A brief history of botanical gardens and plant labelling

Plant labelling - Lupin

Plant labelling has been an integral part of plant hunting and collecting since the mid-18th Century, following in the footsteps of famous botanists and plant collectors such as Joseph Banks (born in 1743), Marianne North (born in 1830) and Ernest Wilson (born in 1876).

Often risking their lives travelling to exotic places, their discoveries were returned to private collections and botanic gardens, where they were studied and catalogued. Interest in new plant species, combined with the wealth of the industrial revolution, began a boom in nursery production, followed by the building of municipal parks and private gardens.

Plant labelling - where did it all start?

Plant cultivation spans far back through the ages, but the first botanical garden was built at the University of Pisa in 1543 by Luca Ghini at the height of the Renaissance. It is likely to have been created for research.

Further gardens were created in Padova (1545), Firenze (1545) and Bologna (1547). These gardens were mainly established for the academic study of medicinal plants. By the 16th Century botanic gardens had spread throughout central Europe, such as Cologne and Prague.

During the 16th and 17th Century, Botanic gardens started to be used for more than just medicinal research. Exploration to the tropics helped establish new gardens and cultivate newly discovered species.

During the 19th and 20th Century, municipal and civic gardens were created throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth. Most of these were pleasure gardens, and unusual plants became of great interest to many middle-class people. Gardens became an important part of modern society and were used to host days out, social functions, flower shows, meetings, art festivals and wedding receptions. Many people also joined botanical and horticultural societies and plant labelling allowed them to always know what they were looking at.

Modern technology and botanical gardens

Plant labelling - Lupin

Now, gardens are vital to conservation efforts due to their wide collections and their accumulated knowledge on the propagation of plant species. There are currently 1,775 botanic gardens and arboreta in 148 countries around the world.

Unfortunately, as with animals, some plants have become extinct. Today, scientists can identify endangered plants and use advanced methods to reproduce them in the gardens. The next step involves finding seeds and cataloguing new fertile plants in a ‘germplasm’ bank, making it possible to return them to their original populations where they are disappearing.

Centuries ago, scientists would be working in silos and it was difficult to compare notes. Now, many gardens have digitised their collections so researchers across the globe can share information. For example, the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid has digitised some 800,000 herbarium specimens from its total of about 1,300,000.

Plant labels are vital to the process of identifying plants either as a hobbyist or as part of academic botanical collections, to maintain a record of the history of each plant. This process is usually managed by a plant records department of a botanical garden.

Botanists can now use modern technology like DNA analysis to gain a better understanding of evolutionary relationships between plants. This has even led to several plants being reclassified and their names changed. Plant names follow the guidelines under The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP), which is important for plant labelling.

Why use Latin to refer to plants?

Some consider Latin a dead language, but it is still widely used by the scientific community around the world; this makes it a shared language. Just imagine trying to learn the common name for each plant in several different languages! For example, the Monkey Puzzle tree is known as “Apenboom” or “Chileense Slangenden” (Netherlands), “Pino de Brazos” (Spain), “désespoir des singes” (“monkey’s despair”) (France). Araucaria araucana is the Latin name, which is listed in the ICNCP.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask our expert horticulturists and they will be able to source most things for you. Call 01785 813747 or fill in our contact form for more information.

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