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The role of botanic gardens in building capacity for plant conservation

Volume 10 Number 1 - January 2013

Mariana Chavez and Suzanne Sharrock


The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) decided in 2012, in Decision X/17, to adopt the updated Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011-2020 (GSPC). This Strategy, originally established in 2002, has the vision to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity and to secure a positive, sustainable future where human activities support the diversity of plant life and where in turn the diversity of plants support and improve our livelihoods and well-being.

The updated Strategy emphasizes national and regional implementation and its scope goes beyond traditional plant conservation activities to include sustainable use, as well as working with local and indigenous communities. The achievement of the 16 targets included in the Strategy will require considerable capacity-building, particularly to address the need for conservation practitioners trained in a range of disciplines.

In recognition of the fundamental importance of capacity building to achieve plant conservation outcomes, a specific target on this was included in the GSPC:

Target 15: The number of trained people working with appropriate facilities sufficient according to national needs to achieve the targets of this Strategy.

As well as the conservation of plant diversity, botanical expertise is also required to address a number of current and future grand challenges and issues facing society today. These include: climate change mitigation; land management and wildlife habitat restoration; understanding the provision of ecosystem services; and the management and control of invasive species. Despite the fundamental role botanical capacity plays in tackling each of these issues, such capacity is often lacking across all sectors (government, academic and private sector). Indeed in many developed countries, botanical capacity has even decreased in recent years.

Any perceived irrelevance of plant science to the issues of today’s society seems almost incredible given the extreme importance of food security and biodiversity issues in recent years.”

A recent study carried out by BGCI (US) and partners in the United States, showed that Government agencies are losing botanical capacity as staff botanists retire and positions are not refilled, either because positions are eliminated, replaced by individuals without equivalent botanical training, or because there is an inability to find appropriately qualified new candidates to fill them (Kramer et al., 2010).  Botanical education and training likewise appears to be on the decline, with many botany departments at universities being subsumed into more general or interdisciplinary departments, and subsequently losing resident expertise as professors retire and are replaced by individuals without botanical expertise. For example the study revealed that in 1988, 72 per cent of the US’s top 50 universities offered degree programmes in botany, but today more than half of these universities have eliminated these botany programmes.  Similarly, in the UK, the last student that enrolled in a pure “Botany” degree began in the University of Bristol in 2010 (Drea, 2011).

Box 1: Typical tasks performed by botanists at US federal agencies include:
  • Perform biological evaluations to assess risk of projects (renewable and non-renewable energy development, logging, grazing, road construction, recreation, fire) on sensitive plant species, and participate in interdisciplinary teams to protect botanical resources during these projects;
  • Develop and implement habitat restoration and plant species recovery plans;
  • Survey and monitor populations of rare plants;
  •  Implement recovery plans for listed plant species, in consultation with state and other federal agencies;
  • Survey and monitor populations of invasive species, develop and/or implement activities to manage invasive species
  • Carry out public education and outreach programs
  • Regulate sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products, including mushrooms and medicinal plants
  • Manage botanical resources, including during wildfires through post-fire restoration efforts

Adapted from Roberson, 2002

Recognising the widening gaps in capacity, organizations in the private sector (e.g. botanic gardens and other non-profit conservation organizations, as well as for-profit businesses and self-employed individuals) are stepping in, providing botanical training, expertise and infrastructure where it otherwise would not exist.
This article provides an overview of the botanical capacity building activities undertaken by botanic gardens around the world.  More detailed examples and case studies are provided in other articles in this issue.

The botanic gardens’ response to GSPC Target 15

Capacity building and training for plant conservation is a major activity for many botanic gardens, and such activities can be divided into five main types of activity:
1.    Short courses for the general public
2.    Diploma / certificate courses
3.    Graduate courses
4.    Postgraduate research and training

Botanic gardens are of course also very much involved in general education and public awareness programmes, many with a particular focus on children. Although such work is essential in stimulating an interest in plants amongst the young, the main focus of this article is on building botanical capacity amongst adults, mainly at tertiary level.

Short courses for the general public

These courses are aimed at a general public who want to learn more about plants and gardens, and although they often do not have a specific conservation focus, can help to inspire people to become more involved in local conservation programmes. The courses range from one-day workshops to part-time classes for a few weeks, and they include themes such as horticulture, garden design, plant identification, ethnobotany, cooking with local food, green living etc. 

Today an increasing number of botanic gardens are also involved in citizen science programmes where the public are engaged for example, in monitoring the life cycles of plants. This gives the public a chance to learn more about how plants respond to changes in their environments while contributing valuable data to scientific studies.  An example of a particularly successful plant-focused citizen science programme is provided by Project Budburst coordinated by Chicago Botanic Garden ( )

Diploma / certificate courses

Many botanic gardens offer a range of specialised diploma courses. Such courses generally include a mixture of technical training and practical experience with a focus on horticulture, garden design and management, plant conservation and environmental education. 

Gardens such as the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) have a long history of providing professional training, in the case of RBGE, dating back to its origins as a late 17th century physic garden when it trained doctors and apothecaries of the day. Today it offers a comprehensive range of courses for anyone looking to develop their career in botany, horticulture, garden design or botanical illustration. 

Similarly, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew offers a wide programme of specialist training courses for students in higher education. The diverse plant collections held at gardens such as RBGE and Kew provide an excellent learning resource for all students. 

Furthermore, in response to the demands of the wider plant conservation community for solutions-oriented training in skills and strategies supporting worldwide efforts to solve the biodiversity crisis, Kew also offers a programme of international diploma courses in herbarium techniques, botanic garden management, botanic garden education and plant conservation strategies.

Graduate courses

Many botanic gardens provide graduate training in association with local universities. According to BGCI’s GardenSearch database ( 243 gardens around the world offer university courses (see map below).
Some examples from the US serve to illustrate the types of courses on offer:

  •  The Arnold Arboretum in the USA is affiliated with Harvard University and it conducts educational programs for multiple audiences as a key component of its mission. Graduate and undergraduate students from Harvard University use the Arboretum landscape and collections for curricula ranging from introductory botany to urban ecology.
  • The Missouri Botanical Garden offers a broad-based program of graduate studies in systematic botany in cooperation with Washington University, Saint Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Students apply to and enrol at one of these universities and complete the degree requirements of that school, but have full access to the staff, facilities, laboratories and research opportunities available at the Garden. The Garden's strong commitment to conservation and tropical research provides students with outstanding opportunities for field-oriented studies.
  • The Longwood Garden, in association with the University of Delaware offers a renowned Graduate Program, preparing students for a leadership career in public horticulture. Students take graduate courses from amongst those offered at the University of Delaware, while also working closely within the many aspects of Longwood Gardens.
  • New York Botanical Garden, which has maintained a graduate studies program for over a century, provides degrees in systematic and economic botany in association with six universities in New York. 
  • In California, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is home to the botany department of Claremont Graduate University, offering graduate degrees in plant systematics and evolution.
  • In Florida the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden partners with two universities in Florida to offer graduate degrees in tropical plant biology and conservation.

Post-graduate research and training

Botanic gardens around the world are centres for plant science research and many offer opportunities for post- graduate research and training at Masters and PhD levels. For example the Wuhan Botanical Garden in China, has been recruiting graduate students since 1983. It runs PhD programmes in botany and ecology, and offer MSc degrees in botany, ecology, garden plant and ornamental horticulture, biotechnology and environmental engineering.

International cooperation and partnerships between botanic gardens are well established and often include training and research activities. For example, the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG) in China has developed a programme of student exchanges and collaborations with foreign universities including Wageningen University (Netherlands), University of Miami (USA), Chiangmai University (Thailand). Long-term research collaboration partners also include the National Tropical Botanical Garden (USA), Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (Thailand), National Natural History Museum and Smithsonian Institution (USA), etc.  Furthermore, taking advantage of the academic resources of XTBG and in order to promote collaboration and exchanges with Southeast Asian countries, XTBG offers opportunities for postgraduate studies (PhD and MSc) to Southeast Asian countries, with a focus on effective biodiversity conservation and sustainable socio-economic development in the region.

International partnerships are particularly important in helping to build capacity in countries which are rich in biodiversity but which presently lack the skills and expertise to conserve such diversity.


It is clear that botanic gardens, together with other non-profit organizations are playing an increasingly critical role in filling gaps in botanical capacity building and training.However, as noted by Kramer et al (2011), land managers, conservation agencies, and policy makers in both the public and private sectors face rapidly escalating needs for information in response to the many challenges emerging in the natural world. The urgency of climate change, expanding and changing energy needs, increased demand for water and other natural resources, biodiversity conservation, and landscape level restoration is forcing action. Public and private institutions will increasingly be called upon to help guide and implement these actions, which requires sound science and a strong infrastructure for effective and efficient implementation. Unfortunately, it is not clear that these institutions have the botanical capacity needed to meet these challenges, perhaps because the knowledge and expertise that botanists bring to bear on addressing the grand challenges of this century often goes unrecognized and under-supported.

While most countries have not carried out a comprehensive assessment of their botanical capacity, the study carried out by BGCI (US) in 2010 does give us a picture for the US which highlights a worrying decline in offerings of botanical courses and degree programmes. It is likely that loss of botanic capacity is similar in other developed countries. For example in France, declines in traditional academic botany programs and infrastructure are noted the book In Praise of Plants (Hallé, 2002). And in the United Kingdom, concerns regarding declines in national botanical capacity led to the production of The Ghost Orchid Declaration in 2009 (PlantLife, 2009), a call to arms for governments, conservation organizations and the general public to ensure that botanical capacity is in place so no additional plant species are lost to extinction.

If Target 15 of the GSPC is to be achieved, and if governments are going to be able to address some of the critical issues facing society today, botanic gardens should position themselves to increase their ability to fill what is clearly a critical gap and promote this role more strongly.Botanical capacity needs to be built not only at the national level, but globally, through international partnerships and cooperation. Botanic gardens are well placed to take a leadership role in botanical training and the global network is in place to facilitate the transfer of skills and knowledge to where it is most needed.However, the academic and government sectors as well as private foundations will need to recognise, support and sustain botanic gardens in order for them to fulfil this role.


Drea, S. 2011, The End of the Botany Degree in the UK. Bioscience education. Vol 17.

Hallé, F. 2002. In praise of plants. Timber Press, Inc., Cambridge, U.K.

Kramer, A.T., Zorn-Arnold, B.  and Havens, K. 2010. Assessing botanical capacity to address grand challenges in the United States. 64 pp. plus appendices. Available at

Plantlife. 2009. Ghost orchid declaration: saving the UK's wildflowers today. PlantLife International. 

Roberson, E. 2002. Barriers to native plant conservation in the United States: funding, staffing, law. Native Plant Conservation Campaign, California Native Plant Society, Sacramento, CA and Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson, AZ.


Suzanne Sharrock and Mariana Chavez
199 Kew Road, Richmond
TW9 3BW, UK.