“A garden containing cataloged, ordered, and scientifically maintained collections of plants, open to the public for educational, recreational, and research purposes.”
This is the official definition of a botanic garden. However, a definition, no matter how accurately formalized, can barely capture the wonder of these structures. Botanic gardens are crossroads between scientific research and teaching, places traversed by thousands of people every day, in every part of the world. Emerging from a not-so-positive past, they have the opportunity to emancipate themselves from their colonial roots and instead harbour a concept with a greater radical potential: the comprehension of something so different from us which does not necessarily serve utilitarian purposes. Something that is central to our own existence: plants. This is reflected in the renowned phrase illustrating humanity’s core, “you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Simultaneously centers of scientific research and development, botanical gardens have multiple souls, as many as those who cross them. To capture even a fraction of this multitude, we interviewed five people who work at the Trinity College Botanic Garden, a university botanical garden in Dublin.
The first person we introduce is Professor Stephen Waldren, the curator of the garden, responsible for its supervision and maintenance. Stephen primarily speaks about his curatorial policy focused on the needs of the College, such as providing plants for teaching and materials for research. At the same time, he talks about the potential of these structures: “This place could be a demonstration of how to do things sustainably: we could use geothermal energy to heat the place or utilize solar energy and generate electricity! Making the facilities carbon neutral. […] We could have a space where people can walk through different bioclimatic zones in the greenhouses. And at the same time, not leaving research aside.”
He then tells us about the seedbank hosted in the garden, created with the aim of collecting and conserving genetic material from both native plants and ancient varieties of Irish crop species. About the latters, he talks about the project for their regeneration: “That is, to make them sprout from seeds, increase their number, and then keep them here so that we have varieties grown and adapted to local Irish climates, from Galway to the Aran Islands.” And he continues, “Once, farmers would save their seeds every year, and thus, any surviving seeds would naturally be selected for the next year – a selection based on environmental conditions and local cultivation methods. Modern agriculture is not like that: there is uniformity. You can change the environment through fertilizers so that everything grows the same. However, as a result, genetic diversity is lost, and this is a potential problem for the future. You see, there is also a connection to food security.” Today, science means this as well. But at the same time, Stephen emphasizes a more “spiritual” dimension, as he puts it. “Since I was a PhD student, I have been interested in botanic gardens. It is difficult to separate my personal interest in plants from my current role as a curator because I have always found them fascinating, to get lost in them. Collections of unusual different plants that you can use in teaching, that you can tell different stories about, that do different things at different times a year, when they come into flower, or when they drop their leaves, they go spectacular colors: just looking at the detail of an individual leaf there’s shades in the single leaf that go from yellows to deep greens to reds. That’s one thing that I personally enjoy about working in a place like this. It’s an escape from the routine of lecturing, there’s always change. And looking at plants that you have brought, nurtured, seen grow up, and see them flourish is also inspiring. Sketching you away from some of the more mundane things in life, like sitting through meetings, discussing fine technical political points in College. But this is all important I think, and it’s going to be increasingly important, with more intense modern life, to be able to just slow down and appreciate things. Appreciate colors, appreciate senses. With that you don’t have to be a botanist, you don’t have to be a scientist, it can be anyone. I think botanical gardens should be places of inspiration. And I think they are a great opportunity to reach local communities. Of course, there are challenges, both in terms of infrastructure and dedicated staff. Sometimes, we are like firefighters. Costs are a significant barrier, but they have always been for institutions like this. There is always a risk that the land is seen as exploitable for other, more profitable purposes.”
We find more interesting perspectives by talking to Eva Dreyer and Alicia Brothy, two interns in the botanic garden. For Eva, it is a great learning resource. “Personally, I have learned much more by physically interacting with plants than when I was in the classroom. I think things “click” more easily, compared to, for example, looking at images on a screen.” Alicia reiterates this , saying, “Zoology students don’t have university zoos or stuff like that, and I think it’s nice to have a place where you can go out, work, and educate yourself. Of course, it’s also great for hands-on experiences. But being here is no longer like reading a book; you actually have to get your hands in the soil to learn about it. Seeing things live, where they grow and how they interact with the environment, is a completely different experience. I remember this episode when we were planting plants from the mint family, and we observed how all the members had these rectangular stems, which are actually a distinctive trait of the family, and now this information stayed with me.”
Their student perspective brings another very important view: the challenge of “finding a balance between horticulture and botany.” Eva says, “Of course in the greenhouses there are all these exotic and tropical plants from amazing places, and there you can appreciate them as botanical specimens, while in the outdoor garden, there is a need to draw a line: Is this tree here because it has botanical or conservation significance, or simply because it’s beautiful? Another challenge that comes to mind is weeding around the trees to make them more visually pleasing and keep the place “clean.” But from a scientific point of view, remembering our ecology lessons, I think about the benefits of having such diverse plant communities under the trees. Currently in our garden, there is this compromise where there are neater circles around the trees, while everything else is a bit wilder, offering a nice contrast. But in general, I think there is a contrast between aesthetic intervention and appreciating the ecosystem for its intrinsic value.”
All this without forgetting “how important a place like this is for people who do not have a scientific background, simply as a beautiful place to walk, look around, and observe a diversity of plants they wouldn’t normally have access to, all concentrated in one location. Just yesterday, a lady was walking in the Arboretum, and she told us she lives in a nearby neighborhood, in an apartment without a garden, and just the fact that she could walk there was beautiful for her. She found the arboretum a truly spiritual place that reminded her of the fairy gardens in local stories. Being able to step back and see the Garden from an outside perspective was wonderful. I think the way you appreciate a place is like a kind of curve: initially, there is pure adoration of nature, which you then study and see in a very scientific way, and then you return to appreciate this external perspective again. I think it makes science more beautiful.”
This is also what Elizabeth (Liz) Birde and Michael (Mick) McCann, the two gardeners agree on. According to Liz, there is “value on many different levels. I often have to remind myself how lucky I am to work in a place like this: I live surrounded by trees and nature every day of my life, often forgetting that I am actually in Dublin. I’m in the city, but I’m not really in the city, it’s a kind of oasis.” And she adds, “I see this place as a little hidden gem, and seeing too much public could make it lose that something. Because it’s like a little parallel world that probably wouldn’t work very well in the modern world, but at the same time, it takes you back to another time, and I think it’s nice that it still exists because once it’s gone, it’s gone and it won’t come back. It’s an ironic contradiction because, of course, you have to modernize, and you want to move forward naturally, but every time something is gone, you won’t have it back. I think this fascination is evident in anyone who enters here. It almost seems like a mirage, you see the wonder on their faces because many do not expect to find it, maybe they are walking down the street and look through the gate. Like in a dream.”
A dream always hanging in the balance: Liz recalls how several years ago there was a sort of “little crisis” because there were not enough students, and botany was seen as an old-fashioned science. She thinks the situation is different today, and the number of students has increased again. Of course, there is always a need for constant energy and funding. Then there are development opportunities, such as ideas to expand and modernize the infrastructure. For her, “the danger is that someone might look at this place and see it as a living accessory. I don’t think it will happen, I prefer to remain optimistic. I think the Garden is an incredible and irreplaceable resource for Trinity College and for future generations.”
Mick, on the other hand, addresses another important theme right through his own story: the human dimension. And he speaks from experience. “I started by chance: I sent applications for four or five jobs at the College because my father worked there. Today I could have been a lab assistant or something like that. I had no horticultural experience before starting here: I dropped out of school when I was fifteen, no qualifications. I worked in a factory, on a construction site, in the fields. I also worked in a plastic factory, a horrible thing. In the end, at twenty-one, I got this job and never looked back. I use this place to write poetry too, for the space and tranquility, and sometimes I record them with background sounds, bird songs, things like that. I started relatively recently, actually, five or six years ago, and this place inspired me to do it. I guess you can’t escape it when you’re surrounded by this beauty, unless you’re a robot. But maybe even a robot would feel something here. This place is like an extension of my life for me, more than a job. When I’m here, it’s like I’m not working. I can be here without worrying about things like meetings, exams, or the future. And I didn’t even plan to stay this long: I tried to leave after ten years, but I couldn’t. It’s too beautiful, I couldn’t find a better situation. And the place has also changed over time, and we have learned a lot, but without pressure, just organically absorbing the information we needed. Today, much of what I do here is recommended to people to improve their mental health and well-being, but to me, it’s simply given as part of my job.”
Thinking about the future and the challenges that a place like this must face, it simply reflects.
“I think this place is meant to be here. It was almost closed down, and they have always managed to prevent it from happening. It’s an oasis in the city, and I don’t blame anyone who tries to enter. I myself would simply like to sit here and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Not to mention the history; this garden carries 300 years of history with it, so it must mean something.”
And as every good gardener knows, there is no single way to interact with a garden. This is reflected in anyone who tries to understand these institutions. In 2019, DelSesto and colleagues argued that theories, research, and practices identify a broad spectrum of interaction between humans and plants, including various extents of sensory or physical exploration. And importantly, there is not a unique way that is more effective than the others, as different types of interaction may be more suitable for different situations or groups of people. (3) It is interesting to note how the words, thoughts, and opinions of a few people already match that.
But there is more. In the same article they argue that interaction with plants can even have unexpected outcomes: planting a seed, nurturing and transplanting seedlings to more suitable spaces that meet the needs of both plants and people, supporting their growth by watering and caring for them daily, eventually feeding on them, after a careful preparation of the food, can lead to new ways of thinking about personal, ecological, and even social conditions. Thus, the simple discovery of plants could also lead to something else: self-transformation or the actualization of one’s community. (3)
The english version of this article was reviewed by Antonietta Knetge
1. BGCI. Botanic Gardens and Plant Conservation. https://www.bgci.org/about/botanic-gardens-and-plant-conservation. Ultimo accesso 8 Gennaio 2023
2. Primack, R.B., & Miller‐Rushing, A.J. (2009). The role of botanical gardens in climate change research. The New phytologist, 182 2, 303-13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02800.x
3. DelSesto, M. People–plant interactions and the ecological self. Plants, People, Planet. 2020; 2: 201– 211. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10087
Drawings: Midori Yajima