What makes botany and horticulture so different

The magazine - No. 78

When Lara Weiser talks about plants, she smiles all over her face. The children, with whom she is out and about in the Botanical Garden in Bonn that day, quickly become infected by her enthusiasm. Today you can not only look at the plants, but also touch, feel and taste them. For Weiser, however, that about the plants was love at second sight.

During her science studies she preferred to study animals. The passion awakened when she studied the Botanical Garden in Bonn more intensively. “In botanical gardens you can immerse yourself in diversity,” she says. In Bonn, for example, you can observe carnivorous plants digesting, marvel at snake trees threatened with extinction and learn something about the Rhenish lignite mining based on an eleven million year old tree trunk. Nevertheless, plants are unspectacular for many, according to Weiser, and are not even seen as living beings. “Most people perceive botanical gardens as parks, not museums,” she believes.

Hardly any other country in Europe has as many and such diverse botanical gardens as Germany

While some zoos attract millions of visitors a year, botanical gardens often have to come up with something to cast their spell on. The Botanical Garden in Berlin, with around 20,000 plant species, has been organizing concerts for a number of years. In Bonn they try their hand at a Halloween celebration every year.

Hardly any other country in Europe has as many and such diverse botanical gardens as Germany. Many are part of a university, others are run locally. The most important task of botanical gardens is - in addition to local recreation - the research, collection and conservation of plant species. This makes them more important, especially in times of dwindling biodiversity. Nevertheless, the garden in Saarbrücken had to close in 2016, and the ones in Berlin and Hamburg were also in bad shape. However, Maximilian Weigend, President of the Association of Botanical Gardens, does not believe that there is an acute risk: "The population stands behind the gardens - and it is becoming more and more embarrassing for politicians to save on something like this." The 97 members of the association document and exchange plants they with each other, but also with botanical gardens worldwide.

Botanical gardens have been around for centuries. The oldest was founded in 1545 in Padua, Italy, to research and cultivate medicinal plants and herbs. Later, the gardens also displayed regional crops such as tomatoes or tropical crops such as pineapples and offered biotopes for bogs, grasses and forests. What was initially only of importance for people with a medical or botanical interest quickly turned into a social event - botanical gardens allowed people to travel the (plant) world without leaving their home country.

In addition to the construction of today's Berlin Botanical Garden, the “Botanical Central Office for the German Colonies” was set up at the end of the 19th century. Because a large part of the plants came to Europe during the colonial period. Above all, the United Kingdom, whose Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in south-west London is one of the largest in the world with over 50,000 plants to this day, sent researchers to South America, Asia and Africa. Some of the plants discovered there found their way to Europe in a questionable manner: So smuggled
the British Henry Wickham in 1876, with state subsidy, 70,000 seeds of the rubber tree from the Brazilian Amazon to London. In their colonial areas in Southeast Asia, the British built up a plantation economy and destroyed the Brazilian monopoly. Botanical gardens coordinated such plant transfers, either sent botanists themselves or assisted them in an advisory capacity.

"Nowhere else can you visualize the threat posed to plants by climate change in this way"

As a result, the first botanical gardens outside of Europe were established. Many of the plants that were transferred were given Latin names, such as Welwitschia, named after the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, which is known in its natural habitat in Namibia or Angola under the name n’tumbo or onyanga. Indigenous names and the associated indigenous knowledge were often lost.

Not all botanical gardens explain this story or historical implications. Nevertheless, both Lara Weiser and Maximilian Weigend take their educational responsibility seriously. "We have an important educational mandate to convey to people how important nature conservation is in order to preserve plant species," says Weigend. This can be achieved by creating awareness of biodiversity. There are now green schools linked to many botanical gardens that offer lectures and guided tours around the garden, especially for children and young people. Lara Weiser, who has been running the Green School in Bonn since 2019, is certain: "I am only willing to protect something that I am aware of, that I value, perhaps even love."

When a plant is threatened with extinction, botanical gardens can be the savior by cultivating the plant and taking offshoots from it. There are international sperm banks for this. The Global Seed Vault, the largest seed vault in the world, located in Svalbard, Norway, stores over a million seed samples from crops in order to preserve their diversity. Ideally, threatened species are returned to their natural habitat. Bonn is involved in numerous species conservation and reintroduction projects: Something special was the reintroduction of the toromiro tree, the only native tree species on Easter Island, which had previously been considered extinct, in the 1990s.

This does not always succeed, because if the living space is permanently damaged by external circumstances such as climate change, plants cannot settle there again. “But we can draw attention to these relationships and sensitize them to them,” says Lara Weiser.

One can also observe in Bonn that plants are acutely threatened by climate change. Where a few years ago alpine plants like edelweiss still grew, now loquat, olives, kiwis and persimmons have found their home. Maximilian Weigend follows this development closely. And sees it as an important task of the gardens to reveal them: “Nowhere else can you visualize the threat posed to plants by climate change in this way.” UNESCO has also recognized the educational potential and the Botanical Gardens in Padua, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew declared a World Heritage Site. Lara Weiser hopes, however, that people will be more concerned with plants in the future - and realize that despite the initially inconspicuous appearance, it is worth taking a second look.

Cover picture: Michael Sieber

This text was published under the license CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE. The photos may not be used.