From Seed to Science

UBC Botanical Garden celebrates its Centennial

A few steps into the UBC Botanical Garden, you’re met with trees on all sides. They stretch upwards into the sky, arching in every direction. Thick vines coil around trunks. Above, the canopy is dancing green, leaves in two-step with each other. Look up! exhorts a small yet exuberant sign set on the base of a trunk; UBC Botanical Garden is well known for its collection of lianas.

There are signs like this everywhere, gently pointing out directions and reminding visitors of the scientific names of the surrounding flora. Rhododendron vernicosum. Rubus spectabilis. Acer pentaphyllum… these long multisyllabic names somehow capture the essence of their appearance — arresting, wild and exotic.

The 44-hectare UBC Botanical Garden is home to approximately 7,000 taxa from temperate regions across the globe. With collections from Europe, Asia and North America, the flora is rich with rare species, some even classified as extinct in the wild. It’s precious territory that boasts complex and blooming biodiversity.

The dense foliage naturally attracts creatures in search of habitat and food. On occasion, large raptors can be spotted in the awning above. Amidst the protected environment of the adjoining David C. Lam Asian Garden, a bald eagle has built a nesting site and lives among the native cedars, firs and hemlocks.

To create and cultivate a garden of this size is not an easy task. This year marks the garden’s centennial of the UBC Botanical Garden, a century of stewardship and conservation towards what is now Canada’s oldest university-based botanical garden. It all began back in 1911 when notable Scottish botanist John Davidson or ‘Botany John’, as some called him at the time, established the garden in 1916. Davidson was appointed British Columbia’s first provincial botanist in 1911.

Almost immediately, he led the construction of a herbarium in Vancouver and an arboretum, nursery and botanical garden in Coquitlam on the Colony Farm and Essondale lands (now Riverview Hospital). When the Office of the Provincial Botanist closed in 1916, Davidson was the force behind the relocation of the Essondale collection to UBC’s Point Grey campus. Thousands of perennials and shrubs were transported across 40 kilometers of undeveloped land, a laborious exodus that found its home at the far western edge of the campus, overlooking the Salish Sea.

This original collection was made up of 900 species but by the late 1930s the botanical garden included an impressive assembly of British Columbia native plants, willows, alpines, aquatics, medicinal plants and exotic trees. Over time, as new collections were planted, much of the inaugural flora was either lost or was integrated with campus plantings.

However, if you look carefully you can spot some of the original trees planted by Davidson a century ago. When the garden was relocated, the first arboretum was placed in the area where the First Nations Long House now stands today. If you visit these grounds now, you can recognize these great, towering trees as some of the only visible remnants of the garden’s humble, mercifully portable beginning.

In more recent years, under the directorship of Patrick Lewis, the garden has shifted focus to conservation, research and public education. “When we now look at involving the public, there is more of an impetus to use humour and enjoyment and the beauty of the place, as a mechanism for engagement and teaching something new.”

In keeping with this philosophy, the botanical garden hosted the Taste of Terroir Long Table Dinner in celebration of the International Year of Soil in the summer of 2015.

The garden welcomed the local community to an evening of exquisite, locally sourced fine dining. More than 100 guests ate pickled roots, harvest dips and butter crust pies under trumpet vines in the garden’s rustic wooden arbour. The purpose was to demonstrate, in a deliciously experiential way, how soil and climate influence the quality and flavour of the food we eat.

After a century of existence, it’s easy to look back on the past and consider what it took to create the exceptional collection that is the UBC Botanical Garden. While it is appropriate to celebrate the garden’s historic journey, the more pressing question now is to ask: What will the garden become in the next 100 years? When we consider the changes over the past century, in climate, education and research, the question of what the garden’s bicentennial will look like is far more complex and challenging.

Lewis is conscious of this expanding timeline. “This garden goes a hundred years behind me and it will go a hundred years in front of me and I have to always be aware of that.” He speaks with calm composure as though he’s mulled this over countless times: “We have a responsibility to speak to the future; we have these collections which give us an opportunity to discuss issues in the natural world that at this time in history are important to discuss.”

With climate change on the rise and many plant species at risk of extinction, Lewis is pragmatic about what is at stake: “We don’t have much time. We don’t want to be the generation that is remembered as the one that let it [the garden] go. We have to fight it.”

Research and conservation are easier to accomplish when the history of each plant is understood. With 95 percent of the botanical collection now cataloged in a comprehensive database, the biological nuances of any particular plant’s story of origin, where it was collected, when and how it was maintained and so forth, all of this helps feed into interpretation and “the conversation” with the public, which Lewis says has been lacking in previous years.

Conservation and advocacy are the upmost priorities for the garden at the start of its next century. As you walk through the collections, there’s comfort in knowing that they’re cared for by students, staff and faculty who are passionate about their stewardship, with every detail of care and education lovingly attended. The magnolias are perfectly trimmed. The soil is fresh in the food garden. Douglas firs, red cedars and grand firs knot together in the 310-meter long Greenheart Canopy Walkway, their roots out of sight but still growing steadily after 100 years beneath the protective forest floor.

It’s a somewhat complex balance, making the garden accessible to the public while maintaining a viable and important scientific collection in a busy university setting. It’s a process that Lewis and his staff continually strive to improve. Even so, his vision for the future of the UBC Botanical Garden remains direct and simple: “We will base everything in science, we will make the university proud and we will be bold.”

Explore the UBC Botanical Garden as a learner through its many educational programs and public workshops, as a visitor through tours, walks and more or academically through the gardens many collections and research initiatives.

On Facebook? Don’t miss UBC Botanical Garden’s ‘Botany Photo of the Day’.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: Patrick Lewis, Director of UBC Botanical Garden; Katie Teed, Senior Manager, Marketing and Communication, UBC Botanical Garden and Shelley Iwata, Marketing & Communication Manager, UBC Botanical Garden.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Justin Lee, Photographer and Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Mormei Zanke, Assistant Writer.

Published: July 2016