Before the French Revolution, there was just one botanic garden in Belgium, located in Louvain at the Catholic University. The Austrian Emperor Joseph II transferred this university to Brussels in 1788 and plans were made to establish a botanic garden to the south of the city. Only during the French Revolution there was a real set up of a botanic garden in Brussels (1796), probably to save the plant collection at the Court of Nassau. It was located at the 'Montagne de la Cour' and was called 'Le Jardin Botanique de Bruxelles' by its first director, Joseph F.P. Van der Stegen de Putte, since 1797. The second director, Adrien Dekin enriched this plant collection by the establishment of greenhouses with tropical plants, which was visited by famous botanists such as G. Cuvier, C. van der Vijver and De Candolle. In 1823, Dekin died and was succeeded by Pierre Nyst.
However, in 1826, under Dutch rule, the garden disappeared because the site was chosen for the large industrial exhibition of 1830; later on the present Royal Library was built on this site. In order to save the collections of the 'Montagne de la Cour' Garden, the Koninklijke maatschappij van kruid-, bloem- en boom-kwekerije der Nederlanden' (Royal Society for Horticulture and Arboriculture of the Netherlands) was founded as a limited liability company. This Society laid out a new botanical garden in the rural countryside between the present Place Rogier and the Porte de Schaerbeek (now the Rue Royale). The foundation of the first, still existing, neoclassic building was laid in September of 1829.
The activity of the limited liability company was primarily economic as the development of associations with the colonies of the Netherlands (the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia,...) was considered of great importance. During the Belgian struggle for independence, considerable damage was caused by Dutch troops entrenching themselves in the greenhouses.
After the Belgian independence (1830), the society changed its name into 'Société Royale d'Horticulture de Belgique' (1837). However, financial problems continued and even the sale of a large section of the Garden's land (for the building of the Brussels North railway station) did not remedy the situation. Through the help of Barthélemy Dumortier, statesman and botanist, the Garden was eventually saved through its purchase by the Belgian government in 1870. Thus, the 'Jardin botanique de l'Etat / Rijksplantentuin' was born.
From that moment on, the major mission of the Garden became the conduction of scientific research in botany and horticulture. From the end of the 19th century, great interest was given to the flora of Central Africa; this was even more strengthened when the herbarium of the Congo Museum (now the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren) was integrated into the collections of the Garden (1934).
As the Garden and its collections grew, the possibilities for growth in the increasingly urbanized environment became limited. The Garden's grounds became even smaller with the building of the underground connection between the Brussels North and South railway stations. This problem was solved in 1938 when the Belgian government purchased the Bouchout Domain from the royal family. From 1st. January 1939 onwards, the estate became available for the installation of the Jardin Botanique de l'Etat / Rijksplantentuin.
The Bouchout domain lies in Meise, near Brussels and at present covers 92 ha. It consists of the adjacent grounds of Meise castle and Bouchout castle that King Leopold II had merged for his sister Charlotte, Empress of Mexico. In 1939, the first buildings and greenhouses were set up and the first plants were moved from Brussels to Meise. The Balat greenhouse was also moved from the grounds in Brussels to its present location in the Herbetum. This greenhouse, originally designed for the Brussels Zoo at the Leopold Park and afterwards used to cultivate the giant waterlily, Victoria amazonica, in the Brussels Garden, is presently used to house tender plants. The architect, Alphonse Balat, also designed the world famous Royal Greenhouses at Laken and many interesting buildings in Brussels.
The Second World War slowed down the completion of the transfer but, after the war, the activity continued. Unfortunately, the Meise castle was totally destroyed during the Second World War and only its orangery and a number of smaller buildings remain within the original grounds. The ancient castle of Bouchout (the oldest tower dates from the 14th century) has survived the ages in various incarnations.
The building of the 'Plant Palace' began in 1947. In 1967, the official name of the institution also changed into 'Nationale Plantentuin van België / Jardin Botanique National de Belgique' (National Botanic Garden of Belgium). The building housing the herbarium and the library was finished in the sixties. However, the herbarium collection grew so quickly that a new wing had to be added (1987). This houses the department of non-vascular cryptogams (Bryophytes and Thallophytes) and its mycological, bryological and phycological collections. During all this time the living collections and the herbarium collections grew extensively, as did the research output.