Botanical gardens are often run by universities or other scientific research organizations, and often have associated herbaria and research programmes in plant taxonomy or some other aspect of botanical science. In principle, their role is to maintain documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display, and education, although this will depend on the resources available and the special interests pursued at each particular garden.
The origin of modern botanical gardens is generally traced to the appointment of professors of botany to the medical faculties of universities in 16th century Renaissance Italy, which also entailed the curation of a medicinal garden. However, the objectives, content, and audience of today’s botanic gardens more closely resembles that of the grandiose gardens of antiquity and the educational garden of Theophrastus in the Lyceum of ancient Athens.
The early concern with medicinal plants changed in the 17th century to an interest in the new plant imports from explorations outside Europe as botany gradually established its independence from medicine. In the 18th century, systems of nomenclature and classification were devised by botanists working in the herbaria and universities associated with the gardens, these systems often being displayed in the gardens as educational "order beds". With the rapid rise of European imperialism in the late 18th century, botanic gardens were established in the tropics, and economic botany became a focus with the hub at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London.
Over the years, botanical gardens, as cultural and scientific organisations, have responded to the interests of botany and horticulture. Nowadays, most botanical gardens display a mix of the themes mentioned and more; having a strong connection with the general public, there is the opportunity to provide visitors with information relating to the environmental issues being faced at the start of the 21st century, especially those relating to plant conservation and sustainability.
The role of major botanical gardens worldwide has been considered so broadly similar as to fall within textbook definitions. The following definition was produced by staff of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium of Cornell University in 1976. It covers in some detail the many functions and activities generally associated with botanical gardens: