Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks by Sara Oldfield. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2011. Hardcover; 240 pages. ISBN: 978-0262015165. $29.95.
Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks provides a captivating overview of the plant conservation work going on at major botanic gardens around the world, providing a glimpse into the innovative works, collaborations, and successes of people and gardens dedicated to protecting plants.
The need to steward our once-abundant plant diversity is urgent. The reasons are many—continuous population growth, rapid economic development, loss of wild pollinators, and environmental degradation caused by a host of factors. The traditional concept of botanic gardens as collectors of plant oddities for display is taking a backseat to this more critical role in documenting, preserving, researching, reintroducing, and restoring the world’s flora. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is learning how, through botanic gardens, different countries, regions, and networks have pulled together to deal with the complexities of plant conservation. There are some amazing success stories of plant reintroduction into the wild, ecological restoration, creative partnerships, and conservation resource-sharing that demonstrate how and why botanic gardens are the modern day arks.
For example, the work at National Tropical Botanical Garden, in Hawaii, is especially interesting given that over 90% of their flora is unique, with roughly 1,200 native plants growing nowhere else in the world. Approximately one-half of these species are threatened with extinction as a result of deforestation, grazing by introduced livestock, invasive plants, introduced insects and diseases, fire, and climate change. Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program has defined strict protocols for the rescue of some of the rarest plants in the world. In collecting seed and cuttings of these rare plants, these guidelines are followed to ensure that a representative sampling of genetic diversity is collected, meticulous records are kept, and the plants are given a safe haven until they can be reintroduced and then monitored in the wild. The garden’s nursery is overflowing with native Hawaiian plants effectively being used in it's major reintroduction and restoration work. When possible, seed is stored to ensure long-term ex situ conservation of highly threatened species. The garden’s Conservation Director, Dr. David Burney, has coined the term “inter situ” for the introduction of native plants into new areas near the locations where they have grown previously. He looks at ancient records, such as fossil remains, to help determine restoration plans for degraded areas.
Over 160 botanic gardens exist in China, and most are run and supported by the Chinese government, which has directed that cities should create botanic gardens in order to conserve local biodiversity. The country’s economic growth has created an urgent need for the protection of natural habitats and an appreciation of China’s natural plant wealth. As an example, China’s huge array of medicinal plants is of primary importance for healthcare throughout the country. About one third of their medicinal plants are well established in cultivation, yet wild harvesting continues to be a major threat to wild plant diversity. Given that medicinal plants are expected to form a part of China’s bioeconomy, their conservation and cultivation are critical.
Africa has a strong network of botanic gardens that play a vital role in protecting Africa’s rich natural heritage. Many of the gardens are working to meet the needs of local communities, to educate and demonstrate food and economic plant production, as well as helping secure conservation and protection of medicinal plants. While there are some excellent examples of international collaborations, community action is recognized as the key to lasting conservation success.
One of the strongest examples of international collaborations described in Botanic Gardens is between the Missouri Botanical Garden and conservation groups in Madagascar. With much of the African island’s flora highly threatened and irreplaceable, the garden staff have helped to conduct botanical inventories, helped train local botanists and conservationists, as well as collaborated in community-based conservation.
Scientists in Australia are looking for ways to both conserve and utilize the native flora. Clearance of the native flora for agriculture is a major threat to fragile species in parts of Australia. In some cases, healthy ecological conditions for restoration no longer exist due to salinization, agricultural chemicals, rabbits, or invasive weeds, resulting in the need for assisted migration or restoration at nearby sites. Material from seed banks is often used in supporting ecological restoration. Mining in Australia has also impacted some of the continent’s rare and endangered plants; however, there have been successful efforts to work with the mining industry in recovery and restoration work.
Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks is a valuable reference guide because the conservation potential for botanic gardens is just being realized. Serving as a portal into the successes of gardens throughout the world, this book both informs and inspires the reader to place more resources, energy, and effort into activating gardens/organizations to move forward. As humankind faces the challenges of global climate change and ecological uncertainty, it is incumbent upon everyone to be responsible leaders in plant conservation. These success stories can lead to improved education and knowledge as each garden’s role evolves in this direction. Both in situ and ex situ plant conservation work is valuable. While in situ is considered best for the long-term protection of the plants, ex situ collections play a vital role in conserving plant diversity, not only as an insurance policy for the future, but also as the basis for restoration, reintroduction, and educational programs. Gardens need to ensure that their collections are increasingly representative of the genetic diversity of wild populations. Botanic gardens are learning that sharing expertise in areas such as population genetics, plant taxonomy, horticultural management, environmental education techniques, and project management can help develop the tools to make successful collaborations, especially with local communities, which provide the lasting answer to the successful protection of the world’s flora.
—Holly H. Shimizu Executive Director US Botanic Garden Washington, DC