Botanic gardens: our outdoor museums and why they matter

My name is Heidi Meudt and I’m a Research Scientist in Botany at Te Papa, currently doing taxonomic research on New Zealand’s native forget-me-nots. As part of my job, I attend scientific conferences in New Zealand and overseas. Over the course of my botany travels during September, I’ve managed to visit five botanic gardens in three different countries!

What are some of the interesting things I saw? Why are botanic gardens important? And what does this have to do with Te Papa?

Botanic Gardens Conservation International has a searchable database of over 3,362 botanical institutions worldwide, including 22 in New Zealand. Botanic gardens worldwide have multiple and increasingly important roles, including educating the public about plants, leading efforts in plant conservation, providing plant material and other resources for scientific research, and granting public access to beautiful green spaces for all to enjoy. During September, I visited botanic gardens in Bonn, Oldenburg, Munich (Germany), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Alice Springs (Australia).

Educating the public about native plants

As we lead lives that are increasingly urban and indoors, botanic gardens that showcase native biodiversity can help increase awareness and interest about the world that is just outside our doorstep. They are like outdoor museums! In Wellington, Otari Wilton’s Bush and even Te Papa’s own Bush City are examples of such gardens in Wellington. During my recent travels, I particularly enjoyed areas where native plants were on display in recreated natural habitats at the botanic gardens at Oldenburg and Bonn (Germany) and Alice Springs (Australia).

Our excellent tour guide Simon Pfanzelt showing us some fascinating native bog plants in a recreated German bog habitat. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Our excellent tour guide Simon Pfanzelt showing us some fascinating native bog plants in a recreated German bog habitat. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

This particular part of the Bonn Botanic Gardens showcases native plants from this part of Germany. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

This particular part of the Bonn Botanic Gardens showcases native plants from this part of Germany. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Me at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs, Australia! This garden showcases the native central Australian flora. Sept 2016. Photo by Ilse Breitwieser.

Me at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs, Australia! This garden showcases the native central Australian flora. Sept 2016. Photo by Ilse Breitwieser.

Educational panel at Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Educational panel at Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

A desert fig (Ficus platypoda) at the botanic garden in Alice Springs. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

A desert fig (Ficus platypoda) at the botanic garden in Alice Springs. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Showcasing interesting “exotics”

The highly skilled gardeners and horticulturalists at botanic gardens are of course equally renown for showcasing “exotic” plants from all over the world, including tropical orchids and epiphytes, giant palms and cycads, and cacti and other succulents.

Checking out some of the "exotic" plants in the glasshouses at Bonn Botanic Garden with director Dr Max Weigend. New World succulents on the left, and Old World succulents on the right. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Checking out some of the “exotic” plants in the glasshouses at Bonn Botanic Gardens with director Dr Max Weigend. New World succulents on the left, and Old World succulents on the right. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

And at European gardens, New Zealand plants also fall into the category of “exotic” plants. Three gardens I visited in Germany had New Zealand themed gardens, including the Oldenburg Botanic Garden which even has its own hobbit hole!

Hobbits enjoying the hobbit hole at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Hobbits enjoying the hobbit hole at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Our tour group walking by the collection of New Zealand plants at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Note the plants are all in pots, and will be brought indoors during the cold winter months. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Our tour group walking by the collection of New Zealand plants at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Note the plants are all in pots, and will be brought indoors during the cold winter months. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Simon Pfanzelt demonstrating the strength of the fibers in NZ flax leaves at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Simon Pfanzelt demonstrating the strength of the fibers in NZ flax leaves at the Oldenburg Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

The beautifully landscaped alpine plant garden at the Munich Botanical Garden, which contains a section on New Zealand alpine plants. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

The beautifully landscaped alpine plant garden at the Munich Botanical Garden, which contains a section on New Zealand alpine plants. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Me standing in front of the New Zealand section at the Bonn Botanic Gardens. Even the kauri is in a pot and will be brought into the glasshouses for the winter. Sept 2016.

Me standing in front of the New Zealand section at the Bonn Botanic Gardens. Even the kauri is in a pot and will be brought into the glasshouses for the winter. Sept 2016.

Sign at the Bonn Botanic Gardens highlighting New Zealand and its plants. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Sign at the Bonn Botanic Gardens highlighting New Zealand and its plants. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

 

Promoting scientific research and conservation

Botanic gardens are key players in plant conservation and research, partnering with universities and other institutions or taking the lead on conservation projects both ex situ (at the garden) and in situ (in the wild). Many plants on display to the public are also used for research or conservation purposes. I have used plant material from public areas of botanic gardens such as Otari in some of my own research. However some plants are reserved for research only, and while in Copenhagen and Bonn I got the chance to see some of their research collections which were not on public display.

PhD student Gustavo Hassemer and Dr Nina Rønsted (Natural History Museum of Denmark) with Plantago plants for ongoing systematics research at the Botanic Garden in Copenhagen. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

PhD student Gustavo Hassemer and Dr Nina Rønsted (Natural History Museum of Denmark) with Plantago plants for ongoing systematics research at the Botanic Garden in Copenhagen. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Director Max Weigend ome of the research collection of plants at the Bonn Botanic Gardens. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Director Max Weigend ome of the research collection of plants at the Bonn Botanic Gardens. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

 

Public access to green spaces and more!

Four of the five botanic gardens I visited were free, which meant they were very popular places with people of all ages who were using the gardens for many different reasons. In addition to providing public access to plants, botanic gardens also provide beautiful green spaces for people to enjoy, habitats for birds and other critters, and interesting architecture and art including sculptures. I saw examples of this at all the gardens I visited.

Happy botanists roaming through the Bonn Botanic Gardens, which also has its very own palace! Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Happy botanists roaming through the Bonn Botanic Gardens, which also has its very own palace! Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Sculpture of Eugenius Warming, Danish botanist and ecologist, at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Sculpture of Eugenius Warming, Danish botanist and ecologist, at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Detail on the door to the old Botanisk. Laboratorium building at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. Although this building no longer houses botanists at the university, its architecture is still fitting at the botanic garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Detail on the door to the old Botanisk. Laboratorium building at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. Although this building no longer houses botanists at the university, its architecture is still fitting at the botanic garden. Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Detail on the old Botanisk. Laboratorium building at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. These shapes reminded me of pollen grains, and I wonder if that is what the original architect had in mind? Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

Detail on the old Botanisk. Laboratorium building at the Copenhagen Botanic Garden. These shapes reminded me of pollen grains, and I wonder if that is what the original architect had in mind? Sept 2016. Photo by Heidi Meudt.

At the Munich Botanic Garden with fellow botanist Simon Pfanzelt. Sept 2016.

At the Munich Botanic Garden with fellow botanist Simon Pfanzelt. Sept 2016.

I have been fortunate to experience the joy, beauty and scientific value of five different international botanic gardens recently. I encourage you to visit botanic gardens when travelling, and also to support your local botanic garden.

Do you enjoy botanic gardens? What is your favourite botanical garden, and why?

Special thanks to Nina Rønsted, Natural History Museum of Denmark, DFG, Nees Institute at the University of Bonn, and Dirk Albach for providing funding for my trip to Europe.

For further information:

University of Bonn Botanic Gardens – website (Botanische Gärten der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Oldenburg Botanical Garden (PDF, 2.29 MB) (Botanischer Garten der Carl von Ossietzky-Universität Oldenburg)

Munich Botanical Garden – website (Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg)

Copenhagen Botanical Garden – website (Copenhagen Botanisk Have)

Olive Pink Botanic Garden Alice Springs – website

The Evolving Role of Botanical Gardens – article

Related Te Papa blogs and pages:

Botany travels: representing New Zealand around the world

Bush City at Te Papa

Te Papa Botanical Research at Otari-Wilton’s Bush

Te Papa Botany researchers study genome size in hebes

6 Responses

  1. Olwen Mason

    Thanks, a very interesting blog. I enjoy the Wellington Botanical Gardens and the Christchurch Botanical Gardens especially for their very large trees but I’m now inspired to look at other things as well.

    Reply
    • Heidi Meudt

      Thanks Olwen. I like those two botanic gardens too. I look forward to getting off the beaten bath and exploring some of NZ’s smaller botanic gardens too.

  2. Mick Parsons

    Very interesting blog Heidi. I often think that all the efforts we now do in protecting our own native biodiversity amid a very modified landscape is really just ‘gardening’ anyway. Managing sites where our rarer plants exist needs all the skills Scientists such as you and botanical gardens can offer.
    I have found native botanic gardens in other places are a great place to appreciate indigenous culture of the region. I was lucky enough to visit Alice in the middle of winter with associated tolerable coolness and many things in flower.. It took 2 days to do justice to the relatively small Olive Pink garden (my all time favorite) with camera at the ready. Then there is much larger desert park nearby where one can learn so much more and is a great example of how much an indigenous culture contributes to knowledge of plants.; very humbling to any visitor.

    Reply
    • Heidi Meudt

      Hi Mick. I agree that both “in situ” and “ex situ” conservation of rare plants requires a lot of skilled people and effort, including scientists and botanical gardens, but also ordinary citizens too. Look at how the “predator free NZ” campaign has taken off, with so many communities and families getting involved. Such efforts will also help restore our native habitats, but you are right, we are living in very modified landscapes these days. As to Alice, we also went to desert park on our conference field trip. They had received some rain this year and so many plants were flowering! We are both really fortunate to have experienced a tiny fraction of the central Australian flora and indigenous culture. I hope to be back again some day.

  3. Lyndsay Bluck

    This is sooo interesting. I volunteer at The Elms in Tauranga. While we don’t have a botanical garden a round the old Mission House, the garden is very interesting with the original oak tree grown from an acorn brought out from England by the Rev. Brown, Maori medicinal plants, etc. etc. one of the oldest established English garden in NZ.
    For groups who want to know more about the property we run Community Tours. These can just be the tour which goes through the Home, Library and grounds, or recently we have added the choice of also having a Devonshire Tea followed by a Power Point Presentation on the History of the Garden. Sometimes the gardener will join us and talk about the garden as it is now and the plans for the future.
    The Elms is in the process of developing a ” Victorian Tranquillity Garden”.

    It would be wonderful if you, Heidi, could visit The Elms and see first hand the beautiful property. You can Google The Elms to read some background.
    Thanks for your super Blog. Amazing to see so many NZ plants around the world.

    Reply
    • Heidi Meudt

      Hi Lyndsay, Thanks for letting me know about The Elms in Tauranga! I would love to visit next time I am in the area. Good on you too for volunteering–keep up the great work. Heidi

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