Systematic Beds (sometimes also called ‘Order Beds’) have for centuries been used for teaching taxonomy, the science of plant classification. The plants are brought together into families within which the species show resemblances to each other based on the structure of the flowers.
In most botanic gardens, beds are long and rectangular with family following family in order. In contrast, in Cambridge, the Systematic Beds all differ in size and are curving, irregular island beds. The visual effect in the height of summer is a great kaleidoscopic mosaic of flowering plants covering some three acres. No more than one family is placed in a bed but large families such as Compositae (Daisies) or Gramineae (Grasses) have many beds.
The Systematic Beds were designed in 1845 by the first Curator of the Botanic Garden, Andrew Murray, who set out to translate the most comprehensive book of plant taxonomy at the time, written in 1819 by the Swiss botanist Augustin de Candolle, into a planting design. In his book, de Candolle distinguished two major groups: plants with one seed leaf (monocotyledons) and two seed leaves (dicotyledons). Andrew Murray created a central oval, enclosed by a low hawthorn hedge, in which to gather the monocotyledon families, including the Liliaceae (Lily) and Gramineae (Grasses), and which account for about 20% of flowering plants. Murray then arranged the dicotyledon families in order around this central oval beginning with page one of De Candolle’s book, which concerned the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family, and ending, as De Candolle did, with the Phytolaccaceae (American Pokeweed). These dicotyledon families are further divided into De Candolle’s four groupings by sinuous hawthorn hedges radiating from the central oval.
The Systematic Beds hold an important scientific research collection of about 1600 plant species belonging to about 98 families dispersed across in 157 beds. But the way in which Murray conceived the Systematic Beds as a beautiful creation, in living plants, of philosophical ideas regarding classification, as expressed as de Candolle’s taxonomic theory, elevates them to a major work of art.