The Utrecht Botanic Gardens are among the oldest university gardens still in existence in the Netherlands. They were originally laid out in 1639, three years after Utrecht University was founded. The first garden, called Hortus medicus at the time,  was planted on what was then Sonnenborgh bastion, now the site of the museum of the same name and the astronomical observatory. After relocating to Lange Nieuwstraat, the site of the present University Museum Utrecht, in the early 1960s todays Botanic Gardens were opened in what is now the Utrecht Science Park.

From Hortus medicus to Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens were originally designed as a teaching garden for students of Medicine. Covering a surface area of around a hectare and with approximately 650 plant species, the Utrecht medicinal garden at Sonnenborgh bastion was small compared to other botanic gardens in the Netherlands.

In 1723, the university purchased a larger and better site at Nieuwegracht. The accompanying garden was planted by botanic gardener Serrurier, using the plant system developed by Leiden University Professor Boerhaave. In 1726, it was followed by a heated greenhouse, fuelled by peat, for a collection of tropical plants. Despite its small size, the garden in Utrecht, in addition to its counterparts in Leiden and Amsterdam, played an important role in the development of systematic botany in the Netherlands.

In 1747 Professor Van Wachendorff, its director at that time, developed a plant system of his own, referred to as the 'Horti Ultraiectini Index',  that was based on Linnaeus' system. In order to illustrate the relationship between the various plant groups, the garden facilities required expansion. Van Wachendorff's successor, Johann David Hahn, therefore built a large orangery on the north side of the complex in 1767. The lower floor was designed in such a way as to enable high-growing exotic trees, such as the large Utrecht Date Palm, to overwinter in the building.

The 20th century

In 1920, Utrecht University acquired Cantonspark in Baarn. From then on, the university owned two botanic gardens. The Utrecht Garden was called 'Hortus Botanicus', but in Baarn, the name Cantonspark was maintained. From 1964–1987, the Sandwijck estate in De Bilt was also home to a greenhouse collection that belonged to the Botanic Gardens. In 1987, this was moved, together with the collections from Cantonspark and the greenhouse collection from the Hortus at Nieuwegracht, to the new Tropical Greenhouses at the Utrecht Science Park location. These new greenhouses were built according to the very latest science, with computerised climate control in the various units. Many of the collections of perennial plants were also moved. However, the trees from the Hortus were too old to be moved. One example is the beautiful, old Ginkgo, planted in around 1730. It is probably the oldest example of this tree species outside Asia.
The former Hortus is now partly enclosed by the University Museum Utrecht. Visitors to the museum can admire this unique Gingko and other extraordinary trees in The Oude Hortus museum garden.

Fort Hoofddijk

Fort Hoofddijk is part of the military defences known as the New Dutch Waterline (Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie), which is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The fort section of this line of defences was built in 1879. The Botanic Gardens were built on and around the various bunkers. Because of their height, it was possible to plant a relatively high and expansive Rock Garden on top of these buildings. Even so, around 2,100 tonnes of stone from the Belgian Ardennes were needed to create this garden on the left-hand bunker.

Work started on the Botanic Gardens in 1963. The Rock Garden was the first to be laid out and planted. This was followed by the Evolution Garden and the Tropical Greenhouses in the 1980s. To celebrate its 350th anniversary in 1989, the Botanic Gardens launched a competition for the design of a new garden, which was won by landscape gardener Ara Wijsbeek. The Discovery Garden opened in 1995. It was specially designed as a garden for learning and playing and intended for a wide public. In this garden, the educational value is more important that the scientific value of the collections, making it unique in the Netherlands.

The Botanic Gardens continue to play an important role in supporting education and research to this day. In the Research Complex, students and scientists continue to conduct research. The rest of the garden is still also used for education purposes, especially for teaching botany.