The History of Parma University Botanic Garden

The quest for modern Botanic

Illustrazione storica del progetto originaleSistema Museale Università di Parma

Historical representation of the original layout

University Botanic Garden was founded in 1770 under the guidance of the abbot Giambattista Guatteri, under the mandate of Duke Ferdinand I of Bourbon and thanks to the fundamental support of Sanvitale family. The choice of an experimental orientation of the naturalistic plant was due to Guatteri; this laid the foundations for a modern botany: live study, floristic survey of the territory, introduction of exotic plants and their acclimatization in the greenhouse, exchange of seeds with other gardens according to a practice still followed nowadays. Under Guatteri’s guidance, the Garden of Parma reached such a richness of species as to merit the consideration of the most illustrious botanists of the time.

Foto antica delle serre ferdinandeeSistema Museale Università di Parma

Ferdinando’s Greenhouses

The construction of the characteristic orange groves was carried out from 1790 and 1793 on a project conducted by a pupil of the court architect Ennemond-Alexandre Petitot. In ancient times they were provided with stairs where the various pots were placed after Summer time. Their realization, with areas differentially heated by stoves (calidarium and tepidarium), aimed at preserving the plants coming from other habitats.

Sede didatticaSistema Museale Università di Parma

The structure, rather than a real greenhouse, refers to orange groves because of the single wall composed of small glass facing south. Over the centuries the building has housed cocoa and coffee plants, banana trees and orchids; even the production of pineapple was attempted to serve the tables of the ducal court.

Dating back to about 1950, the two protruding glass and metal greenhouses have been added subsequently to host insectivorous and tropical plants. Currently, the building also houses a part of the Natural History Museum.

Foto attuale della scuola di BotanicaSistema Museale Università di Parma

The Botanic School

The Botanic School was built in 1859 to replace the “fabbrica della calancà”, a cotton dyeing factory, that the founder of the garden Giambattista Guatteri used as a pot shelter during the cold season before the construction of the greenhouses. Built for educational purposes and for the conservation of seeds, the edifice now houses the museum and the book collections of the Botanic Garden, including historical herbaria.

Foto interni bibliotecaSistema Museale Università di Parma

The Library

Among the museum collections a special mention goes both to the portable herbarium of Giorgio Jan, forerunner of the modern systems adopted for botanical identification on-site and to the herbarium of Albertina Sanvitale, characterized by accurate flower arrangements. An entire room is occupied by the monumental Gardoni herbarium, a miscellaneous classification of medicinal plants and more related materials.

Foto Erbario SanvitaleSistema Museale Università di Parma

The Sanvitale Herbarium

This herbarium has been assembled by Duchess Albertina Sanvitale, daughter to Maria Luigia, Duchess of Parma. It is thought to have been finished by the time she was 11-13 years old. The various specimens have been collected during her travelling through Europe and Italy with her mother. It contains pieces of dried plants fastened onto double leaves with a thread; the notes are written in French and refer to the place of collection and also to monuments, streets and people. The collected specimens have been assembled in a refined way. Its relevance is considered more historical than scientific, more comparable to a travel diary, attesting the high aesthetic and cultural formation in the context of the court.

Foto Erbario JanSistema Museale Università di Parma

Jan Herbarium

The whole herbarium contains 43 folders divided in turn into four herbaria dated 1820: “Flora Italiae superioris”, “Herbarium technico-georgicum”, “Herbarium toxico-medicum”, Herbarium portatile. The original whole herbarium including 17,000 species with 98,000 specimens was transferred at the Museo Civico in Milan by Giorgio Jan. The valuable original portable herbarium is maintained at Parma Botanic Garden. In addition to its value as object of beauty being decorated in gold, it represents a useful tool for direct recognition on-site due to its small size.

Foto Erbario GardoniSistema Museale Università di Parma

Gardoni Herbarium

This huge general original herbarium has been assembled by the pharmacist Luigi Gardoni from 1836 to 1878. The herbarium consists of 268 cardboards and more than 10.000 sheets which contain specimens of dried plants. It also includes 447 carton boxes containing various kinds of vegetable products, advertising material, illustrations, parts of books, objects related to the uses of plants and several handwritten annotations. Scrolling through the manuscript you can feel the great commitment that he has put into this great work, offering a valuable snapshot of the pharmaceutical reality at the time.

Foto Erbario CasapiniSistema Museale Università di Parma

Casapini Herbarium

This old herbarium of medicinal plants, entitled “Naturalis Botanicae Icon”, is composed by five big folders including 197 specimens. It was completed in 1772 by botanist and physician Giovan Battista Casapini.Every specimen is mounted on a card surrounded by a refined colored frame and the first letter of the proper name is painted gold. Each specimen is accompanied by information on its healing properties and on the collection place (Parma and Piacenza area).

Giardino all’italiana OLDSistema Museale Università di Parma

Italian garden - yesterday

Over time, the Garden has changed its appearance several times, while maintaining two essential vocations: classical botanical research and herbal-pharmaceutical approach. During the last century the hedges of the Italian garden were removed and then replanted, while large green spaces were used for medicinal plants cultivation. In the thirties the Garden hosted one of the first Italian University courses in herbal medicine.

Giardino all’italiana OraSistema Museale Università di Parma

Italian Garden - nowadays 

Parma University Botanic Garden holds a collection of over 1,000 plant species from all over the world. Since 1770 it has been playing its original role as a meeting place between nature and the city. In the middle the Italian garden is preserved as in the eighteenth-century project, the arboretum occupies the eastern side, while along the west-southern border lies the English garden characterized by a wet zone. These three different areas coexist side by side, thus making visitors discover the drama of plant diversity, the particular relationship between sustainability and aesthetics, naturalness and formality.

ArboretoSistema Museale Università di Parma


Like any living place, the garden undergoes a continuous transformation as a result of biology, fashions and human initiatives. The entire plant shows the stratification of natural and non-natural activities, such as the introduction of new species, the felling of trees at the end of life or the alteration of the historical nature of the Italian garden due to the planting of trees that provided a special shade while limiting the growth of some species. However, the arboretum testifies to the natural cycle of vegetative life where human intervention is minimal.

Giardino Inglese/zone UmideSistema Museale Università di Parma

English garden – wet zone

The three areas exemplify the different type of relationship between man and nature. The arboretum represents a spontaneous habitat, the Italian garden a formal structure due to its strong historical and cultural setting, the English garden is an example of landscape where aesthetic and ecological needs find their sustainable balance.

SucculenteSistema Museale Università di Parma

Succulent plants

The Botanic garden holds a wide collection of succulent plants, mostly Cactaceae.In addition to giving us the gift of blooms as ephemeral as surprising, these species demonstrate the ability of plants to adapt to extreme environmental conditions. They also raise awareness of climate change and of the gradual disappearance of their natural habitats.

GinkgoSistema Museale Università di Parma


Planted in 1795, the majestic Ginkgo biloba on the main walk is the oldest tree and the most iconic specimen held in the Botanic garden. It has been grafted a female branch on which the stone seeds are formed, smelly when ripe. This kind of graft is rather unusual: a similar solution can be found in Montpellier and at Padua Botanic Garden. In Autumn, its bilobed leaves take on a splendid bright yellow color and then, as they fall to the ground, they form for a few days a beautiful golden carpet all around the tree.

VioletteSistema Museale Università di Parma

Parma Violets

The Botanic garden hosts a collection of the so-called Violetta di Parma. It is an ancient variety with double flowers, rich in mauve-colored petals, so thick as to discourage the formation of stamens and pistils. They require a great care due to their high delicacy and also to their sterility. From November to May these unique violets spread around an unparalleled scent and a poignant beauty.

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