What have Botanic Gardens ever done for us?

As those who follow this blog will know, I’m a sucker for Botanic Gardens. I spent last year visiting our own Durham University Gardens every month, and blogging about what I found, and I’m now running a project to get some of our students involved in the gardens – the snappily named ‘Botanic Gardens Enhancement Group’.  I found around 25 students from across the year groups keen to participate and, at an initial meeting, asked them to come up with ideas for projects they would be interested in.  They came up with a list of 14 topics, ranging from updating signage in the gardens and working to engage local school children, to more practical projects such as rejuvenating the silted-up ponds. I circulated this list to the group, asking them to indicate which three or four projects they were most interested in and prioritised these, assigning each student to one project, according to their preferences. Tackling 14 projects at once just seemed a bit too much! The students have initially been allocated to three projects; working on expanding plant collections from different parts of the world, improving the orchid display in the glasshouses and rejuvenating the ponds. They will also be helping run a Bioblitz on the university estate in June.  They are collaborating with the Botanic gardens staff and I’m pleased to report, a month or so in, that one pond has been cleared and a good start has been made on both the orchid display and starting to catalogue the plants in the glasshouses, in order to start thinking about new acquisitions.

Peter, who runs the gardens, has also been able to drum up volunteers from within the group for labour-intensive tasks such as raking off the hay meadow.

So why is all this important? For several reasons; I’ve talked before about the well-documented benefits for everyone of being outdoors and connected with nature.  Most of our current students have had their education disrupted by the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, with impacts on their mental health as well as on the social and educational opportunities available to them.  Visiting nature at least once a week has been shown to have a positive impact on both people’s health and pro-environmental behaviours, with their connection to nature positively linked to their sense of purpose in life (Martin et al., 2020). From the point of view of a botanist interested in all that plant research can offer in terms of food security, climate change and mitigating biodiversity loss I am, of course, also keen to get more people interested in plants.  ‘Plant blindness’ is a well-documented issue in conservation, for example, and leads to plant conservation initiatives receiving substantially less funding than animal ones, despite the key role of plants in ecosystems (Balding & Williams, 2016). In addition, for students interested in a career in conservation, practical experience is essential for employability; volunteering at the Botanic Gardens will provide opportunities for students to develop their knowledge of plants and gain practical experience in conservation techniques. Of course, alongside all these worthy reasons, I’m hoping the students will have fun and make friends with other, like-minded individuals! I’ll be carrying out a little bit of research to see whether the connections students build, both with nature and their peers, improves their sense of wellbeing as well as helping them acquire practical skills and knowledge of plants.

One of things I particularly enjoyed in Durham Botanical Gardens this year was the less manicured areas now given over to some of our native wildflowers so it was interesting to see, when I visited Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus last week that they are doing the same thing.  Amsterdam’s botanical garden is one of the oldest in the world, starting life in 1638, nearly 200 years before our own Kew Gardens, as the Hortus Medicus – a garden for the use of doctors and pharmacists. Many of the first plants were collected and brought to the Netherlands from Indonesia by Dutch East India Company traders, in the 17th Century. Coffee bushes brought from Yemen (via the port of Mocha) by a trader called Pieter van den Broecke turned out to be one of the most important acquisitions, economically. They thrived so well under glass in the botanic gardens that their offspring were used by the Dutch to start coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, Southern India and, eventually, Java and Surinam. By the end of the 17th Century, Java and Surinam were the main suppliers of coffee to Europe, though Brazil has taken over as the largest global supplier more recently.

Photo on right: Coffee plantation in Dutch East Indies, late 19th Century.  Tropenmuseum, National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Hortus Botanicus’ other claim to fame is that East India Company traders also brought two small oil palm plants, Elaeis guineensis, there from Mauritius, in the 17th Century. Seeds from these went on to furnish plants for oil palm plantations in Indonesia, which is now responsible for around 60 % of the world’s palm oil production, with all the issues around deforestation and loss of biodiversity that has caused.  And, if that is not enough, Carl Linnaeus spent some time based in the gardens in the 1730s and was in the Netherlands when he published his Systema Naturae in 1735, expounding his method of biological classification which still forms the basis of what we use today.  It’s hard to argue against the importance of a garden with this sort of track record!

The Amsterdam garden is tiny compared to somewhere like Kew gardens, covering only 1.2 hectares in the heart of the city, but is home to some 4000 species of plant. 100 of these species are, apparently, not found in any other botanical gardens in the world.  The Hortus Botanicus has all the usual features of a botanical garden – beds arranged to showcase different plant families, a palm house, tropical house, and desert biomes. It also has a wildflower border along its boundary with the canal, which is designed to both support insect life and to showcase how attractive a wilder garden can be, just like the wildflower areas in Durham. 

Outside (left) and inside at the Hortus Botanicus in late February.  Clockwise from top left on both pictures:
Outside: Viburnum sp., Corylopsis pauciflora, Scilla bifolia and Primula sp. Inside: Chasmanthe bicolor, Encephalartos concinnus, Ravenala madagascanensis and Kalanchoe daigremontiana

As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of botanical gardens.  However, there is an interesting chapter in Cal Flynn’s book Islands of Abandonment on the role botanical gardens, especially abandoned ones, can play in the spread of invasive plants species. She recounts a visit to Amani, high in the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, where an abandoned colonial era biological–agricultural institute, with trial plantations of a range of imported crop plants and a botanical gardens, has allowed vigorous alien plants such as bamboos and ornamental shrubs to enter a fragile ecosystem. The mountains have been geographically isolated from their surroundings by dry, infertile flatlands for millennia and so have many rare and endemic plant, insect and animal species.  Closer to home, the Rhododendron ponticum which crowds out native woodland species in parts of the UK was also originally an escapee from Victorian gardens.  Moving plants around the world is not quite as uncomplicated as it seems!

Balding, M. & Williams, K.J.H. (2016) Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation. Conservation Biology, 30, pp. 1192-1199.  DOI: 10.1 111/cobi. 12738

Martin, L. et al. (2020) Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 68, 101389. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101389

I’m still reading and enjoying Cal Flynn’s Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-human Landscape and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the garden the Celandine, Primroses and Sweet Violets are flowering now.  Sadly, the Snakes-head Fritillaries seem not to have survived being moved around but I’m delighted to have a new pot, which will go in the ground once they’ve finished flowering.

In the allotment I’ve been cutting back and chopping up last year’s autumn raspberry canes, prior to the first bonfire of the year. I’ve also planted broad bean and pea seeds, well mulched with home-produced compost.  The peas are a heritage variety, Blauwschokker, promising beautiful purple flowers and seed pods, which can be eaten either as mangetout or peas.  I’m glad they didn’t surface before the snow we’ve had this week!

We’ve been eating more leeks from the allotment, this time made into leek, cheese and potato pie and blackberry coulis from the freezer, which my Dad loves on ice cream…

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