Monday, May 4, 2009

Name that Plant

Did you know a palm tree planted in the sixteenth century is still alive and thriving in Italy? The tree, protected now inside an octagonal greenhouse, was planted in 1585 in the Orto Botanico di Padova. Padua's botanical garden is the oldest academic garden still in existence at its original site, and its ground plan survives nearly unchanged. The university established the garden in 1545 in order to cultivate native and exotic medicinal plants. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, medical students took two courses on medicinal plants: a theoretical course based on the lecturs of Dioscorides, and a practical course which involved identifying and studying the plants growing in the garden. The numerous surviving examples of maps of the garden written in different hands suggests that the students had to identify the plants growing in the different beds. This practical training helped them avoid administering incorrect plants when preparing medicines and treating their patients.

The palm, a Chamaerops humilis, is often referred to as the "Goethe palm." Studying the palm in 1786 helped the famous German writer articulate his ideas about evolution, which he published in an essay entitled "Metamorphosis of Plants." The palm is presently the oldest plant in the garden, following the death in 1984 of a chaste tree whose presence was documented since 1550. The garden also houses both a magnolia and a ginko planted in the mid-1700's and considered to be among the oldest specimens in Europe.


Ms. Lucy said...

This is so interesting. I have very close relatives that live near Padova- I wonder if they know about this. Thanks:)

Julianne Douglas said...

You're welcome! You'll have to go see the palm the next time you visit your relatives. :)