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The importance of botanic gardens in Chinese cities

Volume 5 Number 2 - July 2008

Xiangying Wen


China has around 234 botanic gardens and arboreta generally designated by the Government as research and development centres for plant diversity conservation and sustainable utilisation. Most botanic gardens are located in central city locations or in the suburbs forming an integral part of the city environment. The number of Chinese botanic gardens is increasing with major new gardens being developed or planned (e.g. Chen Shan Botanical Garden in Shanghai, Nan Shan Botanical Garden in Chongqing and Dong Guan Botanical Garden). It is estimated that there are 1-5 new botanic gardens built each year in China. The rapid development of botanic gardens and the resurgence of interest in their potential within China is mainly due to the rapid recent development of the country’s economy and the growth of external and internal tourism. Botanic gardens are seen as prestigious urban development projects and, at the same time, they continue to play an important function delivering Chinese development policy, particularly an Ordinance issued by the Ministry of Construction covering the building of Ecological Gardening Cities, which emphasizes that all cities should build botanic gardens to conserve their local biodiversity.

China has 31,000 species of vascular plants accounting for 10% of the world total, making it one of the richest countries in terms of plant diversity. However, China’s rapid economic development in the last thirty years and continuous population growth seriously threatens this abundant biodiversity. Nearly 4,000 to 5,000 higher plants are considered at risk of extinction, accounting for 15-20 % of the total number of plants in China. Biodiversity conservation is fundamental to support ecologically sustainable development in both urban and rural areas. The biodiversity conservation role of botanic gardens is therefore essential, and the responsibilities of botanic gardens include plant conservation advocacy, species protection and research. In addition, botanic gardens have important experience and expertise in the control, research, management and utilisation of alien invasive plants, which are a major ecological problem in China and one that cities will face increasingly in the future (He Shanan, 2007).

Furthermore, as the standard of living improves, more and more people recognise the broader importance of botanic gardens for horticulture, environmental improvement and leisure and increasing foreign exchange in China is encouraging a growing interest in botanical gardens (Zhang Zuoshuang, 2007).

Differing roles of botanic gardens in China

Botanic gardens in China – as elsewhere in the world – are multifunctional. However in China, gardens have different emphases according to the branch of Government that oversees them. For example, the botanic gardens under the leadership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) focus on botanical research and the collection and cultivation of Chinese wild plants. The arboreta of the Forestry Department focus on forestry research, mainly collecting and cultivating tree species. The botanic gardens of the Urban Construction Department focus on horticultural research, collecting extensively ornamental plants both from home and abroad. These have a particularly key role in promoting diversity in urban planting. The botanic gardens of the Educational Department focus on research, and the collection and cultivation of plants for the purpose of teaching (Xu Zaifu, 1996). The fourteen CAS botanic gardens, especially the three core gardens (Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), South China Botanical Garden (SCBG) and Wuhan Botanic Garden (WBG)), have collected and conserve ex situ about 20,000 vascular plant species, accounting for approximately 90% of all plant species maintained by all Chinese botanical gardens. This indicates that CAS has achieved the target of conserving at least 60% of Chinese native plants and providing an important reserve of plant resources for sustainable economic development in China.

China has a long history of using traditional Chinese medicine (ca. 11,000 medicinal plant species) and many Chinese botanic gardens play an active role in medicinal plant research, cultivation and conservation. The gardens provide extensive plant resources to meet the growing healthcare demands of the increasingly urbanised Chinese population. For example, the Herbal Medicinal Garden of SCBG in Guangdong, has a collection of more that 2,000 medicinal plant species with Lingnan characteristics (i.e. species common in the Lingnan region of China and frequently used by Cantonese people in Guangdong, including Guangdong Chinese herbal tea ‘Wang Lao Ji’ and other types of Chinese herbal teas).

With the rapid development of science and technology, living standards have improved and energy consumption increased. Enhancing the research and development of bio-energy sources in China is one of the effective means of resolving the impending energy crisis. SCBG has established an industrial bio-energy plant garden that conserves germplasm of potentially useful plants and provides effective support forresearch into energy from biomass and related areas. China has around 15,000 economic plant species of which ca. 4,000 species have value for bioenergy development. Approximately 100 species, including oil plants, fuel plants and crops are conserved ex situ in SCBG’s energy plant garden. This also provides a potentially important education resource.

Plant diversity in urban ecosystems in China

Rapid economic development has resulted in the pace of urbanization accelerating dramatically in China. Currently about 50% of China’s population reside in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to rise to 75%. With the process of urbanization and increasingly dense construction, urban biodiversity is drastically decreased, which seriously affects the stability of the ecological environment of cities and directly impacts on the loss of plant species. In today’s cities, the original vegetation has all but disappeared and the existing green vegetation is almost all secondary. Wild native plants are losing out to introduced plants and coupled with natural disasters and human destruction, the available habitat for native species in urban area is getting smaller and smaller, while the threats are increasing.

Plants are a vital component of urban ecology and the city landscape. Plant diversity underpins the sustainable and stable development of city economies and helps to regulate the local climate, reduce noise, and beautify the urban environment - all of which impact on human well being. Urban landscape ecosystems built up with few species are highly dependent on artificial maintenance. Increasing green spaces and improving the productivity of communities and eco-efficiency cannot be realized without the diversity of plants (Lu Dongmei, 2005). Botanic gardens are well placed to help maintain the stability of the urban ecosystem. In China, botanic gardens can contribute significantly to improving city planting schemes by providing both new plant resources appropriate for local conditions and ecological expertise.

Public education for enhancing environmental awareness

Botanic gardens are ideal places to capture the attention of the public and inspire a love of nature, particularly at a time when people have less contact with natural environments. In total Chinese botanic gardens attract up to 18 million visitors every year (Zhang Zuoshuang, 2007). Botanic gardens can also enrich and enhance people’s cultural lives, for example by displaying historical civilizations, various art forms and popularising science. SCBG is the largest Southern subtropical botanical garden in China, located in an area rich in natural resources for tourism and therefore a desirable holiday location. SCBG is called ‘the forest of the city’ and ‘the lung of Guangzhou’. The garden includes a modern greenhouse of 10,000 sq m., the first Guangzhou village (where people from Guangzhou first originated), as well as a multifunctional Popular Science Information Centre, all of which provide good platforms for the development and dissemination of cultural and scientific knowledge to a wide city audience. Botanic gardens usually educate people through plant-based exhibitions. For example, during 2008, the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden (FLBG) is organizing an exhibition on bryophytes with the theme ‘Dwarves of the plant kingdom - Introduction to bryophytes’, which vividly demonstrates basic information on bryophytes through a large number of live plant materials and pictures. The exhibition explains what bryophytes are and displays their characteristics, habitats and diversity. The exhibition also explains the economic, academic and aesthetic values of bryophytes, and the important roles they play in maintaining the water balance, carbon metabolism, pollution monitoring, and other ecological aspects. At a time of a rapidly changing global environment, this exhibition provides a powerful new perspective for people in understanding the relationship between man and nature. The exhibition also leads people into the micro-world of the colourful and beautiful mosses. FLBG is seen as a “shining pearl on the green crown”. It is known as one of the world’s most beautiful gardens, and is seen as an ecological business card in the process of building the ecological city of Shenzhen.


Botanic gardens contribute significantly to Chinese cities by conserving plant diversity to ensure the health of people and the planet. They provide public education for enhancing environmental awareness, undertake scientific research to promote social development, provide attractive, green and clean areas for leisure and for enhancing citizenship. Through putting education into recreation, botanic gardens become models for the harmonious development of the community, human and nature. China needs not only world class botanic gardens, but gardens of all scales, types and functions to support its increasingly urbanized population.


  • He Shanan, 2007. Responses of the botanical garden to the development of Chinese cities. Blue-sky Landscape. 5: 7-8.
  • Lu Dongmei, 2005. Significance and means of conserving city biodiversity. Fujian Science and Technology of Tropical Crops. 2005. 30 (3): 35-41.
  • Xu Zaifu, 1996. The status and strategy for ex situ conservation of plant diversity in Chinese botanic gardens — Discussion of principles and methodologies of ex situ conservation for plant diversity. in: Conserving China’s Biodiversity. MacKinnon, J., Wang, S. et al (eds.). China Environmental Science Press. Beijing. 79-95p.
  • Zhang Zuoshuang, 2007. The mission and responsibility of China’s botanical gardens. Blue-sky landscape. 5: 5-6.
Xiangying Wen,
BGCI China Programme,
723 Xingke Rd., Guangzhou 510650, Guangdong, China.