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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Botanic gardens: places of research, education and beauty

By Nicola Temple

There are an estimated 3,400 botanic gardens around the world, many of which are associated with universities or other research institutions. This association with research institutions can give the impression that these gardens, Bristol’s own Botanic Garden included, are primarily research oriented and not particularly appealing to the public – nothing could be further from the truth.

In the last two years that I've been blogging for the Botanic Garden, I have taken myself to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly, El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in Mexico and the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanic Garden. I've been keen to see how they differ from my local Botanic Garden that I've come to love. These gardens have been different in their sizes and plant collections and clearly differ in their annual budgets, but they have all been united in their commitment to educate and they have all been beautiful places to spend a day (or two).

The history of botanic gardens
One of the many spectacular species of orchid on display
at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Botanic gardens seem to first make an appearance in the 16th century. They were set up largely as medicinal gardens where research and experimentation could be carried out on medicinal plants. They were often associated with medical schools and universities of the time.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the focus of research changed as global exploration started to bring back new exotic species of plants. Some of these plants were medicinal in nature and were of interest for that reason. Some, such as spices, were of interest because of their economic value. Some were simply of interest due to their exotic beauty and many of the wealthiest families wanted specimens for their own collections. In the 18th century glasshouses and heated conservatories were built in some of the botanic gardens in order to keep some of the species alive that were being brought back from tropical habitats.

A corridor through the Agapanthus at
Tresco Abbey Gardens. The species was
introduced to the Isles of Scilly by the
proprietor of the gardens in 1856.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.
The research focus of botanic gardens has continued to evolve to meet the needs of society. Today conservation, climate change and sustainability are the greatest challenges we face and as a result, many botanic gardens around the world have active research programs in these areas.  The decades, and in some cases centuries, of information collected by these gardens is proving incredibly valuable in terms of how the climate is changing and how some species are responding.

Botanic gardens play a critical role in conservation

In 2010, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted an updated Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The University of Bristol Botanic Garden, along with botanic gardens around the world support this global strategy in every aspect of the work that they do.

The strategy recognises that without plants, life on this planet would cease to exist. The aim, therefore, is to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity. The five main objectives of the GSPC are:

  • Plant diversity is well understood, documented and recognised.
  • Plant diversity is urgently and effectively conserved.
  • Plant diversity is used in a sustainable and equitable manner.
  • Education and awareness about plant diversity, its role in sustainable livelihoods and importance to all life on Earth is promoted.
  • The capacities and public engagement necessary to implement the strategy have been developed.

The El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in San Miguel
d'Allende, Mexico had many parts that were less formal than
other botanic gardens. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.
The University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden developed the Local Flora and Rare Native Plant Collection in response to the GSPC. In the eight habitat themed displays associated with this collection – Carboniferous Limestone grassland, woodland and cliff face (found locally in the Avon Gorge & Durdham Downs, Mendip Hills and North Somerset cliffs and coastal islands), Coastal Communities, Deciduous Woodland, Aquatic and marginal areas, hedgerows and seasonally flooded sedge peat meadow associated with the Somerset Levels  – are many of the rare and threatened native plants to these regions. The Garden is therefore a global repository for this plant material in both these living collections as well as its seed banks. Over the coming months, Helen and I will blog about each of the Garden’s collections in more detail, so stay tuned!

A place for learning

Cactus in flower at the El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden.
Photo credit: Shelby Temple.
The plant collections at the Garden are used extensively by the University of Bristol for undergraduate teaching as well as in graduate student projects. Beyond this, however, it is a place to learn horticulture, art, photography, garden design, and numerous skills from willow weaving to wreath making.

Formal courses and training through the Royal Horticultural Society are also held at the University Botanic Garden - it’s an ideal setting.

The Garden also offers tours – whether it’s a special interest group, school group or a group of friends wanting to join one of the summer evening tours. Having joined on a school group tour in the past, I know the volunteers are very good at tailoring the tours to draw together information the children have been learning in class with the collections on display.

A place to be inspired

A pollinator drinking nectar from milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
flowers at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden
in Canada. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.
The collections, knowledge and expertise held at the Botanic Garden puts it in an ideal position to raise public awareness of the plants on display, our interdependency on plants more generally and critical issues facing many of these species, including changes as a result of global warming, habitat loss and invasive species. These are common threads in all of the communications put out by the garden.

More than this though, the Bristol Botanic Garden aims to foster an interest in plants and inspire people through its work. We can all feel somewhat paralysed by the plethora of environmental gloom and doom stories sometimes. Sometimes inspiration and awe about a species can spur people into action more easily than anger and frustration. The Garden’s annual Bee and Pollination Festival is an excellent example of this. Pollinators are having a tough go of it and a National Urban Pollinators Strategy is under development in the UK as I write this to try and improve the situation for this critical group of animals. All the important information is at the Festival, but overall this is a celebratory event – an opportunity to learn and get excited about how amazing pollinators are and how we are so deeply connected to them in so many aspects of our life.
A sunflower display at the Devonian Botanic Garden, Canada
was very popular with the butterflies. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

The Garden can also be a quieter source of inspiration. I have now spent many hours sitting with camera in hand trying to get perfect flower shots or just simply watching bees move from flower to flower. Sometimes inspiration can be found in these quieter moments, surrounded by beauty, in a garden in a city.