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Utrecht University Botanic Gardens - Science, Interpretation, and Care

Volume 2 Number 5 - August 1995
Akkie Joosse

Utrecht University Botanic Gardens have gone through many changes since they were founded in 1639, three years after the official founding of the Utrecht University. Starting off as a medicinal garden, used solely by students and professors, it has developed into a garden not only for scientific purposes, but also for the pleasure of many non-scientific visitors.

The establishment of a Regional Office for Botanic Gardens Conservation International at the Utrecht Botanic Gardens in 1994 completed the three-way strategy of Utrecht University Botanic Gardens : science, interpretation, and care.

A Brief History

After their foundation in 1639, Utrecht Botanic Gardens changed locations several times. Over the years the plant collections increased not only in numbers, but also in scientific importance. 1963 was the starting point for a new, modern garden built on top and around the old military fortifications called Fort Hoofddijk in Utrecht. Fort Hoofddijk (7 ha.) today harbours Utrecht University's collections of herbaceous plants, while the Von Gimborn Arboretum in Doorn (27 ha.) houses the collections of shrubs and trees.

The Collections

The living heart of the work of any botanic garden is the plant collection. In January 1995, the Utrecht collections reached 17,823 accessions (6,784 of natural origin) of 10,112 species and varieties. Taxonomically the collections are updated regularly. In addition, when plants are added to the collections, these are preferably of known wild source.

An important geographical focal point in the collection is the flora of South America, especially of the Guianas. Other important specializations are conifers, esp. Tsuga; Aceraceae; Betulaceae, esp. Betula; and alpines. A complete listing of specializations is given in the Utrecht University Botanic Gardens Catalogue of Plant Collections. This catalogue, published in 1992, is available from the Curators' Office, free of charge.

The Utrecht collections are well documented and for this purpose a special computer programme has been developed, called BUD 2.

The collections serve four main purposes:

  • (scientific) research
  • scientific) education
  • recreation and interpretation
  • preservation of endangered species

Scientific Projects and Education

Utrecht Botanic Gardens has a modern greenhouse complex of 4,000 m.ý with many separate compartments in which the conditions are controlled by a computer. Here, not only the tropical and sub-tropical collections are maintained, but also special climate controlled compartments for research purposes. A "high-tech" unit was constructed for phytopathological research.

Currently researchers in 7 scientific disciplines work on about 25 projects in the Garden. These projects vary from research on genome evolution within the Crassulaceae to projects in phytopathology and veterinary sciences.

The gardens also play an important role in various educational courses, for instance the international course 'Neotropical Flora'.

Education, Interpretation and Recreation

Utrecht University Botanic Gardens have been open to the public since the 1960s. But only since 1989 have special efforts been made to make the gardens more attractive for a general public. This meant not only improving the information about the plants in the garden, but also organizing special activities and events. Exhibitions are organized, eg. about medicinal or edible plants, musical events planned and children activities organized. Groups visiting the garden may use the services of specially trained guides. Annually about 50Ä60,000 people visit the two locations of the Utrecht Botanic Gardens. Since the gardens' staff is too small to manage all these activities, volunteers contribute substantially, receiving visitors and helping out during special events.

1995 is an important year in education, interpretation and recreation for Utrecht Botanic Gardens. In June, the Theme Garden was opened. This garden, unlike the rest of the Gardens, was especially designed as an educational garden for the general public (see Roots 8, October 1993).

Here, by means of 18 plant themes, different aspects of plants are shown. There are, for instance, technical themes on form and function of flowers and also themes that provide information on the uses man makes of plants, or the way plants interact with their environment.

Our purpose for the Theme Garden is not merely to display the plant, but to get the public to actively participate, to discover and experience. This means using all senses and also using special educational gadgets to clarify certain interesting parts of the plants exhibited. In a forthcoming issue of Roots an article on the Theme Garden will discuss in more detail the educational aspects of this garden and how it will be used in teacher training.

Conservation and Care

Botanic gardens in general have a unique opportunity in raising awareness on plants and their environment. By demonstrating the sometimes intricate pollination mechanisms, their form in relation to their function, and their function in upholding ecosystems, the awareness of plants and their importance to mankind is fuelled. This awareness in turn leads to care. Through this philosophy, the necessity for protection of endangered species and habitats becomes self-evident. From here it is only a small step to raising public support for concrete conservation projects. The Environment Monitor may serve as an example here.

The Environment Monitor is situated on one of the last remnants of rural land within the university-centre, covering about 8 ha. It contains several different landscape features, and is used to monitor and demonstrate changes in the landscape and its flora as a result of differences in maintenance. The department of Botanical Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has started a research-project for students to monitor the differences which develop in the vegetation types. A series of interpretative signs provide the visitors with information about changes in the ecosystem due to changes in maintenance. In this case, although awareness was raised, no concrete action (a project) was proposed. At the time of the start of the Environment Monitor, there was no opportunity to support concrete conservation projects.

The absence of opportunities to run conservation projects turned out to be a missing link for the gardens. In order to counter this, a conservation unit was set up, in the form of a Regional Office of BGCI. The formal establishment of a Regional Office of BGCI in Utrecht took place in May 1994. With the help of some Dutch enterprises we could make a start with our first project: the purchase of the Tresor area in French Guiana (South America). More about the Regional Office and the Tresor project is included in the next article in this issue.