The barrage of bad environmental news has been endless lately. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that each of the past four decades has been warmer than any that preceded it since 1850, that seas have risen, extreme weather conditions are worsening and that it is most certainly the fault of mankind. In its wake, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) published a groundbreaking assessment of the condition of trees around the world. Its conclusions are just as gloomy: a third of the planet’s species are in danger of disappearing. More recently, the US Fish & Wildlife Service issued the equivalent of a death certificate, declaring 22 animals and one plant species extinct.
It’s easy to lose hope.
But I work in an industry that luckily inspires me with optimism every day as I interact with my team at the Naples Botanical Garden and colleagues across the country as CEO of the American Public Gardens Association. Most people who know botanical gardens know them as cultural assets and places of great beauty. This is only part of who we are. Out of the public eye, botanical gardens and arboreta are scrambling to conserve plants for the future, restore ecosystems and identify endangered plant species in order to guide land management and conservation decisions that will keep them in good health. life.
So, if you will please me, let me explain what my industry does and why I have hope even in the darkest days of environmental news.
Let us focus on the assessment of BGCI trees as it is at the heart of the mission of the botanical gardens. The report found that 17,510 of the world’s 60,000 tree species – 30% – are threatened with extinction. That’s twice the number of endangered mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles combined. Habitat loss and exploitation are their biggest threats, but climate change, pests and diseases are destroying them as well.
The magnolia, icon of the South, is one of the endangered species. Globally, nearly half of those who live in the wild are threatened with extinction. Our collections in Naples include several species of magnolia, including the Magnolia rajaniana from Thailand, which is considered vulnerable and in decline. A few years ago, we discovered that we were the only botanical garden in the world to cultivate this plant. Since then, we have shared his seeds and cuttings with other tropical and subtropical gardens across the United States.
Collections of scientific plants, you see, serve as a barometer of a species’ long-term chances of survival. By exhibiting them, maintaining them with the utmost care, safeguarding and sharing their genetic material, we help ensure that the world does not lose valuable plants, even as the wilderness shrinks and the demand for resources. natural increases.
Our charge has never been clearer. Thirty percent of tree species are kept in at least one botanical garden or seed bank; we still have 70 percent to capture. Forty-one species of trees exist only in the collections, as they have become extinct in the wild. At the Naples Botanical Garden, we store the seeds of trees and plants native to Southwest Florida and the Caribbean, given our region’s vulnerability to sea level rise, storms, change. climate and real estate development. In the two years since its launch, we have amassed 194,467 seeds representing 39 species.
Seed banks and related conservation efforts will enable future ecosystem restoration projects. In our nursery, for example, we maintain more than 500 bay laurels. Swamp berry, red berry, and other trees in the laurel family quickly succumb to bay wilt, a fungal disease carried by a beetle native to Asia. Researchers, including those at the botanical gardens, are rushing to find out more before the disease spreads to avocados, another species of bay laurel.
Our Marsh Bay falls into two categories. Some that we grow just to conserve their genetic material. Others are tree clones that appear to resist bay laurel wilt in the wild. We are monitoring these closely and will work with other researchers to determine their usefulness in forest restoration. If the restoration is successful, we will save more than trees. The marsh bay and the red bay are the host plants of the larvae of the Palamedes swallowtail butterfly. The insects grow up to pollinate plants in the area – two wildflowers, in fact, depend almost exclusively on it. Butterflies, in turn, serve as a food source for spiders and birds. In ecology, it is the “cascade effect”. Lose one species and you will lose others.
Across the country, my colleagues are engaged in similar activities. Chicago’s Morton Arboretum runs a global tree conservation program. Conservationists at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona are focused on protecting cacti, among the world’s most endangered organisms. Here in Florida, our friends at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables help guide community land management decisions with the goal of maintaining ecosystems; Fairchild’s neighbor, the Montgomery Botanic Center, is leading the charge in finding and saving palms and cycads; Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens continue to deepen and share their expertise on epiphytic plants.
The next time you visit a botanical garden or arboretum, recognize that you are not only enjoying a beautiful horticultural display, you have entered a special community whose mission is to save and protect the plants of the world. Consider becoming a member or making a philanthropic donation; as associations, we count on your support. If you are a policy maker, I invite you to get to know your local botanical garden experts. Our ecologists and horticulturalists can guide your land management and policy decisions in ways that protect plants and improve the environment.
I would like botanical gardens to have the power to stop environmental degradation in the world. But we are trying to mitigate it. Through these actions, we hope we can inject some optimism into an otherwise bleak conversation.
Donna McGinnis is President and CEO of the Naples Botanical Garden and CEO of the American Public Gardens Association.