Botanical gardens are a vital part of the SCPCA’s conservation efforts. The international organization Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) lists several criteria that most botanic gardens meet wholly or partially:
- some degree of permanence
- a scientific basis for collections
- scientific documentation and labeling of collections including information about origins if wild
- monitoring plants in collections
- exchanging seeds, plant materials, and information with other institutions
- engaging in scientific or horticultural research on plants in collections and in herbaria
- open to the public and providing information to visitors.
Botanical gardens and arboreta are museums of plant life, collections-based institutions similar to natural history museums, zoos, and aquariums. While most botanic gardens function as public parks and pleasure gardens, they are distinguished from those institutions by their additional scientific, research, and conservation missions. There are some 2500 botanic gardens around the world, including over 350 in North America, over 500 in Europe, and over 200 in East and Southeast Asia, most of those in China and India. (I use the terms “botanical garden” and “botanic garden” interchangeably; both terms are in common use in the field and they mean the same thing.)
Botanic gardens contain “living collections,” groups of plants grown for particular purposes. Common organizing principles for collections include geography, taxonomy, ecology, conservation status, or themes such as medicinal plants, crops, butterfly gardens, or carnivorous plants. Collections can be permanent or temporary, and can be used both to showcase plant diversity and for specific research or educational purposes.
Botanic gardens are popular tourist destinations. Visits to gardens open to the public have been a popular activity since the 17th century in the UK. The practice started as visits to private gardens attached to country houses owned by the wealthy and gradually developed into a leisure activity enjoyed by all classes. Visitors come to botanic gardens seeking many things, but tranquility and a nice environment top lists of motivations.
Many gardens today have added education and biodiversity conservation to their missions that have developed out of living collections and herbaria. In recent years gardens have started to branch out into research on ex situ conservation, ecological studies, phenology, anatomy and physiology, assisted migration, and comparative genetics. Botanic gardens also work to record and preserve traditional knowledge about plant use in indigenous communities.
The world’s botanical gardens are collectively working to make their collections and their work relevant to a modern high-tech world facing a biodiversity crisis, digitizing their records and saving more information about the plants in their collections. Natural history collections such as botanical gardens and their associated herbaria are proving useful for many kinds of research—ecology, environmental science, climate change, genetics—as well as for commercial plant breeding and crop development.
For more on botanical gardens and their efforts to remain relevant in the modern world, as well as conservation work, see SCPCA coordinator Amy Hackney Blackwell’s Transforming the SC Botanical Garden.