Climate

Public Gardens in the Time of Contagion: An Ark of a Different Sort

Post by
Joel B. Stronberg
Public Gardens in the Time of Contagion: An Ark of a Different Sort
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

A public garden is an institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning.
                                                                         --- American Public Gardens Association

This is a story about the critical role of public gardens and the pandemic-induced recession’s impact on them—as seen through the experiences of the Green Ark Botanical Garden Found-ation (Foundation or Ark) in Costa Rica.

First, a word or two about botanic gardens

  • The world’s first botanical garden was created in 1545 in Padua. It is still in operation and has been declared a United Nations World Heritage site.
  • There are currently 1775 botanic gardens and arboreta in 148 countries worldwide, with many more under construction or being planned.
  • The largest botanic garden in the US is the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The garden of more than a million plants covers 250 acres and has 50 specialty gardens.
  • Linwood Arboretum in Linwood, NJ, sits on less than an acre and is one of the smallest arboretums in the world.
  • The US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2020.
  • The Missouri Botanic Garden is a National Historic Landmark. It is home to the Climatron, the first geodesic dome conservatory, and one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in US history.
  • The largest botanic garden in the world is the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.
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Every botanical garden has a story, and it often starts with the dream of one individual. In 1796 George Washington wrote the city commissioners asking them to incorporate a Botanical Garden into the plan for Washington DC.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison shared the dream of a national botanic garden and were instrumental in establishing one on the National Mall in 1820.

The Green Ark Botanical Foundation is the far-sighted vision of Tommy Thomas, a once Peace Corps volunteer and serial entrepreneur who moved to Costa Rica in 1986. The farm was initially purchased and cultivated to support his herb and spice company—Los Patitos.

Early on, Thomas was the beneficiary of a Ralph Nader campaign to ban Red No. 2 dye. In 1971, Soviet scientists declared the dye a cancer-causing carcinogen. What followed were a series of botched and amateurish experiments that failed to prove the Soviets right or the dye safe.

The banning of Red Dye No. 2 in 1976 by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proved an opportunity for Thomas and his start-up company.  As reported in the New York Times, a 1967 survey revealed that about 70 percent of the Red No. 2 dye was being used to tint soft drinks and other beverages along with cosmetics, fruits, cereals, and other foodstuffs.

Ultimately, consumer activism led to the political pressure that prompted the FDA to ban the dye in comestibles and cosmetics. It didn’t help the dye’s case any that it was initially syn-thesized from coal tar and later petroleum-based chemicals.

What was bad for Allied Chemical—a major producer of Red No. 2—turned out to be good for Thomas. A substitute for the chemical dye was a colorant made from the seeds of the achiote tree, also known as the Lipstick tree or Bija.

Achiote dye is made from the pulp of the seeds. The tree is native to tropical Central and South America. When it was banned in the US, Red No. 2 accounted for more than $4 million in direct sales and incorporated in $10 billion worth offood.

Once a property that grew and processed herbs for the commercial market, Ark herb farm has been transformed. Its seven hectares on the slopes of the Poás Volcano look over Costa Rica’s central valley and is home to over 300 species of culinary and medicinal herbs from near and as far away as Brazil, India, and China. (Photo of Visitors Center Ark)

Prior to the global pandemic, the Foundation was beginning to attract an array of visitors from tourists to stu-dents, educators, and Costa Rican residents looking for plants and a bit of landscaping advice. Humans are not the only ones visiting the gardens. The plants are nectar to a vast array of birds, bees, and butterflies.

The Foundation’s farm is small by comparison to the 19,600 species that cover the 21 hectares of the Munich botanical garden. Size, of course, doesn’t always matter.

Ark’s collection of over 300 culinary and medicinal herbs and spices and the extensive group of fruit trees, is unique compared to others in the botanical garden community. In addition to the medicinal and culinary gardens, visitors to the Ark will find 13 more, each having its specialty. These include essential oils, bamboos, colorants, sacred (spiritual), and milpa.

Whether large or small, it’s crucial to appreciate the role played by public botanic gardens in sustaining global ecosystems at a time when a million of Earth’s eight million plant and animal species are believed to be in grave danger. (See Figure 1 for geological periods.)
As Nadia Drake writes:

In the last half-billion years, life on Earth has been nearly wiped out five times—by such things as climate change, an intense ice age, volcanoes, and that space rock that smashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, obliterating the dinosaurs and a bunch of other species.

The events taken together are commonly referred to as the Big Five mass extinctions. If, as the signs suggest, Earth is teetering on a sixth great extinction, we have only ourselves to blame. Culpability for the catastrophe falls more heavily on the shoulders of some than on others. However, its consequences will not make such distinctions.

There are two notable differences between the current and earlier extinctions. First is the speed at which it is occurring. The second is who must take responsibility.


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The World Wildlife Federation released a report by 59 scientists from around the world in 2018. It was estimated that humanity has wiped out 60 percent of the world’s mammals, birds, fish, and reptile populations since 1970. Work since then appears to affirm the conclusion.

Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist, and his colleagues in other institutions believe today’s rate of animal species extinction is speeding up—not just compared to the other five extinctions but compared to the 20th century. They estimate that 543 species of land vert-ebrates went missing in the entirety of the 20th century and that over the next two decades, an equal number will become extinct.

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report recently published by the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) estimates that two out of every five plant species are threatened with extinction. Earth’s changing climate—per se—is not the only cause of species extinction.

As shown in the legend in Figure 2, climate change—per se—is down the list of causes of plant and fungi extinction. However, there’s no cause of extinction in Figure 2, with the exception of geological events, that can’t be linked to human actions and changed for the better.

The greatest harm we do to natural habitats is from the way food is produced. It’s followed by biological resource use, which includes any “threat of consumptive use of wild biological resources,” including the effects of deliberate, e.g., deforestation and mining and unintentional, or incidental losses through other activities, e.g., introducing invasive plants to control soil erosion.

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The extinction of known species is only one side of the coin. On the other are the enormous numbers of plant species that have yet to be discovered, cataloged, and named. In 2019 alone, botanists registered 1,942 newly named species of vascular plants on the International Plant Names Index (mainly flowering plants, ferns, and gymnosperms). In the same year, mycologists recorded 1,886 novel fungi on the equivalent Index Fungorum.

As essential as preserving species, we know about is finding and safeguarding the species we’ve yet to discover and catalog. Arguably, the highest priority should be given to the yet-to-be found species because of the rapid reduction in rainforests, wetlands, and other natural habitats. As illustrated in Figure 3, the most newly named plant species were found on the continents of Asia and South America—geographic areas that rank high on the German-watch.org 2020 Climate Risk Index.

The numbers can be staggering, especially for fungi. For example, there are currently 148,000 identified fungi species out of an estimated 2 to 3.8 million on Earth. The criticality of some finds cannot be overstated. In 2019 the source of a devastating Cavendish banana fungus (Fusarium odoratissimum) was named. Before this, the fungus was recognized as one of several.

The Cavendish fusarium is to bananas what Covid-19 is to humans, according to Louise Gray. She writes:

Also known as Panama Disease, it is a fungus that has been rampaging through banana farms for the past 30 years. The fungal disease originated in Asia, where it co-evolved with bananas…within the last decade, the epidemic has suddenly accelerated, spreading from Asia to Australia, the Middle East, Africa, and more recently, Latin America.

The discovery of the named banana fungus increases the chance scientists will find a cure. Once it takes hold, it is already too late to stop it. Anyone who has tried to grow tomatoes is likely familiar with the impact of another fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, for which there is also no cure and that can lurk in soils for years just waiting for a new host to show up.

The banana’s ability to be cut and shipped green has opened markets around the world. What makes the Cavendish economically strong can make it biologically weak.

Today’s widespread cultivation of this single variety exposes those who rely on it for food or income to risks, not unlike those faced in 1845 by Irish farmers. Once blight (Phytophthora in-festans) took hold of the Irish Lumper potato--It struck down the growing plants like frost in summer. It spread faster than the cholera amongst men[i].

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Plant-based vaccines and therapeutics to fight infectious disease—including COVID-19—are finding their way into the arsenals of doctors around the world. The Guardian reports that GlaxoSmithKline has unveiled positive interim results from mid-stage trials of a Covid-19 vac-cine it is developing with the Canadian biotech firm Medicago a day after releasing robust data from its vaccine collaboration with the French drug-maker Sanofi.

The Amazon rainforest is often referred to erroneously as Earth’s lungs. A more accurate description of the forest might be Earth’s medicine cabinet—that is if the escalating loss of this and other primary rainforests can be slowed. Figure 4 shows the sorry state of the globe’s primary tropical forest covers.

In 2020, the Amazon tropical forest included 516.2 million hectares. A sizeable plot by anyone’s standard, the 2020 figure is 30.5 million hectares less than it was in 2002. Between 2002 and 2019 the Amazon lost 5.5 percent of its cover.

The largest rainforest on Earth was not alone in the loss of cover; that honor goes to tropical forest of Sundaland. Sundaland, also referred to as the Sunda, is a bio-geographical area of southeastern Asia. It includes Sumatra, Java, and Borneo islands among the other surrounding islands and the mainland cape on the Asian mainland.

In 2020 the tropical forests of the Sundaland covered 51 million hectares. Between 2002 and 2019, 17 percent of its cover forests came under the axes of palm oil and timber plantations. (Figure 4)

Here too, size doesn’t matter. Although only one percent of Earth’s landmass, the Sundaland is home to 25 percent of Earth’s fishes and 17 percent of its birds. Animals found in the Sunda forests include Proboscis monkeys, Komodo dragons, Asian Arowanas, Java hawk-eagles, Bali starlings, and pig-tailed langurs.

Because of poachers and lost habitat, the Javan tiger has been extinguished, and the Sumatran Rhino population has been drastically reduced[ii]. Other tiger sub-species are also threatened with extinction, as are other animal and bird species.

The Sundaland forests host ten percent of the planet’s flowering species—including 2,000 orchid species. It’s estimated that 25,000 vascular plants are endemic to the Sunda.

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What’s lost because of deforestation is not simply the beauty of extinct species of plants and animals. The search for natural cures is nearly as old as humankind. According to the US Forest Service, 40 percent of the drugs behind the pharmacist’s counter in the Western world are derived from plants that people have used for centuries, including the top 20 best-selling prescription drugs in the United States today.

For example, quinine extracted from the bark of the South American cinchona tree (Cinchona calisaya) relieves malaria, and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has been an ingredient in cough drops for more than 3,500 years. In 1852 scientists synthesized salicin, an active ingredient in willow bark. In 1899 Bayer began to sell aspirin.

Aspirin is not the only painkiller to be derived from plants. Papaver somniferum, otherwise known as the opium poppy, is the source of morphine, codeine, and heroin. The earliest reference to opium growth and use dates back to 3,400 BCE.

The message here is straightforward plants matter! The loss of rainforests and other habitats—whether through climate change or deforestation, or other forms of environmental degradation—is the loss of possibility. What’s lost goes beyond the extinction of plant and animal life.

Indigenous populations are also being uprooted. Their collective knowledge of plants and how to use them to cure what ails modern folks is also lost. Herein is the message about the importance of botanical gardens.

Human activity is the primary reason plant species are being lost. (Figure 2). Partially offsetting these losses is the work of gardeners and their dedication to finding, collecting, and studying nature. If the race to discover, catalog, and characterize plant species for use in “modern times” were not already complicated enough, botanical gardens—large and small—have had to fend off financial problems brought on by the global pandemic.

Financial problems are almost as old as the botanical gardens themselves. In the next installment of Public Gardens in the Time of Contagion: An Ark of a Different Sort, I’ll be discussing the difficulties faced by these critically essential organizations and how people and policy can support them.

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[i] E.C. Large The Advance of the Fungi.
[ii] In 2003, the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica) — two of the three subspecies of Indonesian tigers — were declared extinct by the IUCN. The third subspecies, the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), is listed as critically endangered due to hunting and rapid deforestation in its home island.