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Action Plan for Botanic Gardens in the European Union
Edited and compiled by Judith Cheney, Joaquin Navarrete Navarro and Peter Wyse Jackson for the European Botanic Gardens Consortium. (2000).

A. Science and Horticulture
Chapter contributed by David Bramwell and Michael Kiehn

The scientific basis of botanic gardens is what sets them apart from pure amenity gardens, but they are not always perceived in this context. More could be done to raise awareness of current research carried out in botanic gardens in plant science and a wide range of other disciplines and their potential for future research.

The botanic gardens of Europe have a long-established tradition as centres of excellence in science and horticulture. This has not only benefited the European continent, but has also been the basis for the establishment and management of botanic gardens throughout the world.

Botanic gardens of the EU maintain a large sample of the world’s plant diversity and have considerable potential as resource centres for research, conservation and education. The ‘rivers of biodiversity’ that flow through botanic gardens as a result of their accessions’ policies provide a supply of scientific and horticultural research material not available from any other source. The gardens also maintain many of the oldest and most important botanical libraries so essential to scientific research and horticultural science.

In many EU countries, botanic gardens are currently the principal institutions for systematic botany, floristics and taxonomy, at a time when these essential subjects have been largely displaced in universities by molecular and biochemical research.

The EU botanic gardens are amongst those best prepared to assume the responsibility given by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as centres for study and conservation of plants and habitats. The recognition in recent years that ‘integrated approaches to plant conservation are most productive when they combine different methodologies’ (Wyse Jackson, 1998: Botanic gardens: a revolution in progress. World Conservation 2, 14-1 5) has enhanced the importance of botanic gardens and their plant collections. These institutions have generally responded well, with a wide range of conservation strategies and programmes, including the maintenance of offsite (ex situ) collections; gene banks, usually in the form of seed-storage; specialised nursery and horticultural facilities; micropropagation and tissue culture; species recovery, reintroduction and habitat-restoration programmes; the management of natural areas; research related to conservation, such as floristics and systematics; conservation, population and reproductive biology; molecular studies of systematic and genetic diversity, etc. In this context, EU botanic gardens need to be encouraged even more to fulfil one of their most important modem functions: acting as major centres of science and horticulture dealing with wild plant resources for the future. (See also Objective El .)

Promote botanic gardens as resource centres for scientific research

Much research is already carried out in EU botanic gardens, particularly those associated with universities, contributing to many disciplines, e.g. botany, horticulture, zoology, forestry, agriculture, conservation, biochemistry, engineering, food science. However, there is scope for much more, and there is a great deal yet to be discovered about the morphology, anatomy, physiology and reproduction of plants, particularly those from the tropics. Facilities and horticultural skills and, of course, plants are available in many EU botanic gardens for such research and for comparative studies of a range of plants under controlled conditions. There are opportunities for collaborative research with other agencies and institutions. Yet, this fundamental aspect of the work of botanic gardens, usually carried out in private parts of the garden, is sometimes little known and may be obscured by the beauty of the public parts of the garden. Much could be done to explain the relevance of research carried out ‘behind the scenes’ (see also Objective A2).

To achieve Objective A1, EU botanic gardens should:

  • carry out research on morphology, physiology, ecology, reproduction, genetics and other aspects of plants
  • make their research facilities and skills more widely known to other scientific bodies and seek to undertake collaborative projects
  • disseminate the results of their scientific and horticultural research by publishing in scientific and horticultural journals, and reporting at conferences, in local and national media and in special exhibitions and open days.
Facilitate access to scientific and horticultural information in botanic gardens

Information from scientific and horticultural research carried out in botanic gardens is relevant to such fields as applied biology, conservation, management and use of natural resources, plant breeding and crop development, amenity horticulture, the pharmaceutical industry (see Box 4); but many botanic gardens are not seen in these contexts.

The research providing this information should have a strong consumerhser-driven approach, to ensure that it helps to resolve current problems. The results should be made available to users rapidly and in a comprehensive and user-friendly form.

Data from research in botanic gardens are often hidden in internal reports, files and databases inaccessible to potential users outside the institute; the information should be made more freely available. The general public is often unaware of the research carried out in botanic gardens, but many would be interested. European gardens have the potential to be an open window to the public, acting as an interface between science, horticulture, people and plants; stimulating an interest in plants; and generating public sympathy and support for conservation of nature and natural resources throughout the continent.

Some uses of floristic and systematic information
Determination of environmental range - hardiness and tolerance
Preselection of taxa for optimum use in specific locations
Estimation of horticultural value and potential uses
Foliage and floral characteristics - aesthetics
Propagation characteristics
Crop development
Determination of wild relatives of existing crop plants
Determination of phenology of particular species
Information on N2 fixing in legumes
Sources of information about genetic parameters, such as hybridisation etc.
Identification of potentially new crop plants
Resource management
Cataloguing and characterising species in a geographical area
Floristic accounts of geographical areas
Determination of potential weediness
Prediction of potential pest and disease occurrence
Tracking of the spread of weeds and aliens
Determination of the natural habitats and environments of plant species
Determination of areas of high endemism
Determination of historic trends in vegetation change
Identification of potential areas for resource conservation
Determination of rarity

Modified from Morin, N. R. et al., 1989: How Floristic Information is Used. Floristics for the 2lst Century (eds: Morin, N. R., Whetstone, D. E., Wilken, D. & Tomlinson, K. L.), Missouri Botanical Garden Monographs in Systematic Botany 28, 58-70.

To achieve Objective A2, EU botanic gardens should:

  • make available data generated from their scientific and horticultural programmes in a user-friendly form through traditional or electronic publication
  • provide up-to-date information on rare and threatened species in their collections or in their science and horticulture programmes
  • form links with national and international plant databases (using the International Transfer Format or other means)
  • endeavour to make their science and horticultural programmes user or consumer orientated
  • develop public displays on science and horticulture, particularly their role in conservation and related research.
Consolidate botanic gardens as major centres of taxonomy

Research in plant systematics and taxonomy provides the basis for all applied and integrated approaches to plant sciences and for species and habitat protection or management programmes. The importance of taxonomic input in many activities aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity has been emphasised in the Global Taxonomy Initiative (Decision IV/ID; fourth Conference of the Parties of the CBD, Bratislava 1998). In many universities, botanical research in systematics is mainly restricted to molecular and biochemical studies and botanic gardens are, therefore, not only the custodians of valuable resources for taxonomic research but frequently the most important institutions for the study and teaching of systematic botany, floristics and taxonomy. An estimated 2,500 scientists are employed in approximately 600 European botanic gardens and their associated institutions, some of which (e.g. Kew, Leiden, Geneva, Berlin) include major national herbaria. Most are actively involved in systematics and taxonomy, including horticultural taxonomy, floristics, biogeography, cataloguing of local floras, etc. This makes the botanic gardens of Europe the main source of trained taxonomists and horticulturists; and a principal one for the scientific data needed for floristic and ecogeographical surveys, and the identification of rare or threatened species and their management, propagation and cultivation. More taxonomists are needed and botanic gardens have a role to play in providing training and stimulating an interest in taxonomy in people of all ages in the hope that some may wish to study it further.

To achieve Objective A3, EU botanic gardens should

  • promote their position as centres of excellence in taxonomic research and teaching and continue to provide the essential baseline data for plant science
  • raise awareness of the importance and continuing relevance of taxonomic work carried out in botanic gardens and stimulate an interest in it
  • exchange information with taxonomists working in other scientific institutions and museums, and with field botanists
  • provide courses and advice on identification and taxonomy of plants, for students, professional people and the public (see also Objective D3)
Consolidate BGs as research centres for identification, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.

Many botanic gardens have a major commitment to research in particular areas of the world and they have little spslre capacity for new fields of investigation. Others have the potential to participate in new programmes and develop modem techniques, and there are important areas of biodiversity study and conservation open to them.

Traditionally, botanic gardens have been involved in ex situ conservation, their main activity being to act as safe havens for the last surviving individuals of threatened species or as managers of seed-banks; this is still an important task. Until recently, however, they had not been direct participants in in situ habitat protection and species recovery. Initiatives taken, largely by the botanic garden community itself, have over the past few years increased awareness of the capacity of many of them to participate actively in species recovery and management programmes and in in situ conservation initiatives. Major deficiencies in the understanding of conservation biology (such as plant reproductive biology, pollination mechanisms, pollinator relationships, seed dispersal and establishment) and population dynamics (autecology) are amongst the principal handicaps to the establishment of successful reintroduction programmes and to the management of rare and threatened species and their habitats in general. Botanic gardens, with their traditional expertise in plant and plantings management and their modem capacity for research, can contribute significantly.

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity depends, through, science and research, on the availability of accurate information on component species and their place in natural ecosystems. The CBD recognises this fact in several of its Articles (see Box 12, p.33), and sets amongst its targets the:

  • identification of ecosystems, species and genomes important for conservation and sustainable use (Article 7)
  • promotion of the protection of ecosystems, natural habitats, and the maintenance of viable populations of species in natural surroundings (Article 8)
  • promotion of research that contributes to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use (Article 12).
The requirement of the Convention for the identification of the diversity of ‘genomes important for conservation and sustainable use’ and the ‘maintenance of viable populations of species’ offers a plethora of potential molecular and genetic research programmes at both population and genome levels for botanic gardens.

Botanic gardens already carry out research on storage, germination and establishment of seeds and seedlings and on the storage of recalcitrant seeds that cannot be preserved in cold conditions. They also, through micropropagation and in vitro culture, work on the reproduction of so-called difficult species, many of which show declining viability in normal conditions because of their natural situation as tiny last-refuge populations. Such studies are essential and provide basic information for species management. They are an important part of integrated conservation policy.

To achieve objective A4, EU botanic gardens should:

in in situ conservation

  • develop science and research programmes using modem techniques to study the biodiversity, reproductive biology and conservation biology of Europe’s threatened species to contribute to their in situ conservation
  • participate in research on the identification of European Important Plant Areas (IPAs) in co-operation with other bodies, such as the Planta Europa project, and carry out research on the endemic and threatened plants in IPAs
  • direct a considerable part of their research capacity towards the study of the endemic and threatened plants of the rich flora of the Mediterranean Basin, a major proportion of which lies within the political boundaries of Europe (see Case Study 10)’ and contribute to the implementation of the Conservation of Mediterranean Island Plants, Strategy for Action (Delanoe, O., Montmollin, B. & Olivier, L., 1996 IUCN/SSC)
  • strengthen their traditional research links with botanic gardens and scientific workers in countries of the developing world and participate in the application of modem techniques to in situ conservation of the rich floras outside Europe
under the CBD
  • participate in the production and evaluation of the scientific information required under the CBD for the conservation of European plant diversity
in ex situ Conservation
  • seek to enhance their positions as major centres for conservation of wild-plant germplasm, promoting their capacity to carry out research on seed biology and storage, micropropagation, and the propagation and cultivation of plants; and to contribute scientifically to integrated conservation policies and programmes in the EU.

OBJECTIVE A5 Promote and consolidate BGs as major centres of horticultural expertise.

Horticulture in botanic gardens is of a specialised nature and quite different fiom that carried out, for example, by local authorities or amenity gardens, The living collections maintained by European botanic gardens have been the basis for the development of much of modem scientific horticulture. The staff have particular skills and knowledge for growing, maintaining and propagating a very wide range of plants from diverse climates and habitats. Many of the species are rare, some are brought into cultivation for the first time in botanic gardens; their requirements are not hlly understood and staff have to determine the requirements for their germination, healthy growth and reproduction. Glasshouse and field experiments carried out in the garden by botanists and other scientists are often dependent on the cultivation skills and advice of horticultural staff. However, this skill and expertise has not always been recognised, perhaps because there has been little encouragement for horticulturists to write up and publish their results, and so the knowledge remains with individual members of staff.

In botanic gardens, traditional horticultural skills, especially in plant propagation, are complemented by newer techniques, such as micropropagation, tissue culture, low-temperature seed storage and chemically or mechanically assisted germination. These techniques are particularly relevant for conservation, and tend to involve co-operation between scientific and horticultural staff in the management of living collections. The modem needs of integrated, scientifically based conservation require high quality collections to be grown in optimum conditions; the information fiom horticultural research and experimentation is essential for reintroduction and habitat restoration programmes, which often depend on botanic gardens for plant material and horticultural skills. Attention also has to be paid to the horticultural requirements of wild European plants of wider general interest, such as the wild relatives of crop species of European origin, medicinal plants, ornamentals and others of economic interest

As well as the need for scientific horticulture, EU botanic gardens should recognise the need for their collections to be displayed in an attractive and pleasing way, as public appreciation of them is an important factor in environmental education. Horticultural staff may be called on to mount special displays and plantings that address various aspects of the garden’s education, research or conservation programmes.

The high quality horticulture in botanic gardens should be promoted through research and training schemes including practical workshops and staff training and exchange schemes. The number of people choosing horticulture as a career has declined in recent years, though there has been an increasing trend for mature students from other disciplines to undertake work and training in botanic gardens. It is not widely known that many botanic gardens run horticultural training schemes, in conjunction with educational institutions; more could be done to promote such schemes (see also Objective D3).

PlantNet: policy for horticulture
Quality of horticulture for plant collections

Horticulture is the one common activity linking all collections of living plants. Good horticultural practice is crucial to the maintenance, and therefore to the utilisation, of plant collections. All users rely on the horticultural skills of collection holders to acquire and maintain collections.

From PlantNetwork Strategy Plan (1999): PlantNet: The Plant Collections Network of Britain and Ireland.

‘Whilst the scientific integrity of botanic collections has to be questioned, there need to be sound principles behind policies for accessions for plant collections and, perhaps more boldly, for de-accessions. The quality and craftsmanship of horticulture must not be allowed to diminish; otherwise, the consequences for plant collections, however sound the collections policy is, will be third-rate poorly grown plants, indifferent displays and public disapproval.’

Goodenough, S. (1996): PlantNet Newsletter 3, p. 18.

To achieve Objective A5, EU botanic gardens should:

  • promote the highest standards of scientific horticulture in the maintenance and use of their collections
  • encourage and promote horticultural research programmes on rare and threatened species in Europe and on the wild relatives of useful and potentially useful taxa
  • employ high standards of ornamental horticulture in displaying their collections, to enhance their value for botanical and environmental education
  • encourage horticultural staff to report the results of their trials and research, through publication and talks
  • stimulate more discussion and collaboration between botanical and horticultural staff and with staff at other scientific and horticultural institutions
  • encourage horticultural staff to participate in conferences and workshops and to take part in expeditions to study plants growing in the wild
  • publicise their horticultural training schemes and the appeal and importance of a career in scientific horticulture.

    Propagation of Italian wild orchids

    Many members of the family Orchidaceae are included in the Red Lists of rare and threatened wila flora. Germination of seeds of terrestrial orchids is not possible using conventional techniques because infection by a mycorrhizal fungus is required for development of the seedlings. Work on ex situ propagation of Italian wild orchids by in vitro asymbiotic seed germination has been carried out at the Botanical Garden of University of Modena and Reggio Emilia since 1996. This is a collaborative venture which aims to re-establish and increase orchid populations in their original sites in the wild. Similar programmes on wild orchids have been developed by botanic gardens in other European countries.

    Research on bryophytes

    Almost a quarter of the 1,687 species and subspecies of bryophyte in Europe (including Macaronesia) and nearly two-thirds of the 65 endemics are threatened; four species are thought to be extinct. The Bryophyte Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission recognises that further research is required into the ex situ storage, cultivation and transplanting of bryophytes as part of an integrated conservation programme.

    A three-year pilot research project on bryophytes in the UK is being undertaken by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This initiative was launched in 1999 at an international workshop, which considered in vitro and ex situ cultivation, cryopreservation, re-establishment, reproductive biology, life-history strategies, phylogenetics, patterns of genetic diversity and sampling strategies.

    ‘Raised Bog’ display at the University of Salzburg Botanic Garden: for teaching and research

    When this Austrian Garden was planned, one of the focal points was to be a presentation and scientific study of the ‘natural treeless plant communities’ of Austria, which are significant up to the subalpine and alpine regions around Salzburg. Raised bogs (Hochmoore) form an important part of these treeless plant communities and today face many threats.

    The Garden was established in 1987. Today, in an area of 180 m2, the raised bog displays about 70 species typical of this plant community, including seven of Sphagnum and several of Utricularia, all of which are endangered in Austria. The display makes a part of the natural heritage of the region that is found only in remote areas readily accessible, and it raises public awareness of the need to preserve this type of vegetation in situ. It also gives scientists and interested amateurs opportunities to observe and study the dynamics and elements of this plant community ex situ and under controlled conditions.

    Pannonian display at the University of Vienna Botanic Garden: for education and ex situ conservation

    An oudoor display of plants in the Garden shows plants of the dry-area grasslands (Trockenrasen) in northeast Austria and gives an impression of these habitats. Often mistaken as wasteland, such grasslands are valuable and diverse ecosystems; as a result of change in use, e.g. fiom extensive cattle farming to intensive wine production, they have been greatly altered and their indigenous species are threatened with extinction.

    The display provides information on the ecology of these areas and explains the need for landscape and species protection. The setting is intended to show how elements of dry-area grassland vegetation can be used in landscape design.

    Each of the rare species displayed is cultivated from a documented single origin to help preserve their genetic integrity; all species can spread within the group. Thus, small ex situ populations of several endangered species can be established, and their seeds could be used for future re-introduction programmes.