Dialectical Gardening: The Modern Retreat from Botany?

Botany is now an enormous field of knowledge yet as a separate branch of biology it has almost disappeared from formal education. Botany A-Level no longer exists and for decades botany has not been an entry requirement of British medical schools. Nor is botany offered as an undergraduate, single-degree subject by the universities of the U.K where academics have too much bureaucratic work and too little time for fieldwork. In 2012 the Royal Horticultural Society uncovered the fact that only four U.K. institutions provide such courses.

Formal learning about plants still takes place in agricultural and horticultural colleges though, and for trainees attached to botanical gardens, although the most extensive network for the study of botany is now the informal, out-of-school arena of field biology and natural history societies. There are now specialities that have become the sole province of amateurs. This is the case in Germany as well. In addition there is a very diverse group of ‘students’ among the listeners to “Gardener’s Question Time” on BBC R4.

At few points may help to explain this retreat. In the spirit of a reconstructed economy, invariably the subject has been adapted as training for work. Then there is the perceived, lower financial return from studying botany rather than another branch of biology, namely zoology, which is associated with the lucrative endeavours of dental, medical and veterinary science and the pharmaceutical industries.

The commoditisation of all things plant-like diverts interest away from things botanical and in favour of: market gardening; contract gardening (adding value to freehold properties, asset management and speeding up property sales); garden centres (supermarkets); Britain in Bloom et cetera (civic competition for visitors); flower shows (capital concentrated to such a degree that it becomes the spectacle of a garden). Within all this activity there are also genuine attempts to enhance amenity and demonstrate respect for a neighbourhood, increase access to plants, create vibrant and diverse gardens and so on.

Botany is misconceived as something for nerds and weirdoes and gardening (applied botany) as something for flower-loving cissies - or it is women’s work. In contrast a fair number of young people have grown to appreciate the diverse properties of Cannabis sativa. Maybe this quest for a field trip can be used as a vehicle for introducing them to other plants that are far safer and more stimulating than alcohol, speeding, taking-and-driving, tobacco and damaging, synthesised, psychoactive substances. At least they will have an idea about what non-food plants can do. The formal education system is unlikely to adopt this approach though.

The Greek and Latin terms in biology and a specific botanical language probably serve as a deterrent to some, which is not surprising because there are already those who are alienated from the accurately written word in English (written word = dominant culture/social control; spoken word = popular culture/fraternity). Learning botanical Greek and Latin will help alienated folk to trigger their brain’s neuro-plasticity and grow some more connections. The internationally standardised language of botany can even be helpful when procuring food, and other things, during a holiday abroad.

Given that the different parts of about 125000 plant species are edible, or have some culinary use, and that we face the prospect of having an even greater world population than the current, estimated total of >7.5 billions, the modern retreat looks like a case of societal self-harm. It looks even more so if the challenge of ‘de-plasticising’ the modern economy, climate change or flood attenuation is taken seriously.

In the U.K. there has long been a network of thousands of clubbable amateurs and this may be all that stands between impoverishment - a general ignorance of botany - and an abundance of plant-derived food, useful materials, inspiration and pleasure.

The community forests that were established in recent years will help. So too will the newly refurbished temperate house in the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, which is infinitely better than that concrete bunker to nowhere, next to the Tree Top Walk. That said there are problems to surmount such as breaking through the barriers of social alienation and social class in order to reach the un-clubbable ones.

Nicolas Holliman