What is the future for botanic gardens?

Directors of leading botanic gardens debated their role last month at an event at Kew.

Kevin Lamb, Professor Stephen Blackmore, Dr Peter Wyse-Jackson and Stephen Hopper - photo: Chris Hopper
Kevin Lamb, Professor Stephen Blackmore, Dr Peter Wyse-Jackson and Stephen Hopper - photo: Chris Hopper

Three issues stood out as top of the bill at a debate between four heads from the largest botanic gardens in the British Isles. Climate change, funding issues and public perception of botanic gardens were the hot topics discussed during the in-depth exchange at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kew director Stephen Hopper was joined by National Botanic Garden of Wales director Kevin Lamb, Dublin-based National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin director Dr Peter Wyse-Jackson and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh director Professor Stephen Blackmore.

The debate on 18 February was organised by Kew students and chaired by garden writer Noel Kingsbury and biotechnologist Professor Denis Murphy of the University of Glamorgan.

Climate change

The directors focused most strongly on the role botanic gardens can play in minimising climate change.

Blackmore said: "At botanic gardens we have people with the skills to grow difficult plants and this will become more important as the climate changes and habitats are destroyed."

Lamb raised the unspoken but pragmatic view that if the climate changes as predicted over the next 50 years, many species will become extinct.

"We can bank seeds but if the habitat they were collected from no longer exists - what then?" he asked.

He added: "We are planting up our arboretum phytogeographically, choosing trees from areas with the same climate as Wales, but as they mature and the Welsh climate gets hotter and wetter, will they be facing conditions which are not suitable for their growth anymore?"

Thinking globally, Hopper explained: "We need to work with economists and politicians so that wild species and natural areas are perceived as valuable."

He highlighted the Prince's Rainforests Project, which aims to get governments and the corporate world placing a financial value on rainforests and areas of biodiversity because they are major carbon sinks.

Blackmore agreed: "Forests are hugely important - and they are blindly ignored as part of the equation. We just need the leadership and commitment."

Hopper added that individual botanic gardens can "inspire and train young people so they get interested in plants, as it's harnessing the power of plants that will get us through this crisis".

Wyse-Jackson said that climate change models for the next 50-80 years show that 25 per cent of Irish flora will become extinct. "In the past, the climate has changed and species have moved, but not at this pace."

He suggested botanic gardens might need to assist the migration of species. However, "these plants are in danger of being viewed as unwelcome aliens", he concluded.

Hopper believes there is hope because the science of restoration ecology is burgeoning. "It's the most exciting new area for botanic gardens," he said, which will equip people with the skills to care for damaged habitats and ensure seed from banks can be used.

Funding

The four botanic gardens represented at the debate have enjoyed varying levels of financial support from the state.

Glasnevin receives the highest proportion, being 100 per cent state-funded, with Edinburgh close behind on 90 per cent. Kew receives 50 per cent of its funding from the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government recently committed to funding 20 per cent of the National Botanic Gardens of Wales' budget, after the garden struggled financially during its first eight years.

But as Blackmore stated: "All botanic gardens are being squeezed - including the most recognised garden, Kew. The university botanic gardens are under pressure particularly, as the land they are built on is increasingly seen as ripe for development.

"But botanic gardens have so much to offer - a message we haven't fully delivered to those with the purse strings."

Lamb said that securing the funding for the National Botanic Garden of Wales had been made possible by assessing what the garden could deliver for the people of Wales. The strategy decided on was to forge relationships with other botanic gardens and institutions in the country.

The directors felt that botanic gardens can justify receiving state funding by offering "value and relevance", particularly to the local community and through research helping to minimise the acceleration of climate change.

Public perception

Both Wyse-Jackson and Hopper raised the issue that the public often doesn't understand what botanic gardens provide. Hopper said they were often seen simply as "a place for a picnic".

Wyse-Jackson told of a school group visiting Glasnevin who believed a botanic garden was a place for people to have wedding photos taken. After spending a day learning about the garden, the pupils had changed their minds and decided that a botanic garden was a place where "you save plants".

"We have to ensure that, like these children, the public sees their importance too," concluded Wyse-Jackson.

RHS director of science and learning Dr Simon Thornton-Wood asked the panel whether the main botanic gardens were fit for purpose. "Without establishing a deep cultural root and focusing on their staff and visitors, they are in danger of being "blown away," he said.

Hopper revealed a consultation with the entire Kew staff had led to a new mission statement that reflected its current purpose: "To inspire and deliver science-based plant conservation world- wide, enhancing the quality of life."

Both Wyse-Jackson and Lamb explained they had created new conservation botanist posts to strengthen their research departments and to provide study of the local flora.

Lamb also mentioned the links that had been built between the National Botanic Garden of Wales and the University of Bangor's Treborth Botanic Garden, which has led to educational programmes devised at the national garden being held at Treborth.

Improving volunteering opportunities for local people - something that has been done at Edinburgh - also helps, added Blackmore.

Hopper concluded: "The stories of scientific discovery that are made every day at botanic gardens need to be told better so the public can fully understand our value."


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