Dr Murphy Westwood on the Shifting Social Role of Botanic Gardens and Arboreta

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A number of our institutions of knowledge, scholarship, and curiosity are rightly undergoing transformational changes right now to meet the needs of the moment. As with recent global discussions about redefining the function of the museum to be in service of the broader social and environmental good, botanic gardens and arboreta are similarly poised to play a crucial role in the conservation of plant life and knowledge in the face of an unfolding potential collapse of our global biodiversity.

Globally, at least one-fifth of the world’s plant species are threatened with extinction, making the work of botanic gardens and their experts in ex situ and in situ conservation all the more vital for our shared future.

We spoke with Murphy Westwood, one of the authors of a recent paper on “Botanic garden solutions to the plant extinction crisis,” to talk about where gardens fit in the social fabric: past, present, and future.

Westwood is Director of Global Tree Conservation at The Morton Arboretum (Lisle, IL, USA).


BGCI: In the paper, you talk a bit about the history of botanic gardens: from medicinal, spice, or other useful and intriguing plants being cultivated in wealthy courts of ancient Egypt, Rome, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Mexico; to the “physic gardens” in the Renaissance; to our modern sites of expertise in cultivation. What are some surprising contributions gardens have made to our history and the advancement of science?


Westwood: To name a few: the way that we categorize and name all living things comes from the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s. Botanic gardens, and their historical progenitors, have also introduced and conserved some of the world’s most important food, medicine, fibre, and ornamental crops into the mainstream. Herbarium specimens — dried plants — have revealed and documented species that are now extinct, creating at least a partial record of what we have lost.


BGCI: What are some ways botanic gardens have served the social good in history?


Westwood: Botanic gardens have always been very important sites of education, especially in the realms of medicine and early pharmacy and pharmacology. But beyond pure pragmatism, gardens are places of beauty, solitude, and reflection that have inspired a love of nature in many a visitor, and seeing the marvellous diversity of the world’s plant life makes the case for conserving it all the more compelling.


BGCI: Why do botanic gardens have so much potential to contribute to plant conservation?


Westwood: Today, botanic gardens around the world connect — through BGCI and other partnerships — to form a network of over 60,000 specialists, with expertise in plant taxonomy, evolution, horticulture, ethnobotany, genetics, and pathology. That’s a huge group of people who care a lot about plants and have a lot to contribute to conservation conversations. Gardens reach an audience of over half a billion visitors annually: there is huge potential there to educate and inspire about the importance of plant diversity, and what we stand to lose if even a fraction of that diversity disappears. There really is no other sector — not universities, government agencies, or corporations — that has this unique combination of expertise, facilities, living plant connections, and access to the public that botanic gardens have.


BGCI: Why haven’t we realised these opportunities before?


Westwood: It’s really only been in the last 2-3 decades that we have begun to fully appreciate the dire situation for plants, and that we are entering a sixth global mass extinction. The scope and challenge to conserve plant diversity is so much bigger — but arguably, more important — than conserving animal diversity. To put this in context: there are more threatened plant species than all known bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish species combined. When you consider how much of the food chain is supported by plants, and the ecosystem services plants provide, that figure is stark. Nearly three-quarters of vertebrate species have been assessed for their extinction risk for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: many vertebrate groups, like birds, have been assessed and reassessed several times, so we have a very good idea about trends in decline over time. But, only 10% of plants have been assessed for their risk of extinction. We still have a lot of work to do.

Botanic gardens and arboreta have made huge leaps forward in the past few decades in shifting expertise and attention towards the conservation of plant diversity. New technologies like next generation DNA sequencing, remote sensing and drone technology, virtual communication platforms, digitization of herbarium specimens, climate change modelling, etcetera, are rapidly advancing our ability to understand the threats and drivers of change for plant species and populations. So, as a community, we’re in the early growth phase of addressing this grand challenge, but we are poised to have a huge impact. 


BGCI: What are some ways to support botanic gardens in undertaking conservation work?


Westwood: Visit your local botanic garden and learn about their research and conservation programs. Find out what resources and support they need. Often, it is funding, but volunteers are also a huge help to garden research and conservation programs, for example by monitoring plant populations in the wild, helping process samples in a lab, or managing natural areas in or near the garden. Volunteers don’t need to be professionally trained scientists, they just need to be passionate about plants. 

Tell your friends, family, elected officials, schools, and local businesses about the important work that gardens do, to raise awareness of the value of and risks to plant diversity. Attend virtual and in-person classes, exhibits, and special events that your local garden offers. Eat at the cafe and the shop at the gift shop (if your local garden has those facilities). Supporting all areas of operation at your local garden helps to advance their mission-based programs, like research and conservation. 


BGCI: What drives you to think about the role of botanic gardens this way?


I have always loved plants and am in awe of plant diversity. Botanic gardens are my “happy place.” It would be a tragedy if they became living museums of plants that are gone from the wild. I don’t want to look back fifty years from now and think, “We had the technology and expertise to do something, but we didn’t act.” Botanic gardens and arboreta can do the hard work of saving plants from extinction, they just need the support and resources to tackle the challenge. 


Read the paper here: Botanic garden solutions to the plant extinction crisis

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