About Botanic Gardens

Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education.

What is a Botanic Garden?

Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education. In 2018, BGCI updated the criteria that define a botanic garden to have a greater emphasis on conserving rare and threatened plants, compliance with international policies and sustainability and ethical initiatives.

BGCI has developed an Accreditation Scheme to distinguish between gardens and botanic gardens. The scheme uses BGCI’s updated definition of a botanic garden as well as the outcome BGCI’s technical review on defining a botanic garden.

History of Botanic Gardens

Gardens and the cultivation of plants have been around for thousands of years with the first examples dating to around 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, the first ‘true’ botanic gardens with an underlying scientific foundation were the physic gardens of Italy created in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first of these physic gardens was the garden of the University of Pisa which was created by Luca Ghini in 1543. Following this, other Italian universities followed suit and gardens were created in Padova (1545), Firenze (1545) and Bologna (1547). These gardens were purely for the academic study of medicinal plants. By the 16th Century these medicinal gardens had spread to universities and apothecaries throughout central Europe such as Cologne and Prague.

Padua Botanic Garden
The Botanic Garden at the University of Padua was among the first botanic gardens ever recorded.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was one of the first scientific based botanic gardens.
Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden was among the first botanic gardens to be established in the USA in 1859.

Botanic gardens then experienced a change in usage during the 16th and 17th century. This was the age of exploration and the beginnings of international trade. Gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid were set up to try and cultivate new species that were being brought back from expeditions to the tropics. Not only did these gardens promote and encourage botanical exploration in the tropics they also helped found new gardens in the tropical regions to help cultivate these newly discovered plant species. During the 19th and 20th century municipal and civic gardens were created throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth. Nearly all of these gardens were pleasure gardens with very few of them having any scientific programmes. Missouri Botanical Garden is an exception to this and was among the first botanic gardens to be established in the USA in 1859.

In the last 50 years’ botanic gardens have seen a revival as scientific institutions due to the emergence of the conservation movement. They are recognised as being extremely important to conservation due to their existing collections and the scientific knowledge they possess in the propagation of plant species. There are now currently 1775 botanic gardens and arboreta in 148 countries around the world with many more under construction or being planned. You can use our Garden Search Database to search for botanic gardens by keyword or country.

Role of Botanic Gardens

Botanic gardens have had a changing role throughout history and they continue to adapt and serve the needs of society as new challenges arise. Being major tourist destinations, attracting an estimated 500 million visitors each year, they are important contributors to local and national economies. They also provide many benefits to society such having a positive impact on mental and physical health, particularly in urban settings where the majority of botanic gardens are situated. As illustrated above botanic gardens have in more recent years become key players in both the conservation of plants and in the education of the people who come to see them.

Several botanic garden activities are important for the conservation of plants around the world, including:

  • Horticulture and cultivation skills allow botanic gardens to grow plants that might be lost in the wild. Living collections and seed banks safeguard species and enable the restoration and rehabilitation of degraded habitats.
  • Research and development into plant taxonomy and genetics, phytochemistry, useful plant properties and informing selection of plants that can withstand degraded and changing environments (especially important with the threat posed by climate change).
  • Education is a strength of botanic gardens that allows them to communicate the importance of conserving plants, reaching out to diverse audiences, and also to communicate how this may be achieved.
  • Linking plants with the well-being of people, and also helping conserve indigenous and local knowledge, to encourage the sustainable use of plant resources for the benefit of all, as part of sustainable development.

BGCI's Manual on Planning, Developing and Managing Botanic Gardens

  • BGCI's Manual on Planning, Developing and Managing Botanic Gardens

    Public Engagement, Services for Botanic Gardens, Policy and Advocacy / Publication, Tool / English, Spanish