The importance of botanical gardens

Plants predate human existence by 100 million years, and their biological evolution has been one of the greatest processes in earth’s history. The distinct and uniquely individual species of plants provide so much for us and the earth with eco-system services. To each climatic condition from the arctic, to the temperate, tropical and then to the Antarctic, plants have evolved themselves. We know that the services these systems provide us surpass all economic value (and they do it for free). Plants purify air and water, continue the nitrogen cycle, decompose all natural material, stop erosion and stabilise the climate. It was the billion year co-evolution between plants and their pollinators that provided humans with a vivid visual display once our ancestors developed sight.

Our relationship to this day is a primordial, as we find ourselves entranced by nature, in our gardens, playing golf, picnicking, fishing or the like. Plants provide us with spiritual and aesthetic pleasures. Always entranced, we found the need to perceive an organised natural world and thus made landscapes with water features for ourselves. We moved from medicinal, to colonial and now to specialist or, better known as, botanical gardens.

Botanical gardens are spaces dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of a wide range of plants from all over the world. A museum, so to speak, where artefacts range from the exotic, to the tropical, the renowned, to the unique and the rare. Each plant is labelled according to their local and scientific names. Today there are more than 2000 botanical gardens worldwide. They provide research, conservation, preservation and literacy efforts for the public – making them absolutely paramount in changing climatic conditions.

Botanists have identified about 400,000 plants species and of these approximately 34,000 species of plants are threatened while 2/3 are near extinction. According to recent studies, the rate of plant extinction has reached to a species a day due to anthropogenic activities– some 1000-10,000 times faster than what would occur naturally. We are losing these to rapid deforestation, agricultural expansion, the spread of invasive species and habitat loss. 50% of all our medicines are derived from plants, of which 25% of these drugs originate from tropical forests. These forests are crucial to biodiversity as unique and diverse species of plants and animals live here. As these forests disappear, so does biodiversity and along with it crucial ecosystem services.

Botanical gardens are then oasis’s vital to the preservation of some species of plant that have or may become extinct in the wild. These species depend on the trained staff and horticultural support provided in the areas. Humans must play a moral role in conserving the natural world before everything is annihilated. Preservation and conservation must not be considered as the same thing. Preservation is ensuring something remains as it is; conservation however expands itself further to say that we wisely manage resources. Botanical gardens become exceedingly instrumental towards this cause.

These gardens are the leaders in environmental stewardship. They are the only spaces that can offer research and education at the same time. No longer do they simply focus on collections of rare and unusual species but also include on site and off site conservation of key species. There is still so much we do not know about tropical rainforests. Should we lose them, we will forever remain ignorant to its wonders.

Pakistan has some 20 botanical gardens in universities and parks. However, of these only three are seemingly open to the public – Bagh-e-Jinnah and Sukh Chayn Gardens in Lahore and Rani Bagh Arboretum in Hyderabad. This puts the public at a huge disadvantage as they remain largely uninformed. A recent visit to Bagh-e-Jinnah Botanical garden indicated the potential it has but lacks the attention it needs. We must take on landscape artists and architects to liaison with botanists and horticulturalists to make these spaces attractive and provide easy education. Botanical gardens the world over provide aesthetic, spiritual and educational value.

A 2010 study at the University of Karachi, indicated that 19 plant species in Pakistan have made it to the IUCN Red list. Of these, 16 exclusively incur in Gilgit-Baltistan, and the remaining 3 are endemic to Sind. The fact that these threatened species are occurring in the coastal and mountainous regions is a serious indicator of the effects of climate change. Our public must be educated on the egregious effects of invasive species such as the eucalyptus (safeda) and what are the naturally occurring habitats and kinds of plants so that they may preserve and conserve them. They must understand the importance of each local species so as to understand the ecological makeup of each region i.e the temperate forests of the Himalayas, the scrub ridden plains of the Punjab, the desserts of Sindh and the coastal regions.

Modern botanical gardens are global treasures in an age of ecological crisis. We must build more and continue studies in Pakistani botany.

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