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Why visit Botanical Gardens this Summer?

Now that the summer is here, we will have a lot more time for enjoying the outdoors, and public gardens are of especial interest to many of us. Even though it is a very short season in Alberta, we have many superb gardens that enhance our enjoyment and our education.

In Calgary for example, we have the Reader Rock Gardens, the Devonian Gardens, as well as the Botanical gardens of Silver Springs and Botanical gardens of the Calgary Zoo. In the Edmonton area, we have Muttart Conservatory, the St. Albert Botanic Park, and the Devonian Botanic Garden. You can also find significant botanic gardens in Lethbridge and Olds. Perhaps one of Canada’s most well-known botanic gardens are found in Victoria – the Butchart Gardens. There are 3343 botanical gardens worldwide registered with Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

If you look back at my previous blogs, you would be correct in assuming I have a fascination with botanic gardens. I have written about my experiences in the gardens of:
Also on my wishlist was to visit Rome’s Museo Orto Botanico. On my most recent trip there, I was pleased to find that I was a quick walk to these historic botanic gardens associated with the Department of Environmental Biology of the Sapienza University of Rome.

The gardens are very proud of their first director, Pietro Romualdo Pirotta (1853 – 1936). You see his bust almost as soon as entering the park. These gardens in Rome have a long history, but it was not until 1883 that they became officially attached to the University. Perhaps it is important to note that Italy as a unified country has existed just slightly longer than has Canada. These gardens have a connection with the formation of the country.


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Pirotta was elected to the Accademia dei Lincei in 1901. I’ve talked about the Linceans previously when I reviewed the book Infinitesimals, as they were the group of scientists along with Galileo who were repressed by the Jesuits during the development of non-Euclidean mathematics. Pirotta was also instrumental in the formation of national parks in Italy.

Wandering the 12 hectares of the park, I found many areas of interest. Since we don’t have them growing in Alberta, I really liked seeing the variety of plants growing in palm gardens. There are also bamboo and fern gardens. I relaxed in the Japanese gardens and enjoyed the Mediterranean area. The gymnosperm area contained some trees that I was unfamiliar with and the various greenhouses represented the biodiversity in cactus and other significant plants. One significant feature of these gardens that I have not witnessed anywhere else, is a purpose-designed garden for blind people. All the plants in this area were labelled in braille.

A feature common to almost all the botanical gardens that I have visited, especially those that have an academic perspective, is a garden of medicinal plants. Let’s consider the culture of medicinal plants and their relationship to modern biological sciences. I speculate that our fascination with these medicinal plants may be related back perhaps to our Mesolithic roots. Our distant ancestors probably had a very good knowledge of how to use the plants in their environments. We know that this ultimately led to the transition to early agriculture and the domestication of plants. By medieval times, physic gardens were often attached to monasteries. The plants were considered to be of medical importance. By the 1500s, botanical gardens were attached to many of the major universities and as the collection of plants increased, there became a need to classify them. I previously mentioned the role that Chelsea Physic gardens played in helping Carolus Linnaeus develop the binomial system in use to this day. Furthermore, I consider it possible that there is a relationship between these medicinal plants and the development of the study of biochemistry. For example, digitalis was discovered through the study of early folk remedies, and the study of medicinal plants in search of medicines continues to this day.

Next time you get a chance to visit a botanical garden, whether in Rome, London or in your home town, take the time to see the medicinal plants and to reflect on the long line of knowledge that they represent and where they may take us in the future.

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Why visit Botanical Gardens this Summer?

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