Don't sack the gardener

January 1, 1999

Over-emphasis on plant chemistry is short-sighted and is killing botanical gardens, says Ghillean Prance.

Over the past ten years, I have received a steady flow of requests asking me to intervene as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on behalf of other botanic gardens that have come under threat of closure or face serious reduction in their programmes.

Most have been about university botanic gardens. First it was Hull, then Liverpool, later came the famous Cambridge Botanic Garden, and most recently Southampton University's botanic garden. The issue has not been confined to the United Kingdom, however: at one stage, I was writing letters on behalf of the oldest botanic garden in Europe, at Padua.

While some university authorities seem to be losing interest in their botanic gardens, there are obviously many members of the public who come to their defence and do all they can to save any garden that is threatened with closure.

The reduced academic interest reflects a change in emphasis of the teaching in biology departments. When I was a botany student at Oxford, the practical classes were filled with interesting plants from the botanic garden and field trips there were frequent. The emphasis of teaching today is on plant chemistry, molecular studies and genetics rather than on the whole plant.

Is this short-sighted? While there is a great need to examine the function of plants, it is still necessary to study whole plants and learn to identify them.

At Kew we do both. The work of our anatomy, cytology and molecular systematics laboratories provides exciting data to produce ever more accurate and predictive systems of classification, but we still need the plants in the garden for research and display purposes.

Every day we receive many requests to identify plants from both professionals and interested amateurs, and that does not decrease as other experimental disciplines of botany increase.

Many people need to know the name of a plant, whether it is a farmer with a weed in a field of corn, a doctor whose patient has eaten a poisonous plant, or a customs official who needs to know whether it is a species on a prohibited list. Gardening is the number one hobby in the UKand, judging by the people who flock to flower shows or by the continuing growth in membership of the Royal Horticultural Society, there is no decline in interest. The serious environmental crisis that the world faces today has also brought a renewed interest in the green world, and this is likely to increase over time.

Most university botanic gardens hold one or more national collections of plant genera or families and are playing an important role in the conservation of species. Leicester University botanic garden, for example, holds the national collection of Skimmia. Yet some of these gardens are under threat from short-term thinking, always for financial reasons rather than for good scientific reasons.

With the increased interest in horticulture and the environment, university botanic gardens are likely to play an even more important role in the future and it would be short-sighted to close any of them. The public also enjoys these facilities and become most indignant when they come under threat of closure.

In addition to their use for teaching and to provide material for scientific research, university botanic gardens are often places where students can relax and study for exams in a much healthier surrounding than in the depths of a library. I have frequently observed students lying on the lawns with open books and pen and paper.

I am glad that not all university botanic gardens are under threat. Recently, I have helped Sheffield University obtain funding for major improvements to its garden. Through a combined effort by the university and the city, the garden obtained a grant from the National Lottery and restoration is now under way. The Sheffield Botanic Gardens Trust has set an example of what can be done when a few people came to the rescue of a seriously neglected garden.

With the continued generous support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Kew continues to flourish as a research facility and as a public garden. This enables us to assist other gardens when they come under threat. So far, this has been highly successful. None of the gardens mentioned above has actually closed. Perhaps the nearest to closure was that of Hull University, but it now seems to have the full support of the vice-chancellor.

Kew will continue to fight for university botanic gardens. After all, it is where many of our scientific staff were first inspired to become botanists.

Sir Ghillean Prance is director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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