The End of Botanical Gardens? by Ewan Michaels

May 9, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

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

National Botanic Garden of Wales, copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

National Botanic Garden of Wales, copyright Charles Hawes

Ewan Michaels:

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.

Kew copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

At Kew

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.

Kew copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

At Kew

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.

Eden Project copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Eden Project copyright Charles Hawes

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.


Eden Project copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Eden Project copyright Charles Hawes

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.


National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Charles Hawes

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.

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

National Botanic Garden of Wales copyright Charles Hawes

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

Ewan Michaels

from UK Water Features

Ewan Michaels portrait copyright Ewan Michaels for thinkingardens

Ewan Michaels


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Weeding the Web August 29, 2013 at 6:01 pm
Diana Studer May 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

how opposite our experiences are. When you say Botanical Garden, I think Kirstenbosch. Not exotic plants from foreign parts (altho there are a few surviving arboretum specimens, a cedar of Lebanon …) But a place to enjoy South Africa’s wealth of plants. A garden which is used by a wide spectrum, local and foreign. School classes from the townships (who delight in rolling down green sloping lawns). Yes, the Botany department I studied in is closed, but the Botanical Garden is celebrating 150 years.
The Hantam garden conserving renosterveld (there we met Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank).
The Karoo Desert garden where aloes bloom in winter against snow-capped mountains.

annewareham May 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm

I’m often struck by what differences emerge when we begin to discuss these apparently similar experiences.

Helen May 16, 2013 at 12:11 pm

It is worth noting that whilst there are no botany courses there are plant science courses. These offer the same more or less and reflect the way science is taught as part of the national school curriculum. If universities had a demand for botany courses they would run them.

Ewan Michaels May 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Thank you for all of your comments, I appreciate every opinion put forward.

I agree that the rosy-coloured outlook of investment being thrown towards more reputable causes is unlikely, but I still think that if there were a hair’s breadth of a chance of keeping our public service running efficiently; Botanical Gardens should face closure. In an idyllic world, I would love to see them remain open and if there were something else that could face the axe in the interim (perhaps the £75m police commissioner election?! – then I’d fall in line with that immediately.

At the risk of appearing facile, if it came down my friends and family not getting the treatment that they required on the NHS because of the Botanical Gardens; I think I’d be fairly peeved.

Valerie Lapthorne May 10, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Britains oldest Botanic Garden was founded in 1621in Oxford to “promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature”. This it has been doing for nearly four hundred years. To see how successful it continues to be in fulfilling this purpose, visit the website at and follow that with a visit. You will be well rewarded.

annewareham May 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm

May depend what you’re looking for? See Oxford Botanic review on this page

John May 9, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Paul makes a valid point about resource diversion. But we are in a situation of resource diminution which is different. The available pot of money has expanded beyond its means. So reducing expenditure in one area now doesn’t equate to increasing it in another but, as far as the pot allows, merely protecting it, as that pot diminishes. Still …..

Visiting gardens involves not only looking at plants but also at design. Visiting a botanical gardens is about looking at plants. In this respect there are good and bad botanical gardens, accessible and inaccessible.

In terms of the function of these places to promote research etc., in a time of finite resources it becomes necessary to concentrate resources on centres of excellence. Arguably, it is always desirable to do so in any event. If centre X is achieving something then it deserves more than centre Y which is not. If you cannot afford both, then Y has to go.

Perhaps we need to concentrate on the principle of centres which deserve funding and allocate accordingly. Some centres will survive, others will not or will be absorbed into their better-performing cousins. Those centres which are currently attached to universities may need to grow up and leave home very quickly. The universities are now businesses more than academic institutions.

Whether any attached gardens should then survive is a different, and more commercial, decision. If people want to preserve their local garden as a visiting destination, they need to support it; use it or lose it.

Incidentally, this article prompted me to use the National Botanical Gardens’ website to plan a 2-day visit in the next few weeks. Result: I have fired off an email telling them that their web site is broken, I’m frustrated and so I’m going to Picton Castle instead.

Tristan Gregory May 9, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Many of these places were established to assist the colonies to become profitable by exploiting new plants in new places and it is this type of “Good in Practice” science that we do so badly these days.
Instead these places have moved to the “Good in Principal” areas of conservation which will only cost money, if these plants were commercial they wouldn’t need conserving.

These wonderful places are our inheritance from a very different Britain and our inability to keep them going and improving should tell us something profound about other great things that we take for granted such as the NHS, education system and even our roads.

At least we still have Kew as an example of good practice, even if they still do carpet bedding.

John May 9, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Spot on! It is human nature to be selfish. We want everything on the NHS but object to paying for it. We want a good education system, but object to paying for it. We want …….

How many people would vote for a party that said it would increase income tax by 5p in the £ to pay for …..?

Maybe Anne would be kind enough to indicate the total £ of donations received to finance the on-going ThinkinGardens web site presence.

annewareham May 9, 2013 at 10:29 pm

The vast majority of readers get their thinkingardens free, and that’s fine, John. (Though donations do give me a wonderful warm glow…XXXx)

Weeding the Web May 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I’m with Paul. Ewan says, “Botanical Gardens would appear to be an interesting and enjoyable excursion; just not at all useful, socially relevant or cost-effective”. Not useful to inspire an interest in plants, not useful as an educational “library” of plants, not cost-effective?

We desperately need more social housing, but as Paul says, the money saved would be unlikely to end up there, and it seems skewed to advocate jettisoning greenspace for building when the social advantages of green space are well researched.

Yes, other parts of the world are more accessible via the Internet, but Virtual Reality cannot beat seeing and feeling and smelling a plant in the physical world and we can’t all afford or be fit enough to traipse around the Caucasus, as you can, for example, at Berlin Botanical Garden’s extraordinary “rock garden” (pictures at my blog…)

Botany has indeed fallen out of favour, but lack of interest in school leavers does not equate to lack of importance but rather a lack of perception (see and

Finally, as far as the closure of botanic gardens is concerned, when you look behind the headlines you see falling interest as a useful excuse to cover problems that haven’t been addressed. Newcastle was only accessible by appointment ( and the report from the Wales Audit Office in 2005 on the Welsh garden makes very interesting reading (, Here’s a flavour: “Although the Garden was consistently revising its forecasts, none of the business plans seen by the Welsh funders
contained any sensitivity analysis to determine the impact of these changes on the financial viability of the project, and none of the funders required or requested such analyses from the Garden.”

Pat Anderson May 9, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I disagree with your conclusion entirely. Interests of the general public wax and wane, and sometimes strangely wax again. While some botanical gardens may need to rethink how they do things, I believe that it will become even more important in the future for these gardens to exist.

Some serve as plant “arks” – maintaining genetics that might otherwise be lost.
Some (and I look at what I see in Toronto for this) have areas specifically geared to children to teach them about plants, plant diversity, growing food, etc.

It’s also important to recognize that not everyone can afford to jet around the world to see things – if predictions of peak oil are correct, the number will decline in the future. Having botanical gardens that provide different environments and climates is, and will continue to be one way for people to experience what we consider to be exotic vegetation. This can help contribute to a world view, as people learn from the humidity (or lack of); temperature (or excess or lack of) to understanding what differing plants there are in different climates.

Paul Steer May 9, 2013 at 12:01 pm

What a depressing thought that everything has to be cost-effective. I would argue that gardens have a social benefit which is beyond cost but I know that is no longer a reason for anything existing anymore, everything has its price tag, even we older people are a burden. Being a Registered Nurse I have never seen savings from anywhere else ever coming our way and am deeply cynical that savings made in these areas ever would. I need to have places like the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Apart from it being a place of research it is also a place of beauty and allows us to have positive experiences outside of the routine and mundane. Long live those who see beyond money.

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