THE CONSTANT GARDENER: Botanic Gardens Play a Central Role in Educating People about Nature

About the Author

Mary Ellen Hannibal is the author of "The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America's Last, Best Wilderness." Hannibal is a winner of Stanford's Knight-Risser Prize in Western Environmental Journalism and the National Association of Science Writers Science and Society Award. She is currently working on a book about citizen science.

One of the reasons I’m slightly obsessed with botanic gardens is that the earliest impulse to create them integrated science and religion within their leafy bowers. The 16th century monks who planned and planted Europe’s first botanic gardens did so as an act of devotion to God.  They collected seeds and specimens from all over the world in an attempt to recreate the original botanic garden – Eden.

The idea was that after the Fall, Eden had disappeared to some far flung location, and expeditions were sent to go find it. The alternate thinking was that Eden had been flung asunder, its treasures distributed all over the world, and again, explorers were sent to go find those pieces and bring them home.  Planting botanic gardens meant putting the pieces back together again in homage to a Creator. And in collecting plants found in different locations, growing in varying soil types and climates, the puzzles of biogeography began to be addressed.  Who lives where and how they got there continue to be important scientific questions today.

Our world, at least in the United States, is a far more secular place than Europe in the middle ages. But many of us have an intuition that those monks were onto something.

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The idea of an original, whole nature, is an abiding desire. We know that global change is having negative and potentially disastrous effects on species and their habitats, but this bad news often feels like it is coming from far away.  We want to help nature by reducing our carbon footprints, but many of us have to get into cars every day, to go to work, to drive our kids to soccer practice.

How can we connect ourselves back to the green heart of life, how can we take direct sustenance from the procreative powers of nature, and how can we help heal the fractures in our imperfect world?

Well, in many American cities, we can start by taking the bus to our botanic gardens.  I live in San Francisco, so for me this means a jaunt to Golden Gate Park, accessible by multiple public transportation options, and abetted by a free shuttle inside the park.  I usually ride my bike, which truth be told, is often just as fast as the bus. Either way, within a half hour I’m ensconced in a truly beautiful collaboration between man and nature.  San Francisco Botanic Garden (SFBG) is organized mostly by geographic region, so a stroll through its various gardens can be a bit of an academic exercise, if you’re so inclined. Our New Zealand, Native Plants, and Chilean Gardens all display the glories of what is known as a mediterranean climate, with cool, dry summers and wet winters.  Other people will preference SFBG’s world-class magnolia collection or redwood forest, but my absolute favorite is the Ancient Plants Garden. Walking among these crazy sci-fi trees and vines, the ancestors of today’s plant life, I feel the sense of a green pathway back into the mists of time.

One way to consider the network of arteries that extend from the Garden’s green heart to points all around the city and beyond is the birds-eye view.  Many of the birds who tarry feasting on the Garden’s perpetual blooms also venture well past its boundaries, carrying nectar and seeds to little patches of greenery all over town.  Even planted meridians on busy roadways provide pieces of habitat connectivity for birds, butterflies, and other bugs looking for food and a place to rest.  San Francisco is on the Pacific flyway, and is a productive stopover for birds on their way North or South, depending on the species and the time of year.  Watching birds come and go I like to think of them stitching up the distances between far-flung geographies and thus creating one continuous fabric of life.  Other locations have their own stories, and one of the great pleasures of living in a place is investigating who else, besides humans, uses it. Because nature is in fact going on everywhere, even across big cities.

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Most American botanic gardens have traditionally showcased the glories of plant breeding to create bigger, showier, or more exotic flowers.  Today botanical gardens have become home for many species that are threatened or endangered in the wild.

For more than ten years, scientists have documented species shifting where they live in response to warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Plants and animals that are no longer able to thrive in the climates where we have historically found them are on the move.  But they haven’t settled into new homes yet – and since temperatures keep rising, it is likely that not all of them will ever find suitable dwelling again.   Botanic gardens are important safe houses for many of the world’s most delicate species, providing a comfort zone while the “new normal” asserts itself.

Botanic gardens today are in a position to play a central role in educating people about nature, and in providing access to its beauties.  Botanic gardens are connected with each other through organizations like the American Public Gardens Association, and as an active professional network are perfectly positioned to bring a big, unified message to the public about the centrality of nature in all of our lives.  Botanic gardens already exist, and they already have devoted corps of volunteers who help to keep them running.  What they need is more public support, and more visits from the people who live around them.  The San Francisco Botanic Garden is currently raising funds for a sustainability center that will help involve and educate our populace about how plants grow and how biodiversity works.  And when the learning is done, we’ll be able to step into the Eden at the heart of Golden Gate Park, and enjoy the world as a unified creation once again.

Photos: R.L. and Martin LeBlanc

More reading

The Botanical City: Could Where You Live Become the Most Nature-Rich City in the World?

What If We Truly Greened America? 5 Ways to Build a Botanical City

True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City 

The Forests Where We Live: Six Life & Death Reasons We Need Our City Trees

De-Central Park in the City: Richard Louv Talks About Spreading Green in the City

A New Role for Landscape Architecture: Robin Moore

From Gloom to Gladness: The Future of Environmentalism

More Resources:

“Biophilic Cities” by Tomothy Beatley; “Biophilia” by E.O. Wilson; “Biophilic Design” by Stephen Kellert 

The Nature Principle 


  1. I’ve always loved botanical gardens and arboreta & visit them wherever my travels take me. I do public walkabouts teaching monarch conservation and the importance of nectar flowers & milkweeds as a full time volunteer, so mine is a love of action, not just of words.

    I’m troubled by the inordinate costs associated with simple education classes, let alone specialty lectures or talks. This is no problem for me personally but for folks who must pay public transportation to get their family there, entrance fees and then fees for the classes, they are clearly out of reach. Scan any BG website to see classes are $35-75 for a 1-4 hr classes. I know the classes must be self-supporting and not funded from agency funds. But are BGs utilizing volunteers “to take the mtn to Moses” – to go to community centers with ‘treasure boxes’ of nature items to meet/greet people where they are? I’d gladly help out as a teacher if such a venture were available.

    We are running the risk of leaving an entire segment of the population out in the cold in resource education. Freeman Tilden (Interpreting Our Heritage) wrote plainly about the steps needed to engage the citizenry in natural resource protection. First, it must be interpreted to be understood, it must be understood to be appreciated and it must be appreciated before it can be protected. It will take all of us, not just the ‘wealthy’ to protect the land for future generations. If we don’t get youngsters of all backgrounds to the interpretive/experiential part, we cannot expect they will grow up to appreciate and vote to protect the land. Seems we’re missing that altogether.

  2. Refreshing article. A quick note: New Zealand is a mostly cool-temperate climate with a significant montane-alpine flora – not a mediterranean climate at all. A hot, dry summer and wet, warm winter climate typical of the Mediterranean influences the the flora of southern Australia (notably Western Australia, the Californian Chaparral and South African Fynbos as well as Chilean lowlands and southwestern(Mediterranean) Europe.

  3. This year I started volunteering at the Tower Hill Botanic Gardens in Boylston, Massachusetts. Working with the Education director, I will be leading winter nature walks in the woods surrounding the gardens. Families will visit during the February vacation week. I plan to talk about animal tracks, winter tree identification, and clothing techniques for staying warm outdoors in the winter. Next Spring we will be hosting 2000 thousand second graders (many field trips) from the Worcester, MA school district. We plan to teach the second graders about growing seeds and woodland leaf and plant identification.

  4. It seems we spent every weekend at the UCLA Botanic Garden when our kids were little (fun + free). Because of that wonderful memory, when we programmed our online world, we made a check-in app that gives a child 500 points for visiting any botanic garden or arboretum in the U.S. My hope is when they arrive, they will check-in for their points and then become so lost in the wonderful world, that they won’t even think about their smartphone!

  5. The new racism is entry fees to public open spaces.

    For example, take the Strybing Arboretum which has been transmogrified into a theme park by members of an elitist society.

    The Society paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobbyist Sam Lauter, so that they could hire people (at taxpayer expense!) to keep people out.

    Gates were closed, entry hours shortened and many residents taxed $7 because they could not provide proof that they live in the City or because they wanted to bring a guest who did not.

    (Outrageously, members enter free!

    The place has severely deteriorated.

    And it is almost empty!

    People turn away in droves.

    So sad.


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