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Botanical Gardens

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Botanical Garden Round House. (Photo: Florence_Craye via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND.)

This episode of Nature Notes was previously aired on May 20, 2010, and was written by Marilyn Brady.

There are 1775 public gardens in 148 countries around the world, and if you’re interested in plants, you’ve probably visited a few of them. But have you ever thought about the concept of public gardens? How long have public garden been around? Why were they established? And where’s the closest public garden to you?

Elaborate gardens have been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that true botanical gardens were established. According to Botanical Gardens International, three criteria are necessary to create a botanical garden: an underlying scientific basis, be open to the public, and have plants that are labeled. The first garden that met these criteria was planted in Pisa, Italy in 1543. It was physic, or medical garden, where students from the nearby university could study the medicinal properties of all the plants growing in the garden.

The age of exploration led to an explosion of interest in gardening and botanical gardens. Explorers and settlers were asked to send back unusual plants to be cultivated in the public and private gardens of the Old World. The English were in the forefront of collecting and developing new plants, many of them from their expanding global empire. In 1759, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew was established to cultivate new species being brought back from the tropics. The Kew garden soon became a premier center for research, collection and the international exchange of plants.

Many botanical gardens were not content to wait for plants to be sent to them, so they supported plant explorers, who traveled to unknown regions of the world to find rare plants for their collections. Finding tropical plants difficult to grow in Europe, the botanical gardens established subsidiary gardens in the tropics, where the focus was on the propagation and raising of highly-prized commercial crops, such as cloves, tea, coffee, breadfruit and chocolate.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, municipal and civic gardens were planted in major cities around the world, but many of these gardens were pleasure gardens, beautiful to stroll through and look at, but without the scientific basis that is so critical to a true botanical garden.

An exception to this was the Missouri botanical garden.  Established in 1859, the Missouri botanical garden is considered the first true botanical garden in the United States. Initially, botanical gardens focused on collecting exotic plants from around the world, in contest of wealth and prestige. While collection continues, another goal has been added, that of ensuring the conservation of plants that are increasingly threatened by expanding human activity and global climate change.

Some gardens devoted sections of their gardens to specific types of plants or became specialized, focusing on only a single type of plant. In the 1940s, the desert botanical garden in Phoenix was founded. Their collection is focused on the plants of the North American desert areas. In the 1970s, staff and board members of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute visited the desert botanical garden for ideas about establishing a collection of plants specifically native to the Chihuahuan desert. The result was the 20-acre botanical garden at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, featuring over 300 species of plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert region.

Botanical gardens are a vivid example of how human beings interact with nature. For all of us, they remain places to renew ourselves in a natural setting.

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