Know Your Plants Conference 2010 – keynotes

Full Conference Programme

Opening to the Conference

Ben Oliver, BGEN Chair

In opening the conference Ben took the opportunity to reflect on the importance of not only developing better skills in horticulture, science and communication but also the importance of developing the relationship between these three areas in our organisations. In particular he explored two questions:



  1. What are we trying to achieve through our public engagement programmes?
  2. And, given this, what do we need to do as botanic gardens to ensure success?

Of course there are lots of reasons for public engagement – but if we were asked to wrap them all up into just one, I think most of us would agree that our overarching goal is to ensure a more sustainable future. Or put another way:

Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.[Tilden, Interpreting our Heritage, 1957]

This is a huge challenge as Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute highlights:

‘Societies must be motivated and empowered to adopt the needed changes. For that, the public must be able to interpret and respond to often bewildering scientific, technological, and economic information… individuals and groups have difficulty processing and responding effectively to the information surrounding long-term and complex societal challenges.’

Therefore if we are serious about achieving our goal we have to ensure our engagement programmes provide the opportunity for visitors to gain

  1. Knowledge about the issues AND more importantly develop a personal understanding of how the issue is relevant to them
  2. The positive underlying attitudes and beliefs necessary to be motivated to change their behaviour
  3. Necessary knowledge and skills to be able to take action

Ben emphasised the need for change  through an activity – ‘Have I got non-news for you’ taking key facts about biodiversity loss. Though we might find them shocking it is clear from reports that facts alone cannot change behaviour.

So to question 2 – how can we ensure success and what is the role of science, horticulture and communication in this?

The Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions highlights a number of key requirements for successfully helping people take the actions needed to respond current human-induced environmental threats:

  • Framing the issue in a local context – making the message matter now
  • Presenting the bigger picture – making the message interconnected
  • Enable social discussion

There is a lot of research highlighting that encouraging social interaction enables visitors to discuss what information means to them and how it relates to their life – this helps to create personal meaning. Furthermore positive modelling has been shown to lead to more positive environmental attitudes in adult life. Research in both the US and UK shows the importance of plant mentors in encouraging positive relationships with plants. It also highlights that interaction with staff/volunteers can actually make the experience more memorable.

All of these attributes are found in many of our botanic gardens. As the recent BGCI report on the role of botanic gardens advocates that

‘botanic gardens can do more than just inform [about climate change] they can act too, providing models for sustainable behaviour which really show visitors how they might take action’

Clearly this provides a compelling case for the need for integrated knowledge and skills related to horticulture, science and communication. It also highlights the need for our communication to facilitate understanding rather than disseminate facts.

However I believe that as well as ensuring our teams have the necessary skills this also requires us to think more deeply about our organisations and what we do. I know from my own experience that just because our mission contains statements about science, horticulture and communication it doesn’t mean that these connections are always made in reality. If we are truly going to fulfil our ambitions we must ensure all staff are involved and have bought into the communication process.

Ben finished with a short example of a recent project at Westonbirt looking at encouraging greater debate about management issues at Westonbirt National Arboretum.

Useful resources / further reading:

  1. Interpreting our Heritage, Freeman Tilden 1957 – book
  2. Contemporary Issues in Heritage and Environmental Interpretation, Edited by David Uzzell and Roy Ballantyne – book
  3. Redefining the role of Botanic Gardens – Report by BGCI
  4. Uptake of Plant Sciences in the UK – Report by Warwick University 
  5.  Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 – flagship publication of the Convention on Biological Diversity
  6. The Psychology of Climate Change Communication; a guide for scientists, journalists, educators and political aides, 2009 by Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions.
  7. Back issues of the Plant Science Bulletin  by theBotanical Society of America are available online – Issue 47:1 contains an interesting article on plant blindness
  8. Back issues of the Journal for Interpretation Research are also available online


GSPC Target 8: The Interplay of science, horticulture and communication

Dr David Rae, Director of Horticulture, RBG Edinburgh


Example Project – PlantNetwork Target 8 Project

In his keynote David reviewed the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) and in particular those targets that he believed were particularly relevant to botanic gardens:

  • Target 1 – a widely accessible working list of known plant species
  • Target 2 – a preliminary assessment of the conservation status of known species
  • Target 8 – 60% of threatened species accessible in ex situ collections and 10% of them included in recovery programmes
  • Target 14 – promoting education and awareness of plant diversity
  • Target 15 – building capacity for the conservation of plant diversity

The GSPC has now been reviewed and although there have been some amendments, new targets and indicators (including the inclusion of ‘number of visits to botanic gardens’ as a indicator of success for Target 14) following the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan (COP10, 18-29 Oct 2010) the document has for the most part been retained. David highlighted that although the original targets had not been met the GSPC had been a success, firstly as a rallying point for plant conservation and secondly for ensuring progress.

Botanic Gardens have many of the necessary skills and resources to help achieve these targets; in particular they have integrated staff working across a broad spectrum of areas from research to growing to communication. Further by working in partnership across sites/organisations we can make an even greater impact. As an example a recent PlantNetwork Project focusing on delivery of Target 8 was presented.

Useful resources / further reading:
  1. Further information about the latest COP10 meeting. Revised GSPC can be found here as UNEP/CBD/COP/10/19



APG In context: Theophrastus to DNA

Dr Elspeth Haston, RBG Edinburgh

Presentation Part One: Historical Context

Presentation Part Two: Impact of APG 

Elspeth outlined the remarkable journey of plant classification from Theophrastus (300BC) to modern classification systems. Along the way she highlighted key historical figures, their different systems and contribution, from those based on form through to the current Angiosperm Phylogeny Group system (APG) developed in 1998.

She then went on to highlight the impact that the APG system has had – giving examples of some of the surprising changes but also the fact that a significant proportion of genus placement had remained the same as the previously used Bentham/Hooker system dating from 1862. In closing she highlighted the impact the system has had on the work of the RBG Edinburgh – such as major reorganisation in the herbarium, changes instudent course content through to changes to the public interpretation and the continuing process.

The presentation generated significant discussion about how this was relevant to BGEN members and in particular our work with public engagement.

Useful resources / further reading

  1. See the Angiosperm Phylogeny web site for much more explanation


Grass: a growth area – enhancing interdisciplinary learning

Bob Kibble, Edinburgh University

Bob Kibble is Senior Lecturer in Science Education at the University of Edinburgh. His professional interests include teaching and learning, professional development for teachers, innovation in the curriculum, astronomy and physics teaching. His recent book Sunshine, Shadows and Stone Circles takes teachers on an interdisciplinary journey through landscape, astronomy, storytelling and mythology.

SPEAKER SYNOPSIS: The drive towards interdisciplinary learning has forced educators to think beyond conventional subject boundaries. In planning for learning, teachers are expected to find opportunities for links across subjects as well as for the development of numeracy, literacy and health and well-being. Education in a botanic garden environment ought to be rich enough to tick boxes beyond the conventional. How can we ensure that a visit to a botanic garden enriches learning beyond just the botanic. The speaker, himself no expert in botanic matters, has chosen the context of grass for a presentation which will explore the potential of grass to enhance interdisciplinary learning.

Presentation part 1 : Introduction, Presentation part 2: Grassheads, Presentation part 3 : Light and shade, Presentation part 4 : Conclusion

Using grass as his muse Bob highlighted the interdisciplinary potential of botanic gardens to look at a range of subjects and themes. From the seasons to linguistic potential of grass, design of artificial flowers and grass heads to neighbour relations and civic duties his presentation emphasised

  1. the importance of lateral thinking and free association when working up lesson/activity ideas for example
  2. active learning is about thinking
  3. the importance of collaborative learning to promoting debate – one technique demonstrated was the use of concept cartoons to encourgae students to consider/discuss their ideas

Useful resources / further reading

  1. Concept cartoons

rapporteur: Jacky Chave

Key take home messages:

You can use any subject for interdisciplinary learning.
Grass is the plant that young people know most about.
Use of concept cartoons for concept learning.
Use of songs, add interest.
Lots of ideas and opportunities for interdisciplinary learning in a botanic garden eg. Seasonality, social responsibility.

Useful resources:

‘Sunshine, shadows and stone circles’ by Bob Kibble


Bob started off with the use of photos to engage the audience. He then selected the plant most well known to him and children: grass, to explain how any subject can be used for interdisciplinary learning.

Cutting grass can be used to teach topics such as seasons, social responsibility, technology, health and safety, energy changes, recycling and noise.

He then looked at other ways that grass can be used to introduce various topics.

Throughout the presentation Bob covered the use of concept cartoons, songs and models to inspire and aid learning.

In summary Bob gave examples of how we can use botanic gardens for interdisciplinary learning in the same way, eg. seasonality, social responsibility, architecture, people careers, skills) art and design, maths, maps, scale, signs, as well as theme around water (flow, reflections, ripples). Botanic gardens are rich in learning opportunities.

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