Padua’s recently opened Biodiversity Garden complies with the characteristics of the city’s Botanical Garden, a Unesco World Heritage site, with the addition of new fauna and a protection and information project perfectly aligned with the dominant theme of Expo 2015: biodiversity. Professor Barbara Baldan, vice-prefect of the Padua University Botanical Garden Centre tells us about the initiative.
The Padua Botanical Garden has been included in the Unesco World Heritage list since 1997. It was created in 1545 and since then has remained in its original location and retains its original layout. It was created with the intention of helping students recognise the “simple” plants from which active ingredients were extracted for medicinal purposes, and soon acquired a significant reputation in the scientific world, marking the introduction of the use of experimental methods in botany. Since Padua University was attended by students from all over Europe, the garden became a model for the botanical gardens elsewhere in Europe. Its circular layout and fascinating geometrical shapes created from the arrangement of the various plots was described in a publication as early as 1591 and still constitutes a unique and widely admired heritage of the Padua Botanical Garden.
With the transformation of botany from a discipline applied to medicine into a pure science, the Garden’s collections changed too: in addition to medicinal plants, special collections and sets of plants from particular environments were introduced. The old Garden currently has approximately 6,000 herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. It also has a number of historic trees, including an oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) planted in 1680, a Ginkgo biloba from 1750, an unusual particular specimen consisting of a male plant on which a female branch was grafted, a Magnolia grandiflora from 1786. The oldest plant in the Garden at the moment is a Chamaerops humilis planted in 1585, 40 years after the Garden was created. This is also known as Goethe’s Palm: in a treatise on the metamorphosis of plants, Goethe mentions the transformation of the whole young leaves at the base of the tree into pinnately divided mature leaves, which he observed during a visit to the Padua Botanical Garden.
The intention behind the creation of the biodiversity garden is to establish the best balance between protection of biodiversity and territorial design: what were the guiding principles for the project?
The new greenhouses form a structure that is 110 metres long, 42 metres wide and 18 metres high at the northernmost point, where the humid tropical greenhouse is located. The new part directly adjoins the old garden and covers an area of about 15,000 square metres. Great care was taken to construct a building with minimal environmental impact: optimised use is made of solar energy with photovoltaic panels to produce the electricity to power pumps that regulate the water cycle and the building’s automated systems. Rainwater is collected in a 450 cubic metre tank acting as a reservoir, and an artesian well collects water at a depth of 284 metres, which is continually recycled for the waterfalls and pools, and for evaporation inside the greenhouses to ensure the correct climate. The opaque internal and external surfaces are covered with a photocatalytical compound, which uses UV rays to reduce atmospheric pollution.
So the new greenhouses form a technologically advanced, environmentally sustainable complex, perfectly integrated with its surroundings, and with great potential for building scientific and cultural relations and as a leisure centre.
How important is the garden in terms of scientific communication?
The extension of the Botanical Garden provides the tools needed for the garden to continue its tradition for scientific research and for the collection and conservation of plants.
The study and conservation of biodiversity are essential, from both an ecological and an application viewpoint. Today, about 30 cultivatable species constitute the majority of our food resources, so conserving vegetable biodiversity allows development of hybrids to obtain food plants that can be grown in difficult conditions, in poor soils, in areas with high temperatures or high soil salinity. So the conservation and sustainable use of vegetable biodiversity are necessary for long-term food production and to cope with climatic variations and environmental challenges.
Innovation in medicinal plants is another very important reason for maintaining vegetable biodiversity: many active ingredients are still extracted from plants today and, furthermore, although the majority of drugs are produced synthetically, the natural active ingredient obtained from the plant provides the model for the chemical-pharmaceutical industry. This is why plant species continue to be studied today, to assess their potential use in medicine with a view to future developments in the treatment of a variety of pathologies.
What training and information tools are used in the garden? Have you developed different routes for different categories of user?
The old Garden has a variety of theme-based exhibits: a route for the visually impaired, poisonous plants, exotic plants introduced for the first time in Padua before the rest of Europe, carnivorous plants, and so on.
The layout in the new Garden is a phyto-geographic subdivision of the species in the Earth’s biomes with their different climatic conditions: from tropical areas to temperate areas and arid areas. Inside the greenhouses, visitors will immediately understand the great biodiversity of species in different ecosystems in distant continents, but with similar climatic conditions. This route, which we call “the plant and the environment” is an ideal journey from the equator to the poles, which will involve the visitor and introduce him or her to the biodiversity of each climatic zone.
The central theme of the other route we’re currently developing is the role of plants in our lives. The route “The plant and man” will use innovative boards, video and interactive workstations to illustrate the centuries-long relationship of plants with the human race.
One of the technologically advanced communication approaches we’ll be using in the future involves the Web. The visit will begin before entry into the garden, and will continue after you’ve left: visitors will be able to download applications, explore routes before the visit; access to information and fuller details will also be available during the visit, on the plant labels, and after the visit, via an app, it will be possible to keep in touch with the Botanical Garden. The Garden will also promote scientific and cultural initiatives, organising events to foster botanical knowledge and exchanges of ideas and scientific data to encourage plant research. We shall continue to organise activities to raise people’s awareness about botanical culture and help them appreciate the enormous heritage of the Padua Botanical Garden.
From the point of view of environmental protection and promotion of the territory, what are Italy’s main requirements and what possible avenues can be followed?
Within the confines of our competences, we can point out that correct management of plants can make a useful contribution to the protection of the environment. For example, with their root systems, plants can retain and consolidate the soil, making it less likely to erode and better able to resist being washed away by rain. This soil retention effect is exploited in desert environments to limit the encroachment of the desert, and is currently used by the Chinese government to try and block the advance of the great desert in the west. Vegetation also improves general climate conditions by ensuring a certain level of humidity.
At a more local level, a correct green policy is important; at first sight it might appear restrictive, a constraint on the growth of economic activities, but as far as tourism is concerned it could improve the habitability of certain environments and so bring economic benefits, as well as a definite improvement in the quality of life for local residents.
Is the project related to Expo 2015? How do you see this opportunity?
The main theme of Expo 2015 will be Biodiversity, so we think the Padua Botanical Garden could be linked in some way, since it is the largest and most modern garden of this type in northern Italy. Since it is likely that visitors to Expo 2015 will not stay only in Milan, but will also move towards Venice (a real tourist magnet), and also come to Padua, the Milan, Venice and Padua city councils are currently looking at ways to promote tourist flows. So Expo 2015 could also be a great opportunity for the Padua Botanical Garden.