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The Role of Living Collections in Gardens for a Sustainable Future

Contrbuted by Junko Oikawa and Tony Kendle, The Department of Horticulture and Landscape, The University of Reading,
PO Box 221, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AS, U.K.


Whilst maintaining their long historical tradition of accumulating and studying plant diversity, botanic gardens have carried out a wide range of services and activities. Their priorities and roles are varied, differing from one to another, and have changed over decades, in some cases centuries, in order to adapt to the changes in the world and the evolving needs of society (WWF, IUCN and BGCS 1989; Maunder 1994; Heywood 1996).

Do botanic gardens have an authentic and important role to play in today’s world? If the answer is yes, what should their current priorities and roles be? In particular, do living plant collections, which must be one of the major characteristics that define these institutions, help to meet these priorities and roles?

Because of the increasing general awareness of the current environmental crisis and likely future loss of biodiversity, botanic gardens’ responsibility for plant conservation has become widely debated (Rae 1995; Maunder 1997). Now recognised as centres of plant conservation, botanic gardens around the world are involved in some kinds of conservation activities (Heywood 1987). Almost 800 botanic gardens have recently been active in promoting and practising biodiversity conservation in some significant way (Wyse Jackson 1996). In particular since the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a focus on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development has been increasingly stressed in their mission and policies.

Living Collections in the Garden - Past and Future

It has been a long tradition that botanic gardens have been judged, or have judged themselves, by the number of individual representatives of different species held in the garden (Maunder 1994). Bigger is better and more is merrier have been philosophies that have accelerated the expansion of living plant collections (Robertson 1996). Too often, ‘…it seems that the collections are built up first and then a justification for their existence is sorted out afterwards’ (Rae 1995).

Even where original collection strategies were well defined, over time the purpose and meaning of many collections has become uncertain. As a result, living collections no longer play as useful and as meaningful a role as they could. That is why it has been stated by Heywood that the common perception of botanic gardens is that they have virtually no role in strategic plant genetic resource conservation, but instead grow a random and diverse range of rare or endangered plant species (Heywood cited in Rae 1995).

As one of the most costly facilities within the organisations, but becoming less and less important for research and conservation, the problems regarding living collections in botanic gardens are complex (Oikawa and Kendle, in press). However the living plant collections are above all the publicly accessible face of the botanic garden. At the end of the day the decisions about their future value will not be made by the staff but by the wider public and politicians. Maunder (1994) argues that botanical gardens will be judged by the number of viable species and habitats surviving as a result of their intervention, and by their contribution to economic and social development but not by the number of the species maintained as botanical living dead.

The collections are a museum's 'soul' and raison d'être’ (Alberch, 1993). Without this facility, most botanic gardens would not have existed (Figure1). The living collection's role as the main method for maintaining plant diversity has been largely superseded by the development of new technology such as seed banks. It is now possible to conceive that botanic gardens could fulfil at least their scientific mission with vastly reduced collections. If living collections, or gardens, are to continue to play a role it will be important to clarify their purpose as related to their own institution's mission. This will require a fundamental change in the concept and direction of many living collections.

Figure 1. The results of two questions posed to botanic garden directors (n=75) as part of a survey in 1998.

 Could your institute continue to meet its main goals without a living collection? Yes - 2%   No 88%
 Could your institute exist without a living collection?  Yes 11%  No 89%

Living Collections as a Conservation Showcase

Although the recognition that living plant collections could be used for promoting conservation messages to a wider audience is not new (Ashton 1987), recent research carried out by Rae (1995) confirmed that conservation education was considered as the best way in which gardens in botanical institutions could support conservation. His results also showed that most frequently endangered and rare species were cultivated for the purpose of public education, while research staff rarely used the garden collections. The result of a survey of botanic garden directors in 1998 regarding both the main roles of the organisations and use of living collections  also supports the argument that the primary role and justification of living plant collections should be for public education.

Despite the importance of education, the education officers are rarely involved in plant selection and display design in the garden (Rae 1995; Oikawa 1999). The time and money commitments required to develop new collections and designs is not justified without consulting with key user groups, which are in the most case education staff. This approach requires an evolutionary change in the long tradition of living collection development if botanic gardens are to fulfil their own, and society's, requirements.

If more consideration is given to education opportunities when plants are chosen and laid out, the living collection in the garden could be much more effectively used, with clearer objectives. The conservation roles of the collection could in turn be more widely recognised and acknowledged. Most importantly, because the public experiences in the garden could become richer and more exciting, their perceptions and images of botanic gardens could also be expected to become more positive.

With the garden viewed as such a showcase, designed to awaken an interest in plant diversity for a wide range of public, the garden would interpret various themes and aspects. These could include horticulture excellence and the possibilities of landscape design, the world of natural biodiversity and the conservation of plants and our environment, the principles of science and also the relationship of plants and people; culture, arts, religion and tradition. For example the concept of biodiversity, a common word for the professional communities in environmental conservation and natural sciences, is still not well understood by the general public (Bayon 1996) and could be well illustrated with the rich and unique resources in botanic gardens.

Furthermore, if botanic gardens wish to stress their contribution to sustainable development, then they have an obligation to address what sustainability means and how it could be achieved. For example there is a need to address holistic issues of plant-focused education, because:

education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues...It is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, vales and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making.
(UNESCO 1992)

There is increasing debate about the agenda of development at one hand and the environment on the other. In the international forum a redefinition of the links between those concerns is being explored in the name of global sustainability and social justice. These concerns have been widely accepted as components of a new world ethic of sustainability (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991). If support for the move to sustainability is accepted in the mission of botanic gardens, educators within these teams need to investigate how education for sustainability is currently being conceived. Fien and Tilbury (1998) argue that environmental education in the past has too often concentrated on approaches which are either apolitical, naturalistic, scientific or aesthetic, and call for reorientation to focus more sharply on environmental quality, and socio-economic, political issues. How can such ideas be implemented in botanic gardens?

The unique strengths of botanic gardens lie in their land and plant collections and broader concepts of education should not become just classroom exercises. However there is no longer any need for the use of garden to be limited by the living collection as traditionally conceived i.e. a scientific genetic reserve of wild collected accessions. For example, if the living collection embraced cultivated as well as wild collected forms, this would allow exploration of our cultural dependence on plants to underline the link between nature and our survival.

Another important aspect is the importance of participatory techniques in environmental education. The gardens could provide a setting and opportunities for the public to learn approaches and skills for environmental citizenship. There are also opportunities to explore personal responsibilities and opportunities for change. One of the most straightforward examples could be a demonstration of recycling or composting. Participation in garden maintenance and gardening, can also be recognised as a process that can nurture a sense of stewardship towards nature. If approached in the right way, participatory garden projects have also been shown to be powerful catalysts for the development of social responsibility (Lewis 1992).

The traditional living collection carries certain implicit messages about conservation. These include the idea that conservation is defensive (relying on a control of negative human action), carried out by scientists and specialists, does not involve personal responsibility or participation and is an issue that relates to rare and strictly wild species. Such perspectives are seen and now widely recognised as ineffective (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991), and the need for change was a primary motivating factor for the Earth Summit. In the future, conservation will be seen as participatory, a responsibility of everyone, active and creative (relying on positive human intervention) and an issue that emphasises the links between protecting wild nature and protecting our cultures, economies and societies. To be effective vehicles for education of such concepts, living collections need careful selection and design.

Challenges for Education Staff in Botanic Gardens

Education activities in botanic gardens have grown over the last ten years and will continue to grow. Botanic gardens themselves believe that education is now the best way that they could contribute to society (Figure 3). The roles and the responsibilities of the education officers are growing also. However from the perspective of Lucas’s (1979) three strands of environmental education - education about, in and for the environment - it could be argued that current education efforts in botanic gardens are still too often focused on education about the environment (Figure 4).

Figure 3. The opinions of botanic garden directors on factors that represent botanic gardens' most important contribution to society (result from a survey conducted in 1998).

Figure 4. The goals of environmental education in botanic gardens classified by the three strands of environmental education; education about the environment, education in the environment, education for the environment (result from a survey of botanic garden education officers, 1998).

Education officers need to explore the implications of the whole concept of sustainable development and of the new perspectives on nature conservation. Without a fundamental understanding of these issues, composting will be seen as just another technique of horticulture, rather than an opportunity to explore issues of sustainable living. The imagination and creativity, and perhaps the philosophy, of education officers will be put to test to see how such holistic issues of sustainability could be represented.

Education officers are so much more advanced [than us] in the debates of sustainability’, according to one of the botanic garden directors participating at the BGCI Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1998. If they can meet the new challenge, education officers should also be able to influence the agenda of the entire organisation. Perhaps most urgently, the living plant collections, which are becoming confused in terms of direction and role, would benefit from much greater commitment of, and communication with, education officers.


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