Friday, 20 February 2009

The World's Best Botanic Garden?

Photo: Medicinal garden beds in the Orto Botanico Padua, established in 1545

To anyone working in a botanic garden this is an easy question to answer - your own. And the three gardens run by the Botanic Gardens Trust are certainly some of the better ones in the world!

But the more interesting question is what makes a botanic garden great. I spoke about this yesterday to the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. It's a talk I've given a couple of times, in various guises, but it's one I enjoy giving.

I start with a brief history of botanic gardens, from their origins as medicinal gardens in monastries through to an era of university sponsored physic gardens with an underlying scientific basis - where most people see the beginnings of the 'botanic garden'. At first they displayed the wonders of creation, later they celebrate evolution.
From there it's into the difficult task of defining what makes a garden a botanic garden, let along a great one. There are a few definitions around but the best is from the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation (2000): 'Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education'. It's slightly flawed, and leaves out some of the great things botanic gardens do (like art and performance, and interpreting the history of their site) but it gives the general idea.

With this out of the way I travel through various gardens in Europe - botanic and otherwise - and assess how well they inspire and inform people about plants and gardening. As someone said to me after the talk, those gardens with lots of money seem to do a better job whether or not they carry the adjective 'botanic'. But the message I try to give is that there are lots of ways to do botanic gardens and it would be a dull (and ineffective) world if they were all the same. The important thing is to do it well, rather than to tick the boxes and do it all.

I intersperse the pictures of gardens with a few quotes, including the intriguing views of
Robert Dessaix’s from his book ‘Night Letters’, when he decides to not visit arguably the first botanic garden in the world in Padua, near Venice.

In the end I admit to a list of things I think a good botanic gardens should do. While I'm happy if entities we call botanic gardens (or arboreta) don't do them all, I think the better gardens would try to tackle them all in some way. Without further ado, these things are:
  • A collection of plants with good record keeping
  • Mollycoddled interesting plants
  • Education, interpretation and stories
  • Visitors (you'd be surprised...)
  • Meaningful/inspiring landscape and design
  • Excellent horticulture
  • Environmental responsibility and leadership
  • Local relevance (flora, useful plants, desire)
  • And, for good measure, be challenging, stimulating and fun…

4 comments:

Jarrett said...

Yes, although "education" comes apart into two quite different tasks: (a) educating the people who come wanting to learn something and (b) educating the people who think they're just there for play or romance or exercise or to see the cute flying foxes. Though I'm in the first group, and quite happy to stroll the Myrtales garden pondering the essence of myrtaceousness, I'm glad you are out there trying to recruit the more innocent passers-by. Everyone's curious about sex and death, after all.

Tim Entwisle said...

Very true about the different kinds of education different visitors want or need. Ideally we can do both - stimulate and jolt all visitors to think for a little while about plants - while providing that in-depth experience for the more seasoned guest. It keeps us on our toes!

Anonymous said...

hi, great site!

i was wondering if you knew what that plant slightly left of center is? the one with the leaves that kind of look like that of bird's nest fern. :D

Tim Entwisle said...

Funnily enough I was asked exactly the same question at a talk I gave on Friday. And sadly I'll have to respond the same way - I don't know. I'm guessing it's in the daisy family but I may be wrong. A shame I have the labels for all the other plants nearby, but not that one! I looked at my other slides hoping I'd have another angle, but not luck.
I'll just have to go back to Italy...