Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a great music and restaurant scene set amongst stunning beaches, dramatic rock formations, and lagoons. Whenever I am asked for advice on what to do in Rio, I direct people to the Jardim Botanico, one of the oldest and most elegant botanical gardens in the world.
During one visit to Rio my colleagues and I had a couple of free hours at the end of our conference. I rushed everyone into a cab and headed to the base of the Corcovado mountain-- where the gardens are. On the late afternoon of our visit, the traffic was heavy and the Jardim Botanico was closing when we arrived. Explaining our long journey, and sincere pleading, got us in. We were the only people in the whole place!
The garden was established in 1808 and opened to the public in 1822 at a time when Brazil was still part of Portugal under the rule of King John VI. The garden was created so that people could study the practical properties of tropical plants—to extend research going on in Lisbon.
Initial work focused on spices like cinnamon, pepper, and nutmeg, so that these crops could be grown for profit. In the early years, Chinese experts were brought in to teach the Portuguese how to cultivate, harvest and process black tea.
Historically the study of plants was closely tied to medicine so it’s no surprise that the first to lead the institution was Friar Leandro, a professor of the Academy of Medicine and Surgery. His passion for teaching botany in a practical manner made him famous. According to the garden’s official website, “The chroniclers of the time told in detail the scene of the friar teaching lessons … where, along with the students, many curious passers, [would] watch his practical lessons in botany. …Friar Leandro … aimed at passing his knowledge on natural history to all those who showed interest.”
While a majority of the garden is natural, cultivated areas include an orchid house, a lily pond, and a Japanese garden. Most striking is the formal allee that starts at the main entrance. While this type of feature in European formal gardens commonly uses hornbeam or Cyprus, this garden instead uses 100-foot tall imperial palms. This feature is a show stopper: the repetition and form of the 100-foot tall trees amplify the perspective both outward and upward; the rigid formality contrasts powerfully in the context of a wild garden. The two axes that form the heart of this section lead to a monumental cast iron fountain called “The Muses,” cast in Derby, UK and installed in 1895. In the classic technique of ‘borrowing a view,’ the main avenue frames a glimpse of the Christ statue for which Rio is so well known. This entrance garden serves as an invitation: it slows us down; it helps us to make the transition from the busy city; and its key elements orient us, directing us deeper into the landscape.
In 1992, UNESCO named the Rio Botanical Garden a biosphere reserve.
The garden is officially open every day until 5pm except for Christmas and New Year’s day.