Botanical Gardens of the World #2

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

- flagship of the National Botanic Gardens of Scotland -

Gregory Kenicer

The National Botanic Gardens of Scotland is an organization made up of four very different botanic gardens. Although the four sites are all found towards the south of this fairly small country (see map), they present a surprising diversity of different environmental conditions. Combined with the extensive greenhouses at the principle Edinburgh site, this diversity of habitats allows about 7% of the World's flowering plant species to be cultivated for research, education and enjoyment.

Benmore Botanic Garden, is situated in one of the wettest parts of a very wet country and for this reason is often seen as a 'temperate rainforest' garden. The soils of this part of Scotland (and indeed much of the rest of the country) are acidic and ideally suited to conifers and ericaceous plants. Thus many species of Rhododendron (particularly from their Himalayan stronghold) and conifers from all over the temperate regions of the world are cultivated here, including some fine Cryptomeria japonica and many Chilean and west coast North American species, such as Araucarias and an impressive avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum. Logan Botanic Garden is in the far southwest of Scotland, where the Galloway peninsula sits in the warm waters of the Atlantic Gulf stream. Snow is extremely rare here so it is possible to grow warm temperate plants out of doors. Particular specialities of this garden are plants from Southern Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. The third of Edinburgh botanic garden's ヤoutstations' is Dawyck Botanic Garden. Set in the windswept hills to the south of Edinburgh, Dawyck botanic garden's cold climate is home to many native Scottish species as well as alpine and cold-temperate plants and an innovative cryptogamic garden, designed for ferns, mosses, liverworts and fungi.

The front lawn and main glasshouse range on a sunny day - quite a rare occurrence in Scotland! Entry to the garden is free so is a very popular place for locals and tourists alike.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is the headquarters of the four gardens, and it is here that the widest range of plant species is to be found and the majority of the scientific research is carried out. RBGE is the oldest of the four gardens, with a history stretching back to its founding in 1670. The founders were two Edinburgh doctors - Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald who originally created the garden for the cultivation of medicinal herbs and in order to provide a better quality of teaching for the doctors of Edinburgh and students at Edinburgh University. Formal medicinal, or 'Physick' gardens like this had appeared across Europe during the 17th Century, a natural progression from earlier monastic gardens. It is very interesting to compare these developments in Europe with the founding of the Koishikawa and other medicinal Botanical Gardens in Japan at about the same time. The emblem of RBGE commemorates one of the founders, as it depicts Sibbaldia procumbens - a small, circumboreal, rosaceous plant named by Linnaeus in honour of Robert Sibbald.

A herbaceous border in front of the RBGE's famous beech hedge. This is a traditional formal garden style commonly found in British stately homes.
The New world collections in the arid house. Each area reflects the flora of a different continent. Collections from Soqotra and arid Chile are particularly rich.

The living collections at RBGE

Throughout the National Botanic Gardens of Scotland, there are over 16000 different species represented in the living collections, the vast majority of which are on display to the public. The greatest diversity of living plants in the four gardens is to be found in RBGE and these form the backbone of the gardens' collections. At present RBGE covers an area of a little over 30 hectares, in which can be found gardens representing a wealth of habitats. From the ヤChinese hillside' (a 4000m high Chinese mountain compressed to less than 40m) to two large Scottish native habitat gardens, the horticultural staff often take inspiration direct from the natural world in the plantings. There is a large and well-loved rock garden, which has been an important part of RBGE for the past 150 years and contains a great many species from Himalayan and Rocky Mountain screes and high South American deserts to the beaches of New Zealand. However, there are also some more formal garden areas, including extensive herbaceous borders, two arboreta, a sunken ヤWinter Garden' (particularly beautiful in an early morning frost) and one of the UK's finest hedges of European beech (Fagus sylvatica).


Like many of the outdoor collections at RBGE most of the ten major glasshouses are organised according to habitat. This allows visitors to see the ways in which completely unrelated plants from different parts of the world have adapted in similar ways to live in similar conditions.

The arid house displays the incredible diversity of plants to be found in the worlds deserts and includes a great deal of educational information on how these plants can benefit humans as sources of medicines, environmental improvers and foods.

The largest of the glasshouses - the dry temperate house contains specimens from the Mediterranean, Australia, South Africa and Western USA, as well as Brazilian and Argentinan temperate forest and illustrates perfectly how diverse plants from these diverse places have adapted to the seasonal conditions in similar ways.

The tropical aquatic house and South American aquatic house are very popular with visitors and staff alike as they allow people an opportunity to experience a tropical rainforest - one of the most famous and popular habitats in the world. The tropical aquatic house also highlights many of the tropical crop plants from which we obtain so many familiar modern foods and products - chocolate, cane sugar, coffee, gingers and rubber to name but a few. The peat house contains many specimens from the humid zones in the mountains of South East Asia, East Africa and the Andes. The adjoining rock house contains those species that are found at higher altitudes on the same mountains, or other less humid rocky environments.

The Victorian era temperate palm house - one of the major symbols of the garden and an impressive engineering feat at the time.
The alpine house and lawn. Alpine plants survive well in the cold Scottish climate. There is a particularly extensive collection in RBGE's sister garden, Dawyck botanical garden.
The fossil lawn display contains ヤliving fossils' including Sequoiadendron, Gingko, and representatives of the tree fern and Palmae groups, as well as real fossils of their ancient relatives that have been unearthed in Scotland.

Some of the glasshouses are organized a little differently, reflecting evolutionary aspects of plants, rather than ecological preferences. The orchid and cycad house demonstrates the incredible difference to be seen in one of the most primitive and one of the most advanced groups of vascular plants. The fern house also contains particularly primitive plants and with pathways covered in dinosaur footprints, it is a particular favourite with children. It is situated next to the fossil lawn, where specimens of other ancient lineages such as Metasequoia, and Gingko can be seen. RBGE is also home to two large palm houses (some of the oldest and largest glasshouses in the UK) and a small alpine house and alpine lawn.

In addition, to the outdoor and glasshouse collections on display to the general public, many more species are cultivated behind the scenes, as a critical resource for the many and varied research programs being carried out in the garden. An extensive herbarium of over 2 million specimens provides another extremely useful and easily accessible source of information for visiting researchers. Housed in a purpose-built, fully atmosphere- controlled building, the collections mainly reflect those areas of the world in which RBGE focuses its research (discussed below), although the collections from Europe and Commonwealth countries are also extensive. Finally, the library's impressive collection of books and periodicals, dating from the 16th century to today makes it one of the most extensive botanical libraries in the UK.


It often comes as a surprise to the members of the public who visit RBGE that it is not only a beautiful parkland, it is also one of the World's most internationally renowned research gardens. There are over 50 devoted research and collections management staff and many PhD students from around the globe. The research interests of staff cover a very wide range of taxa and different aspects of botany, at both local and international levels.

Taxonomy and Systematics:

Key groups of plants for RBGE`s taxonomy research programs include Algae (particularly diatoms), Rhododendrons, Gesneriaceae, Leguminosae, Begonias, Zingiberaceae, Umbelliferae and South East Asian forest trees as well as tropical and temperate conifers, ferns and bryophytes. Of course, all of these are well represented in the living and herbarium collections. In addition, a fungal taxonomy laboratory operates from RBGE, focusing particularly on species from the UK and a considerable amount of research on the classification and promotion of hardy garden cultivars.

Floristics and Biogeography has long been an important part of the work done at RBGE, in particular, areas such as the Arabian peninsula and Soqotran archipelago; Turkey and other areas of western Asia; Europe and South Africa. Recently, work in the Himalayan countries of Nepal and Bhutan and in Central and South American areas such as the Mexico, Belize and the Tropical rain- and Cerrado dry- forests of Brazil have been the principle focus of research.

Conservation is another of the key areas of research in RBGE. The Conifer conservation project is perhaps the largest international conservation project in the garden and focuses in particular on those species in developing countries where the needs of expanding local populations and growing economies result in the overexploitation of natural resources. Vietnam, New Caledonia and Chile are particularly important areas for this research group. The most modern of techniques are being used a little closer to home, with molecular population genetic analysis being one of the key methods to determine genetic diversity in European species of groups such as Salix, Ulmus, Euphrasia and Epipactis. Projects devoted to the conserving the habitats and existing wild populations of all Scotland`s rare fern and angiosperm species, as well as the fast-disappearing traditional ethnobotanical knowledge are particularly popular with the general public.

Kindergarten children (and their teddy bears) attending the Teddy Bears Picnic. This fun teaching program is aimed at the youngest children to help familiarize them with the natural world and learn a little about the importance of conservation.


The extensive research program and superb living and herbarium collections are all invaluable for training new generations of botanists and horticulturalists from the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. As well as this, experts and students from everywhere are regularly welcomed to RBGE and the other three sites in order to observe specimens and exchange knowledge and ideas. Beyond this, though, the presence of an excellent exhibition hall and program of public education allows tens of thousands of school children from ages 3 to 18 to participate in targeted education programs. From the 'Teddy Bear's Picnic' (in which 3-5 year olds learn about protecting the environment) to 'Adaptations of Xerophytes' (for 17 and 18 year old high school students). Courses in fine arts, traditional crafts, technical botanical art and plant identification are also very popular and ensure that RBGE can help to explore and explain the wonderful world of plants to as wide an audience as possible.

(Gregory Kenicer, Edinburgh University)