The Botanic Garden of Wales always seemed an odd idea, and it is true (see below) that is has struggled for survival from the moment it appeared. I wonder if anyone thinks Botanic gardens are still relevant today – and if so, why and what for?
Here are Ewan Michael’s thoughts on the matter…
Anne Wareham, editor
The Decline of Botanical Gardens – Unjust or Good Riddance?
In days gone by when travel was difficult and time-consuming, having a Botanical Garden nearby was a marvellous luxury. A place for scientists to study hitherto unknown speeches and begin to understand the properties of plants from deep within the far flung jungles and rainforests.
Advances in modern technology, culture and way of life are combining to make what were once glorious slices of life from the Amazon obsolete and inaccurate. Effects seen under hot monsoon conditions may never be replicated under English skies, the internet allows us to easily access works carried out in the fauna’s habitat of origin. Botany has fallen out of favour in the public psyche, so its gardens have become little more than curiosities; which cost far more to run than can ever be recouped by plucking on the public’s horticultural heartstrings.
From the twelve or so universities that used to offer a degree in botany and maintain a botanical garden for those students, the subject now has fallen away to only 19 botany students in 2009, and one pure botany degree being pursued in 2010. Reading and Bristol Universities have just seen the graduation of their last botany students. The gardens attached to these universities now have no useful purpose at all, yet still need to be maintained at costs which can run anywhere from £75000 per annum – Morbank Botanical Garden,- to a staggering £300000 for St Andrews in Scotland.
This is not to say that the study of plants is unnecessary or obsolete. With an ever-growing world population, genetic modification of food crops and an increasing rift between Third World economies and rich developed nations; the study of plants, particularly disease-resistant food crops, is becoming very urgent. However, the current Botanical Garden systems are geared more to the propagation of unusual and exotic plants in small numbers, rather than more commercialised investments in more ordinary, but vital, grains, fruits and vegetables. One factor that must be taken into account in the study of food crops is that of greater control over interaction between the studied plant and others that may affect growth rates and crop sizes – without diligent controls it is impossible to get accurate results.
Another form of study of plant life that is separate to Botanical Gardens is the study of entire ecosystems. These ecosystem models are carefully created to remove any trace of external influence and are sealed in biosphere domes to ensure that the ecosystem can evolve, grow or fail by itself. Again, Botanical Gardens do not have the requisite level of purity as many of the samples were stored together, muddled in with indigenous plants and handled in a manner unthinkable today.
The relatively modern Eden Project in Cornwall is far more controlled, precisely planned and scientifically administered with a good, tempting range of activities and points of interest nearby to attract the large numbers of visitors necessary to make the project a profitable concern.
This is not to say that Botanical Gardens are lying down and facing extinction quietly. Kew Gardens, in particular, is taking steps to expand into other fields to ensure its survival through the next few decades. Conservation and education are a catchphrase at Kew, as it endeavours to create a worldwide, readily-accessible database that can benefit researchers, scientist and students from all over the world.
Kew is fortunate in that, from its very inception, it has been in the hands of enthusiastic experts, foresighted enough to take Kew through 250 years of research and study so far. Even as early as 1900, the experts at Kew turned their attention to use of plants as food and medicine, importing and studying cinchona bark (the bark of which provides us with quinine) and sugar cane. Currently their experts travel the globe, teaching Third World nations how to harness their natural resources and delicate ecosystems in a safe, sustainable way, and how to conserve unique natural features, like rainforests. Kew is exploring the use of plants in fields that range from food supplies to new medicines, textiles to bio-fuels and everything in between. It is significant that they are slowly moving away from the physical garden, spreading their wings into other countries to study plants in situ, rather than importing them for study and research.
Wales has their own Botanical garden too, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, at which scientists hope to create a comprehensive DNA database of all their plant-life. It is hoped that this work can help identify plant matter found in archaeological sites and even crime scenes, as well as helping to resolve the world-wide honey-bee problem. There is a global shortage of honey-bees, and they are vital in fertilising our food-crops. Unless the cause is swiftly found we could find ourselves on the brink of a world-wide famine.
However, the folly of setting up as a Botanical Garden quickly became apparent: the gardens declared themselves in need of financial assistance a mere three years after opening their doors in 2000. Currently NBGW is a registered charity and receives annual assistance from the Welsh Assembly Government, constantly fund-raising to make up the deficit between funding and income and the many expenses incurred in running the site.
As they stand today Botanical Gardens would appear to be an interesting and enjoyable excursion; just not at all useful, socially relevant or cost-effective. It would be better by far, to close down the Botanical Gardens which run at a loss, freeing up vital income for more deserving causes such as social housing, the arts and music programs in schools and keeping nurses, teachers and policemen in employment for the greater good of the community.
The sad truth is that the vast amounts of money spent on tending to the wide array of plants, feeding them, watering and housing them in heated, purpose built greenhouses are essentially wasted. It is unlikely that Botanical Gardens will survive another decade in their present form, without a dramatic make-over and segue into another field where the research, plants and land can be put to work for society.
The inspiration for this article came from reading about another closure threat of a British Botanical Garden in Newcastle
from UK Water Features