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What is a botanic garden?

Janelle Hatherly

Janelle Hatherly

October 18, 2016

Welcome to the first of many articles by BGANZ members. BGANZ stands for The Botanic Gardens Australia and New Zealand Inc, the professional body representing the interests of botanic gardens in Australia and New Zealand. In this and future issues, we’ll showcase botanic gardens from ‘the inside looking out’ and highlight features that make botanic gardens stand apart from other public green spaces.

Most people are surprised to learn that anyone can call any garden a botanic garden. Why do some places, especially those developed from scratch by community volunteers, call themselves botanic gardens and why do they even want to? Perhaps, in the case of fledgling gardens it is so councils and other funding bodies will take them seriously and resource them beyond basic park maintenance.

On the other hand, some theme parks have feature gardens worthy of a place in any botanic garden. A former head of horticulture for the Disney Corporation said at a garden tourism conference I attended, that Disneyland’s magic could be attributed to its outstanding horticulture. She said ‘People think they come for the rides but feedback tells us they come for the holistic experience and it’s the beautiful setting they remember’. So, with the high standard of horticulture on display, why shouldn’t we think of Disneyland as botanic gardens?

Walt Disney World’s horticultural wonderland. Photo Attractions magazine

Walt Disney World’s horticultural wonderland. Photo courtesy Attractions magazine


In 1990s I visited the Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, one of the top garden tourist attractions in the world. I remember describing it to a colleague as a Disneyland of plants. While I was impressed with the immaculate landscapes and floral extravaganza (it was my first encounter with the giant blue poppy Meconopsis) I was using the Disney term derogatorily. Horticulturists had to finish their gardening before opening hours so as not to spoil the views and I couldn’t find a single quiet space free of crowds hugging the paths.

Meconopsis betonicifolia. Photo Tim Entwisle

Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. Photo Tim Entwisle


This was a time when the botanic gardens world primarily focused on developing and curating diverse plant collections for serious scholarship in an endeavour to save the world’s threatened species. As a botanic gardens educator I was passionate about raising public awareness of the importance of plants and conservation issues … and I still am.

Whether new or old, all botanic gardens today have a greater ‘people’ (and hence, marketing) focus. They want and need greater visitor numbers and they are more responsible for generating their own funds. In fact, the greater people focus is in evidence with American botanic gardens dropping the name ‘botanic’ and preferring to call themselves public gardens. And places like The Eden Project in Cornwall England  (despite its main visitor attraction being two biomes of plants collected from around the world), has dropped the name ‘garden’ altogether.

Biodomes at The Eden Project, Cornwall, UK

Biodomes at The Eden Project, Cornwall, UK


This bothers me because I feel botanic gardens are slowly losing their identity in a world of competing markets. Why does this matter, I hear you say? It matters because all life depends on plants and botanic gardens are the one place where we should be able to count on plants having centre-stage.

Botanic gardens are living museums where all manifestations of Plants = Life can be explored and appreciated. In a botanic garden, anyone can experience an emotional and an intellectual connection with plants.

American naturalist and scientist, E.O. Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia’ to describe the great desire humans have to connect with nature.

Every gardener or bushwalker experiences this deep connection but botanic gardens are accessible public places where current and future generations, growing up in concrete jungles and communicating mostly through a virtual world, can satisfy this innate need too.

So when I deconstruct the term ‘Botanic Garden’ I think of:
‘Garden’ = a place that reflects our human connection with nature. It is constructed by humans for humans, even if we decide to leave what we find alone and maintain it as a wilderness garden. Constructed landscapes are expressions of our human creativity and in botanic gardens we can immerse ourselves in cultural and natural beauty.


“Gardening is any way that humans and nature come together
with the intent of creating beauty”

Tina James, 1999


‘Botanic’ = it’s about plants and plants are centre-stage. While you can’t really have a garden without plants many gardens have plants as backdrops to more human-centric features like garden furniture and ornaments, picnic facilities, events, shops and restaurants. For me, plants in these types of gardens can be interpreted as green wallpaper … but wallpaper can also be exquisite!

Fundamentally the functions of a botanic garden are horticulture, science, education and recreation and when each of these is fulfilled to a high standard we create the best examples of botanic gardens. For me, Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia would take first prize.

The Thousand Bloom Chrysanthemum in the East Conservatory in 2011, Longwood Gardens

The Thousand Bloom Chrysanthemum in the East Conservatory in 2011. Photo courtesy Longwood Gardens


A Google search gives a definition along the lines: A botanic garden is an establishment where plants are grown for scientific study and display to the public. This doesn’t sound very exciting but it does convey the bare bones of a botanic garden – botany and education/understanding and public appreciation of plants. This is what sets a botanic garden apart from a local, national or theme park, a historic house or any other garden open to the public.

Visitors will only be aware of this unique brand as well as have an enjoyable outing if they experience tangible evidence of horticulture, science, education and recreation every time they choose to visit a botanic garden. To this end, I have tried to isolate the ‘essence’ of this evidence from a visitor’s perspective and have developed four ‘criteria’. These are:

Did I experience a sense of arrival?

Did I ‘live the moment’ and did I learn anything?

Are plants centre-stage?

Did I leave with a positive lasting impression?

I put these criteria to the test recently when I visited seven botanic gardens between Sydney and Alice Springs. I’ll share my findings with you next issue. I’d also be interested to learn what constitutes a botanic garden for you.

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