Botanical gardens are no longer just scenic spots as they once were. Today, they are living museums that provide a wealth of information about plants, flowers and trees-- like their origins, history, medicinal and environmental benefits--in an international context. They focus public attention on critical subjects like cultivating disease-resistant species and rainforest conservation, among other issues.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are located in southwest London. In 2003, Kew became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, housing the world's most important botanical collections, from seed and herbarium collections to artifacts of plant origin.
In 2009, a Kew botanist discovered a new plant species, "Isoglossa variegata," by chance in a Gardens glasshouse. The foot-high plant with green-gray heart-shaped leaves and small white and pink flowers, came from plants donated by Swedish botanists in the 1990s, following an expedition to Tanzania. The Breathing Planet Program aims to discover and identify threatened plant species worldwide.
Kew's showcase exhibits reflect a wide diversity, including acacia, horse mushroom, elephant ear taro, silver birch, St. George's mushroom, giant puffball, sweet chestnut, Madagascar periwinkle, devil's fingers, lady's slipper orchid, holy basil, jade vine and pagoda tree, among many others.
Kew's history owes much to Princess Augusta, who spearheaded its founding in 1752. Credit is also due to Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who put Kew on the international map through his entrepreneurial genius and his horticultural knowledge and interest.
New York Botanical Garden
The New York Botanical Garden is a 250-acre National Historic Landmark. The Garden was founded in 1891, and today it is home to over 1 million plants. There are 50 curated display gardens in a natural setting of dramatic rock outcroppings, waterfalls, the Bronx River and 50 acres of forest.
Plant displays include a diversity of pine, spruce, fir and cherry trees in the Arthur and Janet Ross Conifer Arboretum, thousands of Alpine flowers representing all the world's continents in the Rock Garden, and over 3,000 rose plants in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, including antique, modern hybrid tea, floribunda and shrub roses. Azaleas and rhododendrons, magnolias, chrysanthemums, and daffodils are among the many other flower groups on show.
A special draw is the Home Gardening Center, which features model gardens, teaching handouts and demonstrations for interested gardeners.
The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens
The Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens in the Island's Central District, were founded in 1871. Construction started in 1860, and the Gardens were open to the public by 1864. Today, the Gardens include individual displays of bamboo, camellias, herbs, magnolias, palms, azaleas, and the flower of Hong Kong, the Bauhinia Blakeana.
A French missionary discovered the Bauhinia blakeana at an abandoned property in Pokfulam district in the 1880s. At first, it was propagated near the Pokfulam Sanitorium run by the Missions Etrangeres de Paris, then at the Botanical Gardens. The Bauhinia blakeana is named for a former governor, Sir Henry Blake.
An interesting footnote: the bauhinia flower replaced the crown on the Hong Kong Police cap badge after 1997, when sovereignty reverted from Britain to China.