from your break, the Orangery will gladly (if expensively) serve you some chewy and well-spiced carrot and walnut cake along with a cup of tea. If you have really lucked out, you can sit outdoors and gaze into hundreds of shades of green while white clouds float overhead, just as I am now.