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MEETING REPORT: The Future of Botanic Gardens

By Jeannine Romero.

Our May speaker was Dr. Ari Novy, President and CEO of the San Diego Botanic Gardens. Novy recently replaced Julian Duval, who retired as president of SDBG in 2019. “Julian built a wonderful base for us to build on,” Dr. Ari Novy told the May 13th audience at the monthly meeting, noting that SDBG was ranked #9 of the 10 best botanical gardens in the USA Today’s 2019 Reader’s Choice awards. The newest President of SDBG lived most of his life on the East Coast and earned his doctorate doing research on a plant native to New Jersey. He is affiliated with UCSD, and resided in San Diego for the past two years. Prior to that, Novy spent five years working as Executive Director of the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C.

Novy honed his garden skills while working at the Villa La Pietra in Florence, Italy. He discussed the significance of historical Italian villas and their extensive formal gardens, such as the dozen or so that were owned by the wealthy Medici family from Florence in the 1500’s to 1700’s. Large gardens such as these had several purposes at the time, including displaying prestige, wealth and the use of then current technology to move water in the gardens. They were beautiful places to walk and relax, and provided an environment for the ruling class to be better rulers. A villa included the house and the gardens and extensive game and agricultural lands that surrounded it, which often provided wheat, olives and staple crops. Italian villas represented sustenance, beauty, philosophy and power. They were also a refuge from urban areas, where the ruling class might avoid exposure to the plague and other communicable diseases.

Pink Roses at the May Meeting.

Botanic gardens, on the other hand, usually originated to fill a need in the community at large. They were designed to collect and study specimens or to conduct research to treat diseases like the plague. In the 1700’s, Carl Linnaeus, famously named and categorized plants at The Uppsala Botanical Garden in Sweden. In the 1800’s, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was essential to providing seeds as well as horticultural advice to the British colonies. The Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens in Pittsburgh was established in 1893 and is known for its commitment to using net zero energy and to sustainability.

Novy identified several issues that challenge the botanical gardens of the 21st century. He suggested that people now have difficulty balancing their digital lives, noting that children no longer play outside as much as they used to, limiting their sense of community. Botanical gardens, like SDBG, can provide space and time for children to become comfortable being outside in nature. Taken a step further, they could provide time for children with special needs to have access to nature in a framework tailored for them. Botanical gardens should broaden their audience “from the elites to the masses.” At botanic gardens, research, specimen collection, recreation, education and outreach purposes all need to relate to pressing issues such as climate change, health and wellness, horticultural therapy and food security. Research and exhibitions can empower visitors by providing them with the information they need to have informed discussions about controversial issues, such as GMO’s. Novy also suggested that seed libraries and public breeding gardens could provide the public with a greater awareness of native plants and model sustainability. However, Novy advised, we should not neglect to incorporate the basic concepts we learned from historical gardens, such as beauty, power, food and philosophy in our botanic gardens.

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