All is not well in the gardens

November 27, 1998

Southampton University's botanic garden faces an uncertain future as its role as a teaching resource diminishes.

Although the one-hectare valley garden in the heart of the campus is still under the control of the school of biological sciences, discussions about its future funding are in progress.

The acknowledgment that the garden, established 47 years ago, is virtually redundant for teaching purposes reflects a nationwide trend among university botanic gardens, which are obliged to adapt in order to justify their existence.

Pure botany is rarely taught now and the use of botanic gardens, most of which were established more than 50 years ago, has declined as teaching has become increasingly laboratory-based, with biologists researching molecular and genetic structure.

Many of these historic gardens contain rare species and some, such as the garden formerly managed by St Andrews University, have been handed over to local authorities. Others, such as the now-flourishing botanic garden at Hull University, have been pulled back from the brink of destruction after public outcry has forced university authorities to reconsider.

To qualify for the title botanic, a garden must offer a teaching and research facility. Although the teaching role has become limited, many gardens still provide plant material for university research.

The status of Southampton's garden became uncertain a few years ago when the adjoining glasshouses were pulled down and new ones built more than half a mile away. Meanwhile, a facility for field trials was developed at a separate location.

Peter M. Shoolingin-Jordan, head of the school of biological sciences, would like to maintain the garden - but he needs more financial help from the university.

"I know we do not need the garden, but closing it would be short-sighted. If we can get more university support and perhaps form a 'Friends' group, it could be maintained," he said.

Patrick Reynolds, director of Southampton University estates and buildings, takes a pragmatic line: "If biology has to pull out its funding, we will look on the garden as just another part of the campus. My guess is that the character would change completely and we would have to reduce the size of beds and cut maintenance costs."

Head gardener John Cutter, in charge for 13 years, is frustrated by indecision about the future. "We have made no new planting for five years. We have many fine specimen trees - for example the Kettelia fortunei in the pinetum, which I believe is one of only two in the country - but they are being crowded out by other trees, which need severe pruning or taking out. My hands are tied until there is a decision about the garden's future."

Richard Gornall is the curator of the botanic garden funded by the estates and buildings department at Leicester University and he agrees that the teaching role has diminished. His garden has concentrated its resources on providing material for scientific research instead, with crops including tobacco grown in the glasshouses.

"It would not be true to say that our scientific role had also declined," he said, adding that they were running an external schools' programme and were open to the public. "The gardens still have an enormous role to play in passive education," he said.

The changing role of botanic gardens is of particular interest to Anne Pickering, curator and head gardener of the small garden at Newcastle University. She wrote a paper on the subject for her doctorate.

"There is less whole-plant biology taught now and therefore the role of these gardens must change. We are providing material from the glasshouses for medical research. We do not see many botany students in the garden these days but those on the landscape design course do use it."

Last month, the four-acre botanic garden at Hull University celebrated its 50th anniversary with a tree-planting ceremony. But, in the words of vice-chancellor David Dilkes, the gardens "came back from the dead".

Seven years ago, the then almost-broke university tried to sell the gardens - which were no longer used for teaching - for housing. But a huge public outcry saved them. They have subsequently been developed as a plant nursery where the university is building a national collection of hawthorns, and a management group is considering proposals including restoring them as an urban park offering courses in plant and environmental studies.

At Southampton, Professor Shoolingin-Jordan is hoping he can muster enough support to maintain the botanic garden. "Who knows?" he said, "in five years' time it might be needed as a teaching resource again."

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