It is a scientific centre for the study of plants, their diversity and conservation, as well as a popular tourist attraction; and there is a fair chance that you have visited it, enjoying walking through the many differing botanical attractions which share its sheltered situation in Arboretum Place in Edinburgh. I have only ever encountered one problem in many visits, a problem which recurs on most visits; parking is a veritable nightmare! But, having finally found a kerbside space and walked the sometimes quite considerable distance between my car and the admission gate, I confess that I usually content myself with an enjoyable walk through the extensive policies, enjoying the rich variety of plant life. I don’t often consider the purpose of the RBGE, which is not primarily to offer me gentle enjoyment but is to further our knowledge of the vast variety of botanical life with which we … sometimes reluctantly, it seems … share our planet.
You may well be surprised to learn that the Edinburgh-based facility employs more than 100 scientific staff … yes, that’s not a misprint … it really does employ more than 100 scientific staff. I was reminded of this fact a few weeks ago, when a story in The Scotsman told of work being done by the RBGE’s Martin Gardner. Headlined, “Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden in bid to buy Chilean rainforest,” Scotsman writer George Mair explained that, “Some of the world’s oldest trees could be rescued by a plan involving Edinburgh’s botanic garden to buy a Chilean rainforest.” Yes, again that’s not a mistake on my part; the RBGE is actively interested in buying a remote 2000 hectare (5000 acre) forest … that’s about the area covered by the city of Stirling ... in southern Chile on the western slopes of the Andes. In association with the charity Rainforest Concern, the RBGE expects to pay upwards of £2.5 million for a forest which contains coniferous trees thought to be amongst the oldest living things on our planet to protect them from potentially catastrophic development.
Heading the project is Martin Gardner, co-ordinator of the International Conifer Conservation Programme (ICCP) at RBGE, who explained: “We need forests like these for our very survival. They are like libraries because, by coring them, we can look at the past -- when there were droughts and when there were fires, that whole story is told. We can look at the growth patterns and what we see will help us to look in to the future (and) that helps us to understand more about climate change.” So who is Martin Gardner? Let him introduce himself. “For over 25 years I have worked at RBG Edinburgh on many aspects of conifer conservation and currently I co-chair the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).” (The IUCN is an international organisation working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.) “My work has taken me to over 30 countries in order to study and collect research materials of threatened conifers and their associated species. I have been awarded an MBE in 2013 and the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2014.” Modestly, he omits to mention the honour of having been invited to address a meeting of Polmont Horticultural Society a few years ago!
Martin’s current research interests embrace the distribution and conservation of poorly known threatened conifer species; endemic flora of Chile; and the establishment and maintenance of ex situ conservation collections. His work, and that of his many colleagues, is the real, internationally-significant reason for the existence of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; reflect on that with pride when you next visit the RBGE; and make that soon!