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What does it mean to be a botanic garden?

The University of Malta’s ‘Argotti Botanic Gardens and Resource Centre’ in Floriana has recently obtained international accreditation as a botanic garden.

But what does it mean to be a botanic garden?

Technically, anyone can describe their garden as a ‘botanic’ one, as the term is not a legally protected one.

However, there is a global – and internationally recognised – standard of excellence. Set by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, it states that a botanic garden is:

An institution holding documented collections of living plants for the purposes of scientific research, conservation, display and education

BGCI makes up the world's largest plant conservation network, representing over 800 botanic gardens in 118 countries.

The Argotti Botanic Garden and Resource Centre (that falls under the University of Malta) is now part of the BGCI family, meaning it was assessed and proven to incorporate and maintain the standards that should be held by a botanic garden.

How do botanic gardens document their collections?

Botanic gardens have the unique ability to showcase a variety of plants from different corners of the world, and, illustrate both their ecological relationships as well as their anthropogenic value. It is more than just a collection of plants; it is a source of information.

One of the most crucial criteria to be upheld by any botanic garden is that specimens are labelled. Though it seems to be a simple thing, a label is a glimpse into a plant’s entire story, providing information such as its scientific name, plant group and its native location. The most important feature of any label within a botanic garden is the plant’s identification number, known as the accession number. This number is linked to a database that holds detailed records of all plants which enter and exit the garden.

Plants of the same origin or parentage share an accession number, and only plants that form part of a garden’s botanic collection require an accession number.

Presenting evidence of that meticulous labelling system, in the form of a collection policy, is part of the process needed for a garden to obtain BGCI accreditation. A botanic garden’s policy must include detailed information on acquisitioning new plants, accessioning and documentation of the plant as well as what to do when deaccessioning a plant.

What sort of plants do botanic gardens cultivate?

A botanical garden is not a stagnant place, but a living collection that needs to be constantly maintained and curated. It is an important institution that encourages and promotes individual learning as well as offering a deeper insight into the world of botany and conservation.

That collection generally features a combination of both indigenous plants and plants of global value.

Argotti also holds a number of endemic or rare indigenous plants and has been involved in the reintroduction of these plants to areas in Malta.

An aerial view of Argotti.An aerial view of Argotti.

What tasks do botanic gardens perform?  

Part of its function as a botanic garden is to work with other international gardens and exchange information and seeds. This acts as a security towards the species, as if something were to happen to a local plant population, local botanists could check their records to see which other botanic gardens received samples of that plant.

Aside from serving as a source of information about difficult-to-obtain plants, a botanic garden's research can include taxonomic studies, germination and growth studies, biochemical studies of the compounds of plants and how they can be useful, as well as the study of plants in context to its niche in the ecological world.  That research often happens in tandem with other universities or botanic gardens.

How do botanic gardens choose what plants to acquire?

Each botanic garden has its own policies on what plants to acquire, with that decision generally depending on the particular garden’s mission.

In the case of Argotti Botanic Gardens and Resource Centre, the decision is to complement the collection of existing families, have a stock of plants which are rare and/or valuable and also have plants which are indigenous to the Maltese islands, both from wild and cultivated sources.

These can be acquired either through fieldwork, from exchange with government entities and NGOs, through reputable sources, retail or through annual botanic exchange of index seminum.

This index seminum is a list of available seeds that every botanic garden sends out to other botanic gardens for seed exchange.

This article is brought to you by the Malta Chamber of Scientists https://mcs.org.mt. Erika Puglisevich is a Technical Officer at the Argotti Botanic Gardens and Resource Centre and member of the Chamber.