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Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh


The Royal Botanic Garden is one of the major collections of plants in the world, and is home to some six per cent of all known plant species. Moved to its present site in the early-19th century, it incorporates part of the former policies of Inverleith House and has views over the city. Of special interest are the several glasshouses covering a range of climates, the Chinese Hillside, the Rock Garden, Arboretum and Scottish Heath Garden. The Queen Mother's Memorial Garden was opened in 2006 and the new visitor centre called the John Hope Gateway opened in October 2009.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Location and Setting

The Royal Botanic Garden is situated approximately 1 mile (1.5km) north of Edinburgh City Centre and a similar distance south from the shores of the Firth of Forth. The Garden is contained by walls or railings on all four boundaries, although the administration buildings of the Garden extend on its east side onto Inverleith Row. Georgian mansions partly line the eastern boundary and similar houses lie to the north and south of the Garden whilst Inverleith Park lies to the west. The Garden includes part of the former policies of Inverleith House. The site enjoys a low average rainfall. Natural soil conditions are alluvial sand but they have been modified to suit requirements in many areas of the Garden. The eastern side of the Garden is relatively level but the ground rises steeply to the hill on which Inverleith House stands, from which a magnificent panoramic view of the skyline of Edinburgh can be gained. The Garden itself is of only some significance in the local landscape since it can only really be seen from the surrounding roads.

The Royal Botanic Garden is laid out over a relatively square site which extends from Inverleith Row in the east to Arboretum Place in the west, Inverleith Place in the north, to Inverleith Terrace in the south. When first established on its present site in 1820, the site covered only some 14 acres (5.7ha). After 1845, the Garden began to expand; in 1876, 28 acres of ground around Inverleith House were purchased which completed most of the expansion of the Garden to its present size. Documentary map evidence of this development is provided by the OS maps of 1852 and 1933, and a detailed plan of the garden made in 1870. The addition of the area around Inverleith House enabled the view of Edinburgh to be incorporated as a feature of the Garden and it is generally considered today as one of the best locations from which a view of the City can be gained. The fine Plant Exhibition Houses are situated in the north- east of the garden and stand amid lawns with specimen trees which provide a setting for the buildings when viewed from the various points in the Garden.

The 58 acres (23.5ha) of garden have been developed into a number of character areas including the Heath Garden, the Rock Garden, the Peat Garden, the garden around the Pond, the Woodland Garden, the Copse, the Arboretum and the Demonstration Gardens.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Inverleith House, listed category B, is a classical mansion of three storeys, built in 1774 for James Rocheid to a design by David Henderson. Two pavilions, situated to the north of the house, are linked to it by diagonal screen walls. Alterations to the original house were made by W. Robertson in 1877 and again recently. Until 1984, the main building housed the Gallery of Modern Art. It is presently being developed as a Visitor and Exhibition Centre for the Botanic Garden. The western pavilion houses the public tea room for visitors to the Garden. The former Herbarium building by David Cousin, was built in 1843 and was the Exhibition Hall of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society. The modern Herbarium building by R. Saddler, which also houses the Library and Administrative offices received a Civic Trust Award when opened in 1964. The Tropical Palm House was opened in 1834 and is connected to the larger Temperate Palm House built in 1858, which is thought to be the tallest glasshouse in Britain. The new Exhibition Plant Houses were opened in 1967. The seven interconnected houses provide a range of distinct climatic regimes and are landscaped as habitats appropriate to the plant life which has been established in them.

Until recently, several pieces of modern sculpture were sited within the Garden, mainly due to its associations with the Gallery of Modern Art. Since the relocation of the Gallery, most of these have been removed. Those which remain include one on the edge of the Heath Garden by Barbara Hepworth. The Linnaeus Monument is indicated on the OS map of 1852 to the west of the laboratories and was relocated to its present position in 1967. The gatepiers to the south-west, at the entry to Arboretum Avenue, are early 18th century, broken pediment type, with grotesque lions.

The Gardens

The Garden has been developed into several distinct areas:

The Heath Garden, situated in the south-east corner of the Garden, has been developed since 1933 and contains plants from the genera Erica and Calluna in the family Ericaceae. Most of the plants are low growing and provide colour from June-October with interest provided in winter months by cultivars of Erica heracea.

The Rock Garden, situated to the west of the Heath Garden, was originally established by 1852 in a form indicated on the OS map of that year. The present Rock Garden was originally designed by Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour and was built between 1908 -1914 with conglomerate rock from Ben Ledi, Perthshire, and sandstone from Dumfriesshire. Since 1970, it has been completely resoiled and replanted. Plants in the rock garden have wide ranging origins from hot Mediterranean Regions to cold permafrost regions. Plant genera include Cytisus, Genista and Potentilla and dwarf forms of Rhododendron and conifers as well as alpine plants such as Saxifraga, Allium, Pulsatilla and Gentiana including Gentiana 'Inverleith' (a hybrid of G. farreri and G. veitchiorum). Rare plants include fine specimens of the willow Salix boydii. A stream and waterfall flowing through the rock garden is pumped from the pond which lies to the north, beyond the Old Herbarium building.

The garden around the Pond is a naturally wet area which is fed by springs. It was transformed in the course of Garden improvements between 1820-23 and is the habitat for the many hardy aquatic and marsh plants which have been established around its margins, including Nuphar lutea, Lysichiton americanum, Arum maculatum Phormium tenax and Gunnera manicata. Specimen trees around the pond include willow, swamp cypress and ornamental maples.

The Woodland Garden is situated to the west of the Rock Garden beneath a canopy of mainly coniferous trees. Rhododendrons are well established within the area and include numerous species which flower from January to late August. Worthy of note are R. mucronulatum, R. falconeri, R. basilicum, R. praestans and R. hippophaeoides. The Rhododendrons provide shelter for the many other species grown within the woodland canopy, including Camellias, Magnolias, Cotoneasters, Hydrangeas and Liliums with ground cover planting of Meconopsis, Primulas, and Hostas.

The Peat Garden continues from the northern edge of the Woodland Garden. It was originally a 'rootery' with peat dumped to conceal an unsightly area of old tree stumps. Onto this base, dwarf evergreens were established. The area has now been reconstructed using peat walls to provide terraces where Cassiopes, dwarf Rhododendrons, Gaultherias, Pernettyas and Schizocodons are grown, some of which have creeping roots to help stabilize the terraces. Liliums, orchids, Primulas and trilliums grow between the shrubs, as well as Meconopsis and Ourisias, all of which add colour and interest to this relatively shaded area.

The Arboretum lies to the north-west of the Peat Garden on the south-facing slope of the hill on which Inverleith House stands. It is the largest section of the Garden. Originally, it was intended that all members of a single genus were laid out together but this order has been partially lost over the years for a variety of reasons. In 1981, Alan Mitchell surveyed 158 trees, most of which can be found in the Arboretum; amongst them were 15 types of oak, including Quercus lusitanica v. serratifolia and Q. velutina, and 15 species of birch (Betula) and 22 species of Acer, including A. acuminatum and A. rufinerve. Of particular interest is Tetracentronsinense, the only member of the family Tetracentraceae which was formerly part of the family Magnoliaceae. The trees are attractively laid out on lawn enabling the visitor to walk through the Arboretum. The situation of the Arboretum on the hillside enables good views to be gained of it from all angles.

The Rhododendron Walk extends from the West Gate around the edge of the hillside on which Inverleith House stands. It passes the lawn in front of the house, the site of the 19th century formal garden and, more recently, the Sculpture Court of the Gallery of Modern Art. Many of the species grown in the Woodland Garden are found here, providing shelter for the many herbaceous species which grow in association with them, including Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii, Rodgersia henrici, Helleborus corsicus and various tender plants including Desfontainea spinosa. Between the Rhododendron Walk and the Exhibition Plant Houses is the Azalea Lawn which provides a magnificent display in spring/summer. A wide range of Azaleas is represented, ranging from the early flowering mollis varieties to the ghent hybrids and the occidentale hybrids which flower into July. Additional interest is provided by specimen Rhododendrons and trees from the family Rosaceae.

West of the Azalea lawn on the north-facing edge of the hill is the Copse. It lies on an extremely exposed site and protection is provided by shelterbelts of pines and hollies. Many mature trees are well established in the area as well as specimens of Acer palmatum 'Senkaki', Eucryphia glutinosa and Nothofagus species. They all contribute shade and shelter to the understorey which is largely composed of Rhododendrons.

A fine mature beech hedge lies beyond the northern boundary of the Copse. A broad herbaceous border runs along the south side of the hedge and, on the north side, is the Demonstration Garden. It aims to use living plants to introduce the visitor to a number of basic botanical and horticultural principles including plant classification, methods of reproduction, selection and hybridisation. To this end, the garden is laid out in a series of beds, each with an individual topic, eg The Rose Garden which depicts the development of the rose, Culinary Herbs, Medicinal Herbs, Groundcover Plants, and plants from the Scottish Flora grouped according to their taxonomic classification.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

Access contact details

The garden is open daily from 10am. It is closed on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.


The Royal Botanic Garden is 1 mile north of the city centre, off the A902, with entrances at Inverleith Row [East Gate] and Arboretum Place [West Gate].On-street parking is available with free parking on weekends and metered parking on weekdays.There are regular buses from the city centre to the East Gate on Inverleith Row.


Scottish Executive


The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

The second oldest botanic garden in the UK hosts a vast plant collection and some interesting architectural features. The landscape is attractively laid out and enables vital research and conservation work to be carried out.

Site History

The Royal Botanic Garden was established on its present site in 1820 although the history of the Garden goes back much further, to 1670. The plant collection expanded over the years and in 1820 a new larger site was chosen to the east of Inverleith House, under the direction of Professor Robert Graham, and curator William McNab. The transfer to the new 14 acre site took three years and it is to the credit of William McNab that little of the plant material died in the process. Macnab invented a transplanting machine for use in the removal of large trees.

The OS map of 1852 indicates the relationship on plan of the Botanic Garden with the adjacent policies of Inverleith; the house stood on the hill with a formal parterre on the flat ground adjacent to the south front. A belt of trees enclosed the house and garden and continued down the west drive before returning along the west boundary. Parkland lay to the north, south and east as far as the boundary of the Botanic Garden. In the south-west corner of the Park was an enclosure which appears to have been an orchard, kitchen garden and piggery. In 1864, the adjacent experimental garden of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society was transferred to the RBG and, in 1876, the remaining twenty eight acres of land around Inverleith House were acquired.

The next main period of expansion and development began after the appointment in 1888 of Isaac Bayley Balfour as Regius Keeper. In 1889, the Garden came wholly under the Crown. Improvements instigated by Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, which involved the complete re-organisation of the plant collection have resulted in the garden which remains today. Glasshouses and accommodation were built for research and teaching. A wealth of plant material was being brought back in the latter years of the 19th and early 20th centuries by collectors such as Forrest, Ludlow and Sherriff from their expeditions to Asian countries. The Royal Botanic Garden benefitted from this influx of material and became a major centre for taxonomic research.

Sir William Wright Smith held the post of Regius Keeper from 1922-56 and in that time continued the aim of improvement in the Garden. He was succeeded by Dr Harold Fletcher who saw in his time as Regius Keeper the transfer of the University Department of Botany from the Garden to their present position at Kings Buildings and the transfer of the administration of the Garden from the Ministry of Public Buildings & Works to the Department of Agriculture & Fisheries for Scotland. On Dr Fletcher's retiral in 1970, Professor Douglas Henderson was appointed Regius Keeper and he, like his predecessors, has continued to improve the Garden. In April 1986, as a consequence of the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, the garden became a grant-in-aid body with a board of trustees and funded by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland.

Associated People
Features & Designations


  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland


  • Mansion House (featured building)
  • Description: Inverleith House, listed category B, is a classical mansion of three storeys, built in 1774 for James Rocheid to a design by David Henderson. Two pavilions, situated to the north of the house, are linked to it by diagonal screen walls.
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  • Tropical House
  • Description: Tropical Palm House
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  • Temperate House
  • Description: The Temperate Palm House
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  • Glasshouse
  • Description: A modern range of glasshouses representing different climatic zones.
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  • Hedge
  • Description: A beech hedge about 100 years old backing the herbaceous border and dividing it from the demonstration gardens.
  • Herbaceous Border
  • Description: 165-metre long herbaceous border
  • Alpine Bed
  • Description: Alpine house.
  • Tree Feature
  • Description: Arboretum.
  • Lawn
  • Description: Azalea lawn.
  • Garden Terrace
  • Description: Chilean terrace garden.
  • Pavilion
  • Description: Chinese pavilion.
  • Vantage Point
  • Description: City viewpoint.
  • Tree Feature
  • Description: Copse.
  • Pond
  • Planting
  • Description: Scottish heath garden.
  • Planting
  • Description: Queen Mother's Memorial Garden.
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  • Sculpture
  • Description: Sculpture includes work by Andy Goldsworthy, Barabara Hepworth and Robert Adam.
Key Information





Principal Building






Open to the public





  • Historic Scotland