According to Wikipedia, the role of a botanical garden is “to maintain documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education“. I’d always wondered why Australian gardens tend to be called ‘botanic’, rather than ‘botanical’. Wikipedia also enlightened me that whilst the terms are pretty much interchangeable, botanic is often used for earlier, more traditional gardens.
In the 16th century, botanical gardens (or physic gardens) were concerned with medicinal plants and these gave way to an interest in exotic imports in the 17th century. In the 1700s, Linnaeus created the botanic nomenclature system and botanical gardens introduced ‘order beds’.
Next up came economic botany–crops with commercial opportunities–and later horticultural education. In the 1970s, plant conservation became a focus and today, sustainability is high on the agenda.
And so with all these competing objectives and fashions and generally quite limited budgets, what is a botanical garden to do? Should it focus on scientific research, conservation, display or education, or try and do a bit of everything?
Whilst there are always plenty of things to interest me in any botanical garden, there are some that leave me feeling a little cold. The VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver wasn’t one of those. It was one of the best I have seen. But I admit to being a bit biased.
My big passion in horticulture is of its beauty and subsequent impact on our well being. And whilst small, ‘homemade’ gardens often win the prize for this, as far as large public gardens go, the VanDusen garden is pretty jolly good.
To start with, it’s 22 hectares of plants, covering 7,500 unique species. So that’s quite something. There are the usual Mediterranean garden, woodland garden, vegetable garden and rose garden but also the less usual meditation garden, Korean garden, dried flower arranger’s garden and (hooray, although not that rare) the Australian and New Zealand garden!
In total, 50 distinct collections, bringing so much of the world’s horticulture to one place. And whilst they were distinct, they were also integrated. Walking around, it genuinely felt like one, cohesive garden, which is quite some feat. And they didn’t feel like ‘collections’ as they so often do in botanical gardens. Each area felt like a skilfully curated, beautiful garden.
The planting combinations really were stunning and it was a great reinforcement of the fact that plants from similar climes generally work fabulously together. There were quite a few ‘obvious’ plant combinations; by that I mean text book themes. The pink and blue border, the wispy textures border, the lime and burgundy border.
But whilst these themes might be a little obvious, it is no easy task to create them so perfectly. The contrasts were magnificent; achieving that perfect balance of interest and harmony. It is rare to see such perfectly chosen mixes of colour, texture and form.
And there were other, less ‘obvious’ areas, which always get me excited. They take my brain off in all sorts of directions!
The trees were another important aspect of the garden. They provided history, cohesion, unity and stature, not to mention shade that was quite a relief on the hot day we visited. I thought the trees were fabulous; that is until I read that the gardens were born the same year that I was; then they made me feel really very old. I’m still telling myself that many must have been established much earlier!
I love this garden for its role in making people think, for its innate beauty, for the atmosphere it creates and for its ability to translate to the home garden. All very important things in my world.
So if we come back to the general objectives of botanical gardens (scientific research, conservation, display and education), I suppose this garden is strongest on the display side, although I’d argue that beautiful gardens provide the best education of all. They give ideas and the very necessary inspiration to go and try things yourself. I understand there are extensive programmes available to the public that sit alongside the gardens, too.
But is it incomplete if the garden doesn’t undertake research (a policy decided very early on in this garden’s life) or the conservation of rare and endangered species?
Fundamentally, I do get very excited about research; I love seeing the output of scientific, horticultural trials, but the data is the exciting bit, a single snapshot of the plant trials themselves often doesn’t tell you very much. So I want reports more than trials on display.
And conservation. Well, I may be on my own here, but on the whole, I think the world evolves and for millions of years, plants and animals have come and gone and the ones here today are best suited for our current environment, which has to be a good thing. There may be the odd species that we’d like to conserve for specific reasons, but I generally think it’s best that we let nature work out evolution for itself, rather than battling against it.
So please let the scientific studies continue, but I’m all for beautiful, inspiring, educational displays in the public areas of our botanical gardens. In fact I’d like to add the word ‘inspire’ to the role of botanical gardens. ‘Order beds’ are too far behind the times, I feel; too museum like, less helpful for spreading the benefits of horticulture.
If inspiration is the way forward, the harmonious, yet thought provoking VanDusen garden certainly seems to be well ahead of the game. I hope to see many more like it on my future travels.
PS I’ve had fun this week, having been asked to do two interviews; the first of which you can see here, on the lovely IOTA’s website.