The Importance of Botanic Gardens
During the fourteen years until last December when I served as Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), I was fortunate to make about thirty visits to botanical institutes and botanic gardens in China. This allowed me to see for myself the spectacular progress made by China’s botanic gardens in recent years. This growth has reflected the clear understanding of the strategic importance of botanic gardens in the minds of China’s political leaders and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). This understanding evident when Hu Jintao visited RBGE shortly before becoming President of the People’s Republic of China in 2001.
A succession of high profile visitors from CAS and the Chinese government followed over the years and it has been a real pleasure to get to know most of China’s leading botanists as personal friends. The expansion of Chinese botanic gardens has been dramatic and, in my opinion, happened at a rate faster than anything ever experienced in Europe where our great gardens tended to develop slowly and steadily over decades and centuries. I well remember visiting the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IBCAS) in Beijing in 2005 as head of a fact finding delegation of British botanists. Professor Han Xingguo, then director of IBCAS, welcomed us, mentioning that he was in the process of recruiting nineteen new staff to the Institute. When I said “Appointing nineteen botanists at the same time, that’s amazing!” he politely corrected me, “No Steve, not nineteen, ninety!”. I very much doubt that it ever fell to a botanic garden director in the UK to appoint ninety new staff at any one time! What underpins this investment is a firm belief in the value, for the national good, of the scientific work of botanic gardens, in exploration, research and conservation together with a clear understanding of the powerful role of botanic gardens in formal and informal education. There are now over 200 botanic gardens in China and many of them are members of the China Union of Botanic Gardens which has its headquarters at Xishuangbanna Botanic Garden (XTBG) in the south of Yunnan Province. I was therefore delighted when I heard that my friend Professor Chen Jin, the Director of XTBG, was visiting the UK to sign a collaboration agreement with the University of Bangor. It was a pleasure to take part in the ceremony at Treborth Botanic Garden on 8th May supported by the Confucius Institute at Bangor. This was my first ever visit to Treborth with its wonderful plant collections, enthusiastic volunteers and huge potential for the future. One key ingredient in that future will be the design and development of Two Dragons Garden as a showcase for the medicinal plants of China and Wales. During our visit we saw and discussed the designs for the new garden and talked about the exchanges, training courses and capacity building that will follow and be supported by a grant from the British Council. I am sure that the relationship will grow and prosper, bringing great benefits to both partners, including many not even yet imagined! My first visit to Treborth gave me many reasons to return and I hope to be back soon. I was impressed by the large and abundantly flowering specimens of Malus hupehensis and Trochodendron aralioides, two choice species from China. Another first for me was to see a Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) bearing both male and female cones and then to be shown young seedlings which I suspect may be the first ever to be raised in the UK. Thanks for the invitation and the warm welcome, I look forward to my next visit!
Stephen Blackmore CBE VHM FRSE
Publication date: 6 August 2014