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Extinction or Survival: Botanic Gardens as Agents of Change

By Chipper Wichman, Director and CEO of the National Tropical Botanical Garden

With climate change flexing its muscles and demographers from several universities and the United Nations projecting global population growth climbing towards 11 billion through the end of the 21st century, the conservation of our planet’s biodiversity has never been more important. At the very heart of nearly every ecosystem are plants–they convert the energy from the sun into products that support all other forms of life.

Today we know that 80 percent or more of the planet’s biodiversity exists in the tropics and approximately one-third of all tropical plants are threatened with extinction. These plants hold the answer to mitigating climate change, feeding the hungry, providing cures for diseases, and much more. It was to protect, study, and share knowledge about these tropical plants that the National Tropical Botanical Garden was chartered by the United States’ Congress 50 years ago as a nonprofit organization destined to impact the world.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.00.12 PMIn celebration of its 50th anniversary this fall, National Tropical Botanical Garden and its lead partner, the Botany Department of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington, D.C., entitled Agents of Change — Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century. The one-day event will take place on October 7, 2014 at the Museum of Natural History.  Click for details

Over the past five decades we have established programs of global significance and created a network of some of the most noteworthy and beautiful botanic gardens in the world. With a focus on the tropics, we established our national headquarters in Hawai‘i, a center of biodiversity and evolution and home to a vibrant indigenous Hawaiian culture.

The impact of our work has lead us to realize the power botanic gardens have to change the world–to be agents of change. With strong outreach into diverse communities who enjoy our gardens as places of refuge, relaxation, and education, we can touch people in a way that few others can. We can engage their senses and emotions as well as their intellect. This gives us the opportunity to affect change, to build political will, and to lead by example.

Brighamia rockii on a sea cliff in Molokai - it is estimated there are only about 20 plants in existence in the wild Photo by Ken Wood
Brighamia rockii on a sea cliff in Molokai – it is estimated there are only about 20 plants in existence in the wild. Photograph by Photo by Ken Wood.


Biodiversity sustains healthy ecosystems - photo taken on misty mountaintop on Maui Photo by Ken Wood
Biodiversity sustains healthy ecosystems – photo taken on misty mountaintop on Maui
Photo by Ken Wood


But botanical gardens need to create impacts far beyond our borders–we need to be more than beautiful gardens with curated collections. We need to move into protecting plants in their natural habitats and preserving traditional ecological knowledge.

In recognition of this, and in celebration of our 50th anniversary, NTBG and our long-time collaborator, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Botany, are hosting an international symposium in Washington, D.C. entitled “Agents of Change – Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century.” We will be joined by other “movers and shakers” in the botanical world–individuals such as esteemed botanist and conservationist Dr. Peter Raven, and Sir Ghillean Prance, who headed the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, England for many years, both of whom I consider my mentors throughout my career in conservation and botanical garden management and development.

Together we will explore what lies ahead as botanic gardens seek to develop solutions to the growing loss of biodiversity, the erosion of indigenous knowledge, and the need to feed more and more hungry people. The clock is ticking and the time to act is now.

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  1. Joe C Harris Jr
    Key Largo, Florida, USA
    November 21, 2014, 4:50 pm

    Botanic Gardens also need to educate their visitors about the importance of plants to all living creatures, especially us humans, as well as to the survival of our planet as our home. Most botanic garden visitors do not truly understand just how important a role plants play in our daily lives or in “life” here on our planet. That is why we at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo, Florida, believe in “Plants as Partners™” and offer a 90 minute TYUP™: Transforming Your Understanding of Plants™ daily tour.

  2. Jan
    Zutphen, The Netherlands
    September 26, 2014, 6:11 pm

    In South Africa where I grew up, the concept of using botanical gardens to protect and grow indigenous plants while also creating a beautiful park, and thereby sustain a more diverse and stronger ecosystem, has been well established for decades. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town is the undisputed leader, but other gardens like the one in Nelspruit (near Kruger National Park) and Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Johannesburg are also testament to this vision. Incidentally, visitors to some of the South African botanical gardens can also see beautiful examples of exotic species.

    The idea works really well. I wish other initiatives the best of success.

  3. Ray Stolpe
    Milwaukee, WI
    September 25, 2014, 1:07 am

    botanical gardens need to be talked about more than just in tropical locations. I have traveled in several of the states and have seen many of the same plants in botanical gardens, which is a shame, wondering the wood and forests, I have seen many plants that need to be saved that have been disappearing from the gardens of local forests and area garden areas. Our local plants are important just as the tropical ones, and in many ways as important, the local environment and wildlife counts on the plants for life here. Going to area Botanic Gardens is wonderful, and I love when they show exotic plants, there beauty is breath taking. But seeing something that should be just outside in the backwoods, that cant be found, is heart stopping.