High Ground 12

Paul Licht explains why botanical gardens deserve broad support

HAVE YOU VISITED a botanical garden or arboretum recently and, if so, have you considered supporting one? If you haven’t, there are a lot of reasons why you should: they are a precious resource, especially for those of us who love plants and gardening.

The concept of a botanical garden or arboretum sounds straightforward but, in reality, these institutions are staggeringly diverse. The professional association representing these institutions, the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, lists about 500 members, ranging from small plots with small budgets to holdings of many hundreds of acres with budgets in the millions of dollars. Despite these variations, they tend to have one thing in common: they seek to provide a setting that facilitates our exposure to a wealth of beautiful living plants. Some institutions accomplish this by stimulating our senses of sight, smell, and touch; others take us to some foreign land that provides escape from the local climate or limited local flora. For the gardener, however, a botanical garden offers much more.

Many botanical gardens provide information for both the novice and experienced gardener that would be difficult to obtain solely from printed sources. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but seeing a living plant is worth far more. Plant clinics offer personal advice on gardening issues, and educational programs provide information on a wide range of botanical and horticultural topics. A diverse collection of well-tended plants in an interesting display provides insight into what can be grown locally and how a plant will look when mature. Skillful displays of unusual species introduce the gardener to new possibilities of using and combining plants. For the person who is no longer able to garden, either for reasons of health or because of limited gardening space, botanical gardens can satisfy an important, indeed urgent, need for being around plants. Most botanical gardens depend on volunteers, and thereby provide a special opportunity for people who can no longer garden on their own.

Some botanical gardens go well beyond simply providing a beautiful display of interesting plants; they may possess significant scientific plant collections that serve as a resource for research and conservation. Several botanical gardens have repositories of valuable genetic material that could be used to create new cultivars and to preserve plants that are imperiled or even approaching extinction in nature. Botanical gardens also often do basic research on these issues, and their plant-collecting expeditions may even lead to the discovery of new plants; one such example is the Chinese dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, collected in the late 1930s and now a popular landscape plant throughout North America. Success stories like the dawn redwood underscore the key role botanical gardens play in providing new material to the nursery trade, either through direct introductions or by stimulating gardeners’ appetites for something new and different. Botanical gardens can also be an important source of interesting plants through their own on-site sales.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of what botanical gardens have to offer. However, one thing is certain: all botanical gardens depend on the support of individuals for their existence. They are expensive to maintain and are rarely, if ever, self-supporting in all respects. As I mentioned above, almost all depend on volunteers. Volunteers may be needed to help in the garden to offset expenses, or to mount the activities, such as plant sales, that help generate much-needed revenue. Many also require additional direct monetary support through gifts or donations to build and maintain collections. Just as I cannot imagine a world without beautiful plants, I can’t imagine one in which there were no botanical gardens to facilitate the enjoyment of plants. If support for these institutions dries up in either the public or the private sector, we will surely see their gradual extinction. At the very least, all gardeners should be members of at least their local botanical garden. H

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