Tim EntwisleBig baby garden of Shanghai

Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden is one of 200, or perhaps 150, botanic gardens in China. Even the locals don’t seem to know how many. Perhaps their circumspection is due to the rate at which botanic gardens are being built in China.

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Most of the botanic gardens are only decades old, barely in their (human) adolescent years. Chenshan, celebrating its third birthday, is described by its Director, Professor Yong-Hong Hu, as a baby. We still have a long way to go, he says.

Yet if you tour the garden, as I did two weeks ago, you’ll see plenty of mature trees, brilliant floral displays and striking architecture and settings for what will surely be one of the great world botanic gardens. And expect more of them in China.

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Shanghai-Chenshan-Botanical-Garden 4There are already many public gardens in China. Professor Hu estimates 150 in Shanghai, albeit a city with more people than the whole of Australia and perhaps the largest city in the world. He says there are 700 cities in China so I’d suggest there are at least a few thousand public parks in China.

Public gardens, including botanic gardens, are popular. Since Chenshan opened, 2.3 million people have visited – more than a million in the first year, dropping to about 800,000 the year after and continuing at that rate. Yong-Hong has ambitious plans, including 2 million visitors per year by 2030, many more of them children.

Young children, aged between 3 and 7 years, will be the first to be encouraged through specific garden developments, then 8 to 12 year olds, and so on. Chenshan already has a good idea of what works for families but they plan to survey their audiences to make sure they get things right.

At their annual orchid show last month they attracted 280,000 people over three weeks, peaking at 30,000 on a single day. And 6000 people came to their annual concert last year. So they do know what people like. And people particularly like the three large conservatories (the inside of the dryland one features at the top of this post).

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The garden already displays over 10,000 different plants, mostly from eastern China. The 110 staff were described as young and energetic, with half of them in research.

The scope of the garden is impressive. Apart from the giant conservatories, within the 207 hectares there is a  huge and dramatic Quarry Garden, an exceedingly pretty rose garden (which I must show you) and lots of specialist gardens such as medicinal plants, aquatic plants and trails for people with limited mobility.

The Quarry Garden starts (or ends) with a mysterious journey through a few hundred metres of tunnel through the rock, revealing the garden at the end…

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This is Shanghai’s second botanic garden. Its first is downtown and includes a similar mix of horticulture, science and education. Today every second person on Earth lives in a city so we need to get serious about our urban parks. We also need to care for our plants, whether in the city or country, so we can breathe, eat and live. Botanic Gardens like Chenshan are in just the right place to do that.

Oh, and I did promise you a Rose Garden.

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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

2 thoughts on “Big baby garden of Shanghai

  1. I’ve often wondered – if you’re designing a botanical garden from scratch, how are the different aims of research, education, collection and aesthetics managed in the design process? I’m sure each group values the needs of the others but there must be many compromises. A huge range for any one person to cover, whether landscape architect, bureaucrat or scientist but we all know where design by committee can end up. Are there specialist botanical garden designers?

  2. I think you are right – there are plenty of compromises and many botanic gardens end up looking a little like they were designed by a committee. There are landscape designers who understand botanic gardens and know how to create landscapes that combine beauty, ‘collections’ and interpretation (Andrew Laidlaw here at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is a good example), but very few. The tendency is to carve off an area for one particular purpose. The approach taken at Chenshan, it seems, is to get people there first (aesthetics, mature trees) then add the botanic garden layer. The downside of this is that all the mature trees will be of less scientific/conservation/interpretation value cf. say RBG Melbourne where Mueller’s plantings form the backbone of the collection. Tim.

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