With re-creation of 1500s garden, a reminder of when herb knowledge was a survival tool

At first blush, the dozens of clay pots on the Arbor Terrace at Dumbarton Oaks seem like the treasures of a plant nerd just back from a shopping spree. In one grouping alone, you find an array of thyme, oregano, lavender, scented geranium, sage, sweet woodruff and mint.

Step back, and you see a method to this madness: The pots are arranged in a decorative circle, and for all their variety, they share one trait. They are all herbs. Culinary herbs, household herbs, healing herbs. Actually, they share something else: They were also recorded in the Padua Botanical Garden in northeastern Italy. The garden was first planted in 1545 and is the oldest surviving example of a university teaching garden. Here, medical students learned to identify plants and their pharmaceutical qualities. In an age when we have come to think of plants as mostly decorative or edible, such “physic” gardens are a reminder of a time when we needed herbs and knowledge of them to survive.

The gardeners at Dumbarton Oaks — the Georgetown estate and Harvard research institution — re-created the Padua garden to mark a gathering of scholars in May to explore the historic link between landscape and academia. That gathering is past, but the display on the Arbor Terrace, which includes an accompanying outside exhibit, will remain until midsummer.

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