July 2020

by Jeremy Bugarchich, Curator of Collections

A garden is colorful, lush, and beautiful; these are some of the words used to describe our own wonderful San Diego Botanic Garden. But what are the features that make our garden a botanic garden?

A garden by definition is unnatural. It is a conglomeration of living organisms and hard landscape elements, collected and staged in an area where each element would never naturally co-exist. We do this at home in our own gardens but when we collect plants into a botanic garden, we are explicitly stating that the collection itself is formal, purposeful and for a greater scientific good.

While the concept of the botanic garden is formal, there is no governmental agency or other legal structure that defines botanic gardens. However, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) has produced the most widely utilized botanic garden definition and has just started a botanic garden accreditation program. As defined by BGCI, “Botanic gardens are institutions holding documented collections of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education.”

Each botanic garden naturally develops its own special fields of interests depending on its mission, personnel, location, area and available funds. Botanic gardens may include greenhouses, test grounds, a herbarium, libraries and various other departments. Most importantly, botanic gardens have a staff that is both plant-enthusiastic and scientifically motivated.

The curator is the staff member who leads and safeguards the maintenance and preservation of the collections, just like the curator in an art museum. The duties and responsibilities of a curator vary greatly from garden to garden. While maintaining the Garden’s overall plant collection is a group effort amongst our staff and volunteers, my role as the SDBG Curator is to manage and catalogue our collection by monitoring and continuously updating our plant records.

When a plant is collected, purchased, or donated to the Garden, it is assigned a number. This number continues to follow the assigned plant and its progeny (seed or cutting) until its eventual death. This system keeps track of the specimen’s provenance, or origin, as well as the year it came into the collection, and how it was propagated. Some plants can only be tracked to the nursery where they were purchased, while others can be tracked to their origins in the wild. As a scientific institution, it is important to know where our plants come from. Knowing where plant material was originally collected can help determine its ability to reestablish populations in the wild and allows us to study the relationships between biogeography and genetics. Additionally, a well-curated collection can serve as breeding material for new varieties and study locations to see the variability of plant groups. 

For example, the San Diego Botanic Garden’s bamboo collection is nationally accredited by the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collection Network. As of 2020, the Garden holds 147 unique species and cultivars of bamboo, making it the largest publically accessible bamboo collection in North America.

As a botanic garden, SDBG is constantly looking to expand use of our collections for conservation and research.

In 2013, the Garden joined the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC). The CPC is a network of conservation organizations that work together to save vulnerable, threatened and endangered plants of the United States and Canada (saveplants.org). In 2019, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies collected samples from several of our soaring cork oak trees, Quercus suber. Salk has been able to successfully sequence the genome of the cork oak next to the Lawn House across the Gazebo lawn. In the last few months we started working with the City of Encinitas to restore the vegetation in the wild areas around Cottonwood Creek Park. Led by Director of Horticulture Tony Gurnoe, this work began with mapping and clearing invasive species from the eastern sections of Cottonwood Creek Park. During closures due to the pandemic, staff began working to collect and propagate native species lost to this gem in Encinitas to eventually reintroduce them into the Park. While this project is in its beginning stages, we are excited to highlight and restore this land so that it can be enjoyed by all while benefitting the ecosystem. 

As a botanic garden, we are motivated by the same basic desires as all gardeners: the need to bring plant diversity and controlled cultivation close to us. But not every garden is the same and most are more than a place to store plant species. Gardens are places of immense beauty, tranquility and learning. A botanic garden can be all of these things, but it must also be a professional institution where a living collection of plants is curated under scientific management for education and research.

Simply put, the San Diego Botanic Garden is a plant museum. As we expand our goals and prospects, working with outside institutions and through in-house projects, we maintain a coherent and scientifically valuable plant collection…all while remembering to stop and smell the roses.