Evolving Roles of Living Plant Collections in Botanic Gardens for Biodiversity Conservation - a Survey of Japanese Botanic Gardens

Oikawa, J and Kendle, A.D.

Department of Horticulture and Landscape,
School of Plant Sciences, University of Reading
PO Box 221, Reading RG6 6AS UK

Home | Contents | Abstract | Introduction | The Conservation Role of Botanic Gardens | Living Plant Collections in Botanic Gardens | Education in Botanic Gardens | Living Plant Collection and Displays for Public Education | Case Study - A Survey of Botanic Gardens in Japan | Acknowledgments | References | Figures


Although the contribution made by the living plant collection in gardens is often cited in promotional literature, confusion about the long-term value of the living collections is a fundamental problem today. As education is increasingly integrated in the mission or policy of gardens, a new role and a primary justification for the living collection could be display and public education. By integrating effective display, garden design and careful plant selection, the living collection could become a showcase of science and conservation issues.

As part of a survey programme designed to explore how botanic gardens are currently responding to these issues, data are presented here from a range of Japanese botanic gardens. It represents the first analysis of how they are currently structured and their priorities. The lack of education staff at botanic gardens in Japan limits education activities, although public education and recreation are the one of the priority roles of organisation and the living collections are often focused on this purpose. The survey has also shown that the education programme tends to focus on increasing knowledge about plants, rather than developing awareness or positive attitude towards the environment and conservation. This approach reflects a lack of understating of the idea of education for the environment or sustainability. To extend the critical analysis of the real opportunity and need for new educational strategies in botanic gardens, further international survey work is planned.



The role of botanic gardens as key locations to promote both in-situ and ex-situ biodiversity conservation has been widely recognised (WWF, IUCN and BGCI, 1989; Maunder, 1997). A major challenge for botanic gardens today is how to evolve their own conservation policies for the next century. Following the recent development of holistic approaches to conservation, there is an increasing emphasis on education in the policy or mission of botanic gardens (Rae, 1995; Willison, 1997). However, botanic gardens across the world face fundamental problems regarding their priority facilities, the “gardens”. The use and value of this facility in terms of conservation and research have become confused.

This paper argues for a review of the role of, and policies towards, living plant collections. This could also be an opportunity to ask how the missions of the organisations have been implemented in practice. Data from a survey of Japanese botanic gardens is presented to illustrate current attitudes in that country. Most of these gardens have not played an active part in developing international contacts, and the data presented here represents the first analysis of how they are currently structured and their priorities.


The Conservation Role of Botanic Gardens

Obviously the role of botanic gardens has changed over time and will need to do so again to match the evolution and requirements of society (Maunder, 1997). Whilst botanic gardens have a long historical tradition of accumulating and studying plant diversity, the conservation role of botanic gardens has not been clearly stated until the middle of the twentieth century (WWF, IUCN and BGCI, 1989; Maunder, 1997; Willison, 1997). However there is an increasing promotion of the importance of this role in publications such as The Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy (WWF, IUCN and BGCI, 1989).

The awareness that there are valuable collections, functions, and expertise at botanic gardens that could contribute significantly to conservation and sustainable development has been growing amongst conservation organisations, governments and botanic gardens themselves (Rae, 1995; Maunder, 1997). Particularly since the Earth Summit in 1992, botanic gardens have committed themselves to sustainability worldwide at local, national and global level, and they are internationally recognised as centers for plant conservation today. However it does not automatically follow that the living collection will play a core role in these programmes.


Living Plant Collections in Botanic Gardens

The range of plants cultivated in botanic gardens may be determined by specific corporate strategies, which change and evolve, or may be a result of largely unplanned historical accumulation (Maunder, 1997). Frequently the purpose and the meaning of living plant collections has become uncertain. The potential value of living collections in terms of the value for scientific research, conservation, and education has been well argued (WWF, IUCN and BGCI, 1989; Rae, 1995; Dixon, 1997; Minster, 1997). However the identification and adoption of contemporary roles that are both politically, economically and biologically viable is therefore a complicated issue (Rae, 1995; Maunder, 1997).

In parallel to this, research in plant sciences has become focused on molecular and genetic levels whilst even taxonomists find that the risk of morphological distortions in cultivation often makes it preferable to study herbarium rather than living specimens. The problems of maintaining ex-situ living material, such as hybridisation, disease transfer and above all genetic impoverishment, can put a constraint on direct use of the plant stock. With regard to ex-situ plant conservation, advances in seed and tissue bank technology offer opportunities to maintain a wider genetic range and higher quality plant health compared to traditional living collections.

Within a scientific context it would therefore be no surprise if calls for redirection of funds from living collections to other activities will become more apparent within the institutions (Rae, 1995). In fact, for some botanic gardens the limited and decreasing opportunities to maintain costly collections in the garden with increasing funding demands coming for laboratory equipment has already put living collections into a crisis (Rae, 1995).

Even where ex-situ techniques are well advanced, biodiversity conservation in its broadest sense depends upon in-situ conservation. Ex-situ techniques can do nothing to maintain ecosystem services or aesthetic and recreational values of landscapes. Above all they offer nothing for the majority of the world's biota that has never even been identified. The diversity of life on the earth is complex and its components are all interdependent and interconnected in several dimensions. So great is this complexity that it is difficult even to characterise the nature of life. It has been argued that the number of species described today could be as low as 10% or even 1% of the actual numbers alive on the earth (Wilson, 1992).

Whilst plants are often amongst the easier organisms to characterise and maintain, the broader objectives of biodiversity conservation can not be met unless habitats are protected in-situ. To achieve this is not easy and requires strategies on many fronts. One priority is to develop public and political support for biodiversity conservation (Glowka, Duilmon, and Synge, 1994). The search for a positive focus for the living collection in the garden needs to investigate new directions and it seems clear that education and public interpretation of science and conservation issues should become a priority. Given the location of many botanic gardens in centers of population rather than centers of biodiversity, it makes particular sense that the living collections become showcases for conservation education.


Education in Botanic Gardens

Since the seventeenth century education has been recognised as one of the important functions and roles in some botanic gardens. From formal to informal, a variety of education programmes and activities have been offered to an extensive range of audiences (WWF, IUCN and BGCI, 1989). It is, however, rather surprising that neither the evolution of education policy nor the actual programmes have been well documented prior to the 1970s (Willison, 1997).

Nevertheless, an increasing growth of interest in education internationally can be seen clearly, for example through the development of international congresses on education in botanic gardens organised by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (Willison, 1997). In parallel with a general increase in awareness of environmental issues and conservation movements in the 1990s, botanic gardens have also started to realise that they can offer not only education in botany and horticulture but also biodiversity conservation education. It has been argued that no organisation bears greater responsibility for informing the public concerning the nature and importance of plants and their roles in natural systems than botanic gardens (Rae, 1995).

Botanic gardens can not ignore the important role education could play in supporting their goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainability. As several well-known environmental policies and documents, such as World Conservation Strategy. (IUCN, UNEP and WWF, 1980) Caring for the Earth: A strategy for sustainable living, (IUCN, UNEP and WWF, 1991) and Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, have clearly stated, education, particularly such as environmental education is an important vehicle for the development of a sustainable future. Such goal-focused education is not the same as passively presenting information. It is based on more instructive, constructive, hands-on and inquiry-based approaches (Sterling, 1996; Patchatt, pers. comm.), and aims to make people change their attitudes towards the environment, develop an ethic of sustainability, and act positively for a sustainable future.

Some particularly successful examples have been seen in conservation projects or education activities where the public can actively participate as volunteers (Jordan, 1990; Shigematsu, 1993; Stevens, 1995; Grundy and Simpkin, 1996). Through direct experiences and positive participation, volunteers are able to develop greater stewardship (a wish to care for nature) and capacity building (an ability to act) for both sustainable natural and built environments (Jordan, 1990; Oikawa, 1996). While broad ranging ideas of this new model of education have already been integrated into the philosophy behind some botanic garden education programmes (Willison, 1997), there are still gardens which do not recognise such education as being a significant part of their activity.


Living Plant Collection and Displays for Public Education

Biodiversity conservation, sustainability and education are all broad concepts that embody many possible paradigms and approaches. As one of these possible approaches we have argued that plant collections in the gardens should be used for public display and education.

However it is possible for buzzwords to be incorporated into policy and mission statements without any real substance in practice. Although the concept of design involves the broader purposes, processes and principles that determine the development of gardens, it is rare to find a garden where education staff have had an influence over the composition and layout of the living collection. To fulfill their potential botanic gardens should be designed with teaching and learning in mind and the educators have to be involved in garden collection, plant display and garden design (Cox, 1988).

As with museums, interpretation such as explanation panels, displays, brochures, or guides makes up one of the key elements of education in botanic gardens. Good interpretation increases the visitor’s understanding, enjoyment of the gardens and also gives a greater feeling of satisfaction after a visit (Burbidge 1990). A successful design combining a plant display and interpretation presenting conservation messages could be a powerful tool as education to develop awareness and a more responsible attitude towards environment. This could also increase the visitors' perception of the value of the garden’s organisation, to help build a constituency with sympathy for a garden’s work and its development. From this perspective pubic education and displays could be seen as the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity to maintain living collections in botanic gardens.


Case Study - A Survey of Botanic Gardens in Japan

The case study was chosen to explore the current role of living plant collections in botanic gardens in Japan, and to test the degree to which the themes discussed above had begun to influence priorities. Other aims were to identify current education activities, to examine the attitudes and visions of educational officers, and to investigate the current role of their living collections in relation to public education and display. In 1966, the Association of Japanese Botanic Gardens was founded as a corporate organisation of the Ministry of Education (Association of Japanese Botanic Gardens, 1997) and it has acted as the center of the national Japanese network of botanic gardens and related organisations that maintain living plant collections. Currently 136 institutions and 119 individual members are included in this network (Association of Japanese Botanic Gardens, pers. comm.). However neither the Association nor its individual member gardens have so far participated in discussion in the international arena, and there is only limited information available about them worldwide (Willison and Wyse-Jackson, pers. comm.). Therefore this survey also had the objective of collecting up to date background information about botanic gardens in Japan.


The questionnaire survey was designed in two phases. The primary objective of Phase I was to contact botanic gardens and similar organisations in Japan and to obtain a wide range of basic information about their priorities, while Phase II investigated detailed issues about education and living plant collections in the garden. Referring to A Guidebook of Botanic Gardens in Japan (Anon. 1, 1990) all members of the Association of Japanese Gardens except ones which were not open to the public were included in the sample population of the Phase I questionnaire. The rest of the sample were randomly chosen from a list of botanic gardens in Japan presented by A Guidebook of Botanic Gardens in Japan up to a total of one hundred and sixty. Replies were collected in May 1996. Phase II of the survey was designed in two separate parts; one directed to the senior staff, either director or curator (part 1), and the other to education officers (part 2). The finalised format of these questionnaires was translated into Japanese and printed on different coloured papers. The sample size in this case was in 100 of each. The questionnaires were distributed to the participants at the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Japanese Botanic Gardens in May 1998. The rest were posted to other botanic gardens which were randomly chosen from the references used previously. Replies were collected in June 1998.



Ninety replies of the Phase I were gathered in total (56%), while 47 (47%) in Part 1 with 42 (42%) in Part 2 of the Phase II.

The results of each questionnaire are shown in Figure 1~7 and Table 1.

Focus questions of the questionnaire

Phase I and their results (Figure 1~4)

Q1.) Do you have any education officers in your botanic garden?

A1.) Yes 14% | No 86% (Figure 1)

Q2.) Do you have any volunteers in your botanic garden?

A2.) Yes 22% | No 78% ( Figure 2)

Q3.) What are your educational programmes focused on?

A3.) (Figure 3)

Q4.) What limits your activities in education?

A4.) (Figure 4)

Focus questions of the questionnaire Phase II and their results (Figure 5~7, Tab. 1)

Q5.) What are the primary roles of your organisation?

Does your organisation use a living collection for this purpose? (Figure 5)

Primary Role Use of Collection
taxonomy 20 21
other research 17 17
hort. Interest 20 20
display 17 18
public education 11 8
conservation 34 27
recreation/tourism 14 12
academic education 21 23
historic heritage 35 22

Q6.) What proportion does professional and public education play within the entire work of the organisation?

A6.) See Figure 6

Q7.) Do you have any programmes on environmental education? (Figure 7)

A7.) Yes 45% | No 54%

What are your goals for environmental education?

Table. 1: The five most common answers



With the hypothesis that living plant collections in gardens should have a focus on public education and display, this survey was conducted to critically review current policy and practice. Japanese botanic gardens were selected as a research sample because worldwide there is only limited information available about these gardens and their activities. A more extensive survey targeting a broader range of botanical institutes is now underway. The same questionnaire was distributed to all of the delegates at the 5th International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress 1998. The results of this survey, including a comparison of the data between Japan and the rest of the global community, will be produced.

Although public education is highly regarded and seen as one of the primary roles of the organisations surveyed, it is still not common for botanic gardens in Japan to actually employ education officers. This greatly limits the education activities carried out. In terms of quality of education, the majority of Japanese botanic gardens who do run education programmes tend to focus on the themes of botany and horticulture which are often traditionally focused on learning about plants and their cultivation. Environmental education has been carried out at some botanic gardens, and those that do so have well focused goals. However overall the most important level of environmental education; education for the environment or for biodiversity conservation, and sustainability has not yet been seen as a strong theme in botanic gardens in Japan.

Volunteer participation at Japanese botanic gardens is also not common yet. Further exploration and development of the role of volunteers represents a new challenge for the institutions to achieve their goals of education and conservation. Living plants in the gardens are seen as an important tool for public education as well as recreation and tourism in Japan. This suggests that attention should be paid towards to the policy of plant selection as well as the design of plants displays for both education and public attraction purposes.



We are grateful to all of the botanic gardens that completed the questionnaires and the staff that gave their time and insights. We also thank the Royal Horticulture Society and the Kew Guild for their generous financial support for the attendance to the Congress.



For Details See questions above


Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Key for Figures 5 & 6

a = taxonomic research
d = display g = public recreation/tourism
b = other botanical research e = public education h = academic education
c = horticultural interest/development f = conservation i = historic heritage

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

What proportion does professional and public education play within the entire work of the organisation?

[x = proportion (%); y = number]


Figure 8



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