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Our Living Libraries: Why are Botanical Gardens so important?

Aug 10, 2020  |  Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos by Petra Broddle, Zoë Chapman Poulsen and supplied by SANBI Marketing.

Living libraries



This week across South Africa SANBI’s National Botanical Gardens are opening to the public again for the first time after several months of closure due to the COVID 19 crisis. As they have re-opened many have flocked to South Africa’s plethora of national parks, nature reserves and now our botanical gardens to seek peace in and reconnect with nature during these tough times. Botanical gardens are of global importance, playing a role in scientific research, education, as well as saving threatened species from extinction.

What is a botanical garden?

Above: Durban Botanic Gardens is Africa’s oldest botanical garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


A botanical garden is a garden dedicated to the cultivation and display of a collection of plants labelled with their botanical names. This may include special collections from specific ecosystems, geographical areas or plant groups such as succulent plants. Botanical gardens are usually open to the public and are often run by universities or other scientific organisations.

South Africa has ten (soon to be eleven) National Botanical Gardens in different parts of the country that are run by SANBI. Africa’s oldest botanical garden is Durban Botanic Gardens, founded in 1849 and run by the Parks, Leisure & Cemeteries Department of eThekwini with the support of the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust (Est. 1993). Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens, Makana Botanical Gardens, the University of KwaZulu-Natal Botanical Gardens and the Manie van der Schijff Botanical Gardens are all run by universities. 

A Short History

Above: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens is the oldest of SANBI’s NBGs. Photo supplied by SANBI Marketing.


The world’s oldest botanical garden is the Orto Botanico di Padova in north-eastern Italy. Founded in 1545 by the Venetian Republic, it is the oldest academic botanical garden that is still at its original location. Like many other early botanical gardens, it was originally founded for growing medicinal plants.

Stellenbosch University Botanical Gardens dates from 1902, when lecturer Augusta Duthie started growing plants on campus for research and student practicals. Kirstenbosch NBG is the oldest of the national botanical gardens, founded in the same year as BotSoc. Botanical Society volunteers spent many hours collecting and selling firewood, soil and acorns to support the gardens’ development.

Living Collections

Above: Example of a plant label from a specimen of Aloidendron ramosissimum photographed at SANBI’s Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens. The accession number is visible in the bottom right corner. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


Today South Africa’s botanical gardens hold an extraordinary and diverse range of plant collections, representing South Africa’s megadiverse flora across all its ecosystems. As each plant arrives at a botanical garden, it is assigned a unique accession number. This is connected to a database entry that stores information such as collection date, the locality where the collection was made and more. This information is vital to inform use of the plant material in conservation and restoration work.

Spaces for Recreation

Above: The Useful Plants Garden at Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. Photo supplied by SANBI Marketing.


As our world becomes more urbanised, green spaces within our built up areas become increasingly important. Many of the world’s botanical gardens are located within towns and cities, forming important and sustainable spaces for recreation and exercise in nature. Research has shown that spending time in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature can reduce stress and improve physical and mental wellbeing.

Environmental Education

Above: Children playing on the giant elephant at Lowveld National Botanical Gardens. Photo supplied by SANBI Marketing. Photo taken prior to COVID-19 Restrictions.


After 1994 the right to a healthy environment became a part of South Africa’s constitution, and environmental education is recognised as a vital part of the national curriculum. Botanical gardens play a key role in teaching youth about the importance of plants, ecosystems and biodiversity.

It is widely acknowledged throughout the conservation sector that children who have participated in nature-focused activities are more likely to develop a positive attitude about the importance of the environment in adulthood. Environmental education also inspires people through immersion in the natural world, starting to train the botanists, ecologists, horticulturalists and conservationists of the future.

Research and Herbaria

Above: Endangered Haemanthus pumilio blooming in habitat while being visited by a Crimson Speckled Footman moth. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.


In addition to growing and curating living collections, many botanical gardens also play a vital role in research, encompassing fields such as plant taxonomy. Many botanical gardens house herbarium collections, which are filed collections of dried plant specimens used for identification, genetic and nomenclature research. For example, Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden is a key partner in a project pioneering micropropagation techniques to improve the conservation status of the Endangered Haemanthus pumilio, currently known from just a few fragmented lowland sites.

Saving our Threatened Species

Above: The Critically Endangered Protea odorata is one of South Africa’s most threatened species. Only targeted action by conservation professionals and botanical gardens working together can save this species from extinction.


With one in four of South Africa’s plant species being threatened with extinction or of conservation concern, the role of botanical gardens in plant species conservation could never be more important. Plants form the keystone of our ecosystems: Without plants all other living organisms including humans could no longer survive.

Plants growing in botanical gardens and stored seed are what we call ‘ex-situ collections’, acting as an insurance policy in case of habitat loss or a plant species becomes extinct in the wild. Plants growing in botanical gardens can also be propagated for use in ecological restoration. The detailed record keeping executed by the botanical garden is key to ensuring the plant material is of the right genetic stock from the correct locality to be used for restoration at specific sites, thus avoiding the risk of genetic pollution (the introduction of foreign genes into natural populations).

Plants & Partnerships

Above: Pressing collected specimens for the herbarium by members of SANBI’s Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) programme. It is partnerships such as these that drive plant conservation action. Photo: Petra Broddle.


The world’s botanical gardens are uniquely placed to offer vital contributions to human wellbeing, scientific research and biodiversity conservation. But they do not work alone. The key to their success is the working partnerships and collaborations that botanical gardens form across the globe. These partners may include nonprofits, local and national governments and the corporate sector.

The Botanical Society of South Africa has a close partnership with SANBI, who run South Africa’s national botanical gardens. This and our other partnerships go from strength to strength, helping us all to work together in conserving South Africa’s unique and extraordinary biodiversity and natural heritage.


Further Reading

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)

Oldfield, S. (2010) Botanic Gardens: Modern-Day Arks, New Holland Publishing, United Kingdom.

South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)



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