Behind the scenes at the Botanical Gardens


On a rainy Tuesday this Winter, our team from Islay went to meet the folks from Botanic Gardens Conservation International based at Kew Gardens in London.

Dr Paul Smith, ex of the Millennium Seed Bank, Italian American Brian Lainoff, and their 20-odd colleagues, are based in a house at Kew Green. The house was originally built in 1760s for occupation by the first ever director of the gardens – a Scottish Botanist. Side-on to the road, a gate in a high wall leads to a small time-warped yard, large flagstones, unmanicured flowerbeds, and glass milk bottles in a crate by the door. A clue that you are somewhere a bit special is a grey botanical information plaque by a thriving periwinkle, with a quote from 1597 detailing its medicinal uses.

Inside, the atmosphere is of a long-established seat of learning. Staircases with worked newel posts lead to four floors of small offices, a reading room with books wrapping round the walls, a narrow tutorial kitchen, a massive printer in a slightly crooked passageway.  

We sit around a large oval table, the video conferencing equipment with which they conduct much of their work at its centre, plants crowd in on the window-sill. One colleague, apparently, keeps bringing them in. Dr Paul gives us an overview of the work they do, in house and through various joint initiatives, to support the living timelessness of plant collections. [More here >]

From this small corner of Georgian London, the “BGCI” run an amazing and effective system for accrediting botanical gardens all over the world, supporting their conservation work, and publishing their datasets. Their website has an ever-growing search functionality that can find you a garden, or find you a plant (or tree) from within all the gardens on their system. They also host a massive searchable collection of conservation assessments published since 1970. Their work with partner gardens and joint initiatives with other expert groups revolves around connecting people, saving plants and sharing knowledge. They do this by administering grants, arranging conferences, brokering partnerships between different conservation interest organisations and local gardens, assessing plant populations and contributing species to the “red lists”. There are also occasional  “Indiana Jones-style” missions by helicopter to the mountains of Hawaii to find the last stands of particular endangered tree species. 

Back on the ground in Islay, we’re interested in plants and their ability to flourish in the island ecosystem, because we need a sustainable way of finding them in the wild to make every batch of our gin. We have been doing our own micro-projects propagating and re-introducing native Juniper , and The Botanist Foundation has been working on the biodiversity of Islay’s roadsides through a pollinator project with the Islay Natural History Trust.  Beyond that, we endeavour to inspire people into a heightened relationship with nature through the flavour potential that surrounds us all, wherever we live. You’re only making a drink, but if one person can have a sensory experience of a plant in a new way then that’s an interaction with a lot of potential. [Read more >]

We share BGCI’s enthusiasm for communicating about conserving and appreciating plants to a wider audience. Real world activism can have healthy digital wings. We’re increasingly interested at The Botanist about finding ways to spread the word in a way that is as low carbon as possible.

Dr Paul Smith

finding out about what the BGCI stand for and their work around the world

Dr Paul has had a 25 year career in conservation, thus far. Brian is more recently out of his masters studies in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge. He is responsible for growing BGCI’s network of more than 600 botanic gardens and providing support through accreditation, collaboration, and advocacy.  He says what motivates him is the incredible effort, kindness, and determination of individuals in the botanic garden community.

After our meeting at Descanso House, they took us through a direct door marked ‘private’ between their grounds and Kew Gardens, where we could access all the mind-blowing-ness and consolation offered by the plants in Kew’s collections. We passed glasshouses, bearing intriguing labels like “alpine nursery 4”. The sight of them prompted our forager James to reminisce about glasshouses being the best place to work in winter when he was a Botany student.

We are extremely excited to hear more about some of Botanic Gardens Conservation International’s individual projects soon, and explore further ways we can work to bring people and plants together in the coming years.

More about our wider sustainability work here >

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