Trinity College initiated a physic garden on the main College campus in 1687 to provide plant material to support the teaching of medicine. By 1773 this garden had become derelict and was partly used to dump offal from the Anatomy Department! There was a short-lived attempt to establish a garden in Harold’s Cross to the south west of the campus, but by 1806 the College Physic Garden was finally abandoned, and a botanic garden established in an area of land leased in Ballsbridge. Over the next one hundred years this garden developed considerably and held an important and varied collection of plants. Notable curators of this garden include J. T. Mackay, credited with producing the first flora of Ireland – Flora Hibernica – in 1836, and F. W. Burbidge, who was well known for his exploration of the Kinabalu region of what is now Sabah in the north of Borneo, and for his work on the collection and hybridisation of Narcissus.

Location of the Physic Garden behind the Anatomy House in Trinity College in the mid- to late-1700s

The Garden celebrated the tercentenary of the College in 1892 with the presentation to the garden of a massive specimen of the tree fern Todea barbara, a gift from the Royal Botanic Garden Melbourne. A cutting of this plant still thrives in the present garden. The position of Curator was abandoned after the death of Burbidge, and as a result the garden ceased to develop. This was partly redressed with the appointment of an assistant curator in 1950. In 1965 a plan was put before the College Board to relocate the garden to Trinity Hall, a student accommodation complex in Dartry. This move was approved, giving the garden better long-term security as the Trinity Hall site is freehold. The move was completed over 1966 and 1967; a large hotel complex now stands on the former Ballsbridge garden site. Many important plant specimens were transferred to Dartry, including a 25-foot-tall Ginkgo biloba and various cycads.

Todea barbara, from a cutting of the original plant presented to the garden in 1892, thrives in the Stove House

After the move to Dartry, the development of the ‘new’ botanic garden proceeded steadily. An important development was the establishment of a position of Administrator in 1981 (now Curator/Administrator). The garden developed an international reputation for plant conservation work and supported a diversity of research projects ranging from low temperature tolerance to the effects of elevated carbon dioxide on growth of grasses. To commemorate the College quatercentenary in 1992, the garden was presented with the gift of another tree fern by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney: a fine specimen of Cyathea australis from Australia.

A more detailed account of this period of the garden’s history may be found (here) in The Story of the Botanic Gardens of Trinity College 1687 to 1987 by Peter Wyse Jackson, published privately in 1987. An edited version was published as ‘The Botanic Garden of Trinity College Dublin 1687 to 1987’ in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society (1987), vol 95 pp 301-311.

Directors Appointed

  • Henry H. Dixon 1905
  • David A. Webb 1950
  • William A. Watts 1966*
  • David H.S. Richardson 1980
  • David W. Jeffrey 1992
  • Mike B. Jones 2002
  • John A.N. Parnell 2005
  • Jennifer C. McElwain 2019

* During some of the period up to 1980, D.W. Jeffrey was appointed Acting-Director

Curators Appointed

  • James Townsend Mackay 1802
  • John Bain 1862
  • Michael Dowd 1875
  • Frederick Moore 1877
  • Frederick W. Burbidge 1879-1905
  • Peter S. Wyse Jackson 1981**
  • Stephen Waldren 1990

After Burbidge’s death in 1905 the garden was without a Curator until 1951, when an Assistant Curator post was established which was held by two women,

  • May Crosbie 1951
  • Joan O’Mara 1963-1979

Until then the garden was managed by the Head Gardener (S.G. Wild, 1905; Robert Byrne, 1949; and Denis McKennedy, 1960)

** Curator post re-established as Garden Administrator in 1981, and Curator/Administrator from 1994

[All historical images reproduced courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin from a presentation on the history of Botany for the 2011 Tercentenary Celebrations by Dr James White.]

James Townsend Mackay, first Curator
Frederick William Burbidge, Curator from 1879 to 1905

The Garden Today

Today, the garden supports Trinity College Botany Department’s teaching in conservation biology, taxonomy, physiological ecology, pollination biology and plant response to climate change. It provides living plant material, controlled growth environments, glasshouses and other experimental facilities for botanical research. The garden also houses the Irish Threatened Plant Seedbank, circa 4000 species in the living collections, four heated glasshouses, three unheated glasshouses, walk-in controlled environment chambers, low temperature growth facilities, experimental plots including open top chambers, growing beds including systematic garden and arboretum, potting shed and ancillary facilities. Zoological facilities including research mesocosms and a bird house are also located within the gardens.

Read about our exciting ten-year strategy for the gardens (2020 – 2030) here.