Many of us will enjoy a trip to a botanical garden on a weekend. We can admire the flowers, relax in the green settings, and maybe learn a little something along the way. But, what makes a garden a botanical garden and why are they such important places for horticultural research?
What Is A Botanical Garden?
This is an interesting question because while many of us will have visited one, we may not appreciate the true definition. The meaning of botanical gardens has evolved over the years. Gardens that were once grand collections of species from across the world now have a greater purpose in research and education. The plants aren’t just there to look pretty. These gardens are important establishments that aid programs across the world.
What Was The First Botanical Garden?
Because of the evolution of the term botanical garden, there is some debate over the first example. Many refer to the Orto Botanico Garden in Padua, which began in 1545. Here, the gardens were used to cultivate medicinal herbs. Over the centuries, countless more have developed across the world. In the UK, the Oxford Botanic Garden will celebrate its 400th birthday in 2022.
In the US, John Bartram established the first botanical garden in Philadelphia in 1728. However, the oldest to be in continual operation is the Missouri Botanical Garden, which was founded in 1859 and remains an important establishment in St. Louis. The largest in the country, meanwhile, is the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It is 250 acres and is classed as a National Historic Landmark. This is still smaller than the largest in the world, which is the 300-acre plot of Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London.
What Does It Take For A Garden To Be A Botanical Garden?
Back in 1963, the International Association of Botanic Garden came up with a vague description of a botanic garden. It merely had to be a place open to the public where plants are labeled. The problem with this is that it could relate to so many open spaces with plant life. For example, a city park, open to the public, could label its trees and the plants in the flowerbed and technically qualify. But, would it really be a botanical garden. No, not when there are many extensively managed and interesting botanical gardens out there that put in a lot more work.
Instead, we should look at the criteria of the Botanic Gardens Conservation Internationals from 2019 for a more detailed view of what constitutes a botanical garden. Important factors here include the following:
- A wide variety of different plants from around the world in well-designed areas.
- A skilled team of horticulturalists to look after the collections.
- A scientific reason for the establishment of the collection.
- Documentation of the plants that goes beyond labels in the ground.
- Strong academic relationships for further research and promotion.
- Strong public relationships to encourage and educate visitors.
This all takes the idea of a beautiful well-labeled garden for the public and extends the meaning and purpose further. With these criteria, these gardens become a more important place for education and research while also providing beautiful spaces for the public.
The Best Botanical Gardens Are Varied And Well Designed.
An important aspect of this criteria is the need for a wide selection of plants. The more species that a garden has, the more they can learn about botany and ecology. This means bringing in plants from across the world in zones that replicate the environments and planting of their region. For example, you can find areas that are drier with cacti and succulents that need very little water. In contrast to this, there may be a wetter area with bog and pond plants. You can also find areas of formal planting and cultivated flowerbeds contrasting with naturalistic areas of wildflowers.
The difference between a botanical garden and an arboretum.
When classifying gardens as labeled collections of plants, there is also a different type of garden called the arboretum. Some large botanical gardens with a range of habitats may have an arboretum as part of their design.
The term arbor refers to trees, meaning that arboretums are specifically designed as collections for trees. You should see the same careful management and labeling for educational purposes and potentially lots of species from across the world. But, won’t get the same range of other plants, manicured beds, or other structural features of botanic gardens.
Do botanical gardens have glasshouses?
Speaking of those structural features, you are likely to find some form of glasshouse in a botanical garden. This is a hothouse where the heat captured inside the glass structure helps encourage the development of exotic species.
Originally, these houses would have been the perfect way to show off specimens not yet seen or grown in a milder climate. Because of these, many landowners built grand buildings with ornate designs to attract more visitors. One of the most impressive examples is the Temperate House in Kew Gardens, which houses over 1500 species from 5 continents within 4880 square meters.
Skilled Horticulturalists Are Necessary To Maintain These Gardens.
There is no way that these gardens can provide these beautiful displays of healthy plants and botanically-accurate settings with horticulturalists. Every single plant in the garden thrives under specific conditions regarding soil condition, water, sunlight, feed, disease prevention, and more. It takes training and extensive knowledge to take care of each plant in the ideal place.
You also need enough trained staff to maintain each area to allow for beautiful floral displays, seed collection, and the planting of new acquisitions. As these are public gardens, there are high expectations that areas will look at their best at all times. Behind the scenes, you then have the researchers and head gardeners perfecting collections, studying the plants, and helping the garden evolve.
All Of The Top Botanical Gardens Across The World Have A Scientific Agenda.
A lot of botanical gardens with a long history began as places where plant collectors could gather interesting species and show them off. Back then, there were so many weird species new to science that were perfect for botanical research. For example, there are alpine species that seem like they should survive in such cold temperatures and an array of clever carnivorous plants.
While our knowledge is much more extensive now, there is still a lot to learn. With modern botanical gardens, there has to be that ongoing desire to learn more about the plants through research and development. The end goal may be to understand more about a newly discovered species and see how its trait could be of use in cultivars. Or, there may be a drive to save that new plant from extinction with a breeding program.
Plant Labels Are Still Important, Whatever The Garden’s Purpose.
This scientific agenda is why the original necessity of plant labels is still crucial for botanical gardens. It is all too common to walk around a garden or public park, see an interesting plant, and have no idea what it is. Even if you are aware of the family, such as rose or tulip, it is nice to know what variety it is so you can get one for your own garden. Labels in botanical gardens help with this while also providing a clear idea of what is in the collection. Latin names are great, but English names provide a better connection with the public.
From there, these top botanic gardens need a more robust catalog of plants and flowers in their database. This helps those in charge see precisely what is growing on-site, how many examples they have, and where they are. This allows for a better idea of the health of certain species, especially any endangered examples, and lets them keep track of where everything is. If there is a redesign and plants are relocated, they need to be accounted for. At one point, written records were enough. Today, digitized catalogs are essential.
Botanical Gardens Can Learn A Lot From Each Other Through Academic Programmes.
The other benefit of digitizing these catalogs and creating a more complex online database comes in sharing information. Establishments across the world will stay in touch to learn more about the successes and potential problems associated with different species. They can share advice on how to care for rare plants and compare notes on projects. A detailed catalog can also allow for exchanges of plants and seeds in wider conservation programs.
We tend to think of conservation programs concerning animals, such as zoos working together on breeding programs for endangered creatures. But, there are also schemes to ensure the survival of plants that may be struggling in the wild. The more gardens that boost the numbers of these plants, the better their chances. There are also impressive seed banks storing seeds in case of extinction and the need to regenerate a population.
Public Botanical Gardens Help Educate People About Plants And Nature.
Another important aspect of these botanical gardens is their relationship with the public. These gardens may be for scientific research, but they are also there to be enjoyed. The best gardens in the world are those that understand this fine balance between being a center for horticultural science and a public attraction. Visitors should be able to come in and admire the plants, relax in the grounds, and potentially learn a lot about different species and environments. That can also inspire those looking to perfect their own gardens at home.
This is why most botanical gardens will provide additional public facilities and events to encourage larger visitor numbers. A trip to the garden should be an engaging day out for all involved. So, interactive activities and play areas for kids work well in these settings. Adults can also enjoy a coffee and treat while enjoying the views in a cafe. There may even be a shop for souvenirs or plants grown from seeds or cuttings from the collection.
Of course, this side of the public relationship also means more money for the organization behind the gardens. Funding for research and development may be limited, so sales from cafes, stores, and general admission fees all go a long way. Those that provide the best experiences, and perhaps some extra events like concerts, fun days, and talks through the year, will see a steady stream of loyal visitors through the doors.
Hiring Botanical Gardens For Major Events.
Another way that botanical gardens and public visitors can benefit from each other is when hiring out parts of the gardens for events. Couples that want to marry outdoors, but without trekking too far out of a city, can find the landscape and serenity they want in a botanical garden. The controlled environment and potential for indoor seating and catering add to the appeal. These gardens will have a range of locations that are a perfect backdrop for saying vows and taking pictures. Also, by hiring out the space, you won’t have strangers in the way as you might in a more public area.
Spending The Night In A Botanical Garden.
The dream for many who love botanical gardens is to spend the night there. This is a rare opportunity as few major gardens have accommodation on site. Some do make the most of campsites where guests can enjoy the scenery during a longer stay. The alternative is to find a hotel with large grounds that come close to being botanical gardens. They may not make the grade officially if they don’t have a scientific purpose. But, they may still be grand, well-maintained areas with labeled plants and areas of interest.
Botanical Gardens Are As Important Today As Ever.
Like the natural world around us, botanical gardens continue to evolve and develop. What were once collections of labeled plants have a deeper scientific purpose and a stronger link to public visitors and other institutions. These relationships mean that these gardens remain vital resources for research and development in the horticultural world.