Most guests who visit the botanical gardens at The Huntington appreciate their beauty, but there is much more to them than meets the eye. Our living plant collection is both regionally and globally diverse. Thousands of the species in our care are not found in any other botanical garden. Rare and biologically valuable plants—particularly members of the orchid and cacti families—yield scientific insights, engage our visitors, and provide opportunities to share plants and expertise with other botanical gardens. We support strong conservation horticulture with a staff that includes experts in taxonomy, seed collection, research, and propagation techniques. Together with other botanical gardens, we also help maintain populations of plants that are particularly threatened in their natural habitats, so if they become extinct in the wild, they will not be lost entirely. In addition, The Huntington hosts the U.S. office of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which connects us to the largest network of botanical gardens and plant conservation experts in the world.
At the end of September, Huntington Plant Collections and Conservation Manager Sean Lahmeyer and I took part in the 7th Global Botanic Gardens Congress, hosted by BGCI at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Some 500 representatives from 36 countries attended, and the experience made me feel energized and inspired.
The conference’s theme was “Influence and Action: Botanic Gardens as Agents of Change,” and the topics addressed during the five-day meeting included plant diversity, conservation, and the overall well-being of people and the planet. I represented The Huntington as a member of the International Advisory Council of BGCI. Sean delivered the presentation that we co-authored about so-called Ark Conservation Program plants—rare, endangered, or uncommonly cultivated species in The Huntington’s living collections that we are committed to conserve and study.
The conference featured several key themes that resonated strongly with The Huntington’s own sustainability commitment.
Plant and Biodiversity Conservation: Plant communities are fundamental to functional ecosystems and future sustainability. The global botanical community has been working on assessments to understand the current state of plant diversity. New data has shown there are approximately 380,000 plant species on Earth. Worldwide, 40% are threatened with extinction. In the United States, 1 in 6 tree species are at risk. The key threats are habitat loss, pests, and diseases, as well as climate change. So, there is work to be done, and we are at ground zero. Institutions such as The Huntington are committed to engaging with local communities, inspiring people to adopt sustainable habits, and empowering the next generation of natural resource stewards. We are also sharing information and living plant material with our global network of gardens, nurseries, and seed banks to regenerate the plants needed to restore ecosystems.
Adapting to Climate Change: Earth has seen a 1.9-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase since 1900. This will climb to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2037 and possibly 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2063. As we know, this warming trend is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and shifting the habitat ranges of many plants and animals. At The Huntington, we are preparing for these challenges and training staff in emergency procedures. We are also part of a global network that will play a leading role in encouraging standards for the collection, propagation, and storage of seeds for restoration and other future uses as those needs surely will arise.
Greener Cities: With the world rapidly urbanizing, people are experiencing less significant daily contact with nature. This is cause for concern as a growing number of studies indicate that numerous health benefits result from increased access to green spaces, particularly those that include trees. With skilled intervention, cities can serve as important reservoirs of plant diversity, while remaining wild spaces are protected to promote biodiversity. Emerging data shows botanical gardens provide restorative experiences that can positively change people’s lives. We see evidence of this with our own Huntington visitors, who return again and again to immerse themselves in our gardens or participate in such guided immersive experiences as the Restore + Explore program. We will continue to seek out innovative ways to support nature in cities through activities that link people with nature and by demonstrating sustainable urban planning and garden design.
With the human population projected to exceed 8 billion this year, the need to work together to find new solutions for our changing planet has never been greater. The Huntington recognizes these challenges as part of our five-year strategic plan; environmental stewardship is a priority in all our work. Essential elements of this goal include supporting research and innovation to help curtail plant extinction crises and providing inspiring experiences that connect people with plants and nature. We have our work cut out for us, but networking globally through such organizations as BGCI and continuing to engage with local communities will magnify our contributions to a more sustainable future.
Nicole Cavender is the Marge and Sherm Telleen/Marion and Earle Jorgensen Director of the Botanical Gardens at The Huntington.