Botanical gardens offer a unique opportunity to reconnect with nature in an urban setting. Four students share their experiences.
Maria Albuquerque, Jacquie Kwok, Chantal Martin, Hailey Moran, Gladys Runtukahu, Poh Tan, and David Zandvliet
Humans are living unsustainably on earth — over-consuming, changing the climate, destroying biodiversity. All along, we remain psychologically detached from the very ecosystems that support us. This is especially problematic in large urban centers, where for many people meaningful access to natural spaces is made difficult or is constrained by cultural or economic factors. Botanical gardens — embedded as they are in the urban fabric of major cities, while harboring a wealth of biological and cultural diversity in their living collections — offer a unique opportunity to remedy this situation through their formal and informal programming.
Our group, comprised of graduate students and educators, has seized on this opportunity through a collaboration between the Institute for Environmental Learning (IEL) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and the Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association (VBGA), which jointly operates the VanDusen Botanical Garden and Bloedel Conservatory with the Vancouver Park Board. For the past two years, IEL has been conducting a graduate fellowship program in partnership with the VBGA, which aims to promote participatory action research in botanical gardens, turning those gardens into vibrant spaces for diverse and inclusive environmental learning.
In our research with the VBGA-managed education programs, we use a biocultural diversity lens to frame our work. From our perspective, the concept of biocultural diversity has a strong bearing on teaching and learning. We view this concept as dynamic in nature — as a reflexive and sensitizing idea that can serve to approach the diverse values, knowledges, and practices of different cultural groups as a starting point for sustainable living and that can help understand how people live with biodiversity today and may live with it in the future. As we see it, this involves not only preserving or restoring such values, knowledges, and practices but also adapting them in ways that may resonate with urban populations.
The concept of biocultural diversity has a strong bearing on teaching and learning.
Here we recount the beginning of our journey. To kick off our exploration of the connections among culture, identity, and the gardens we study, the culturally diverse students in our group, who were doing research as VBGA fellows during the 2021 season under the leadership of Professor David Zandvliet, were tasked with writing short pieces about favorite places or plants that came to their minds while working in the gardens. These are their stories.
My Favorite Place in the Garden Has Sun, Water, and Chloroplast
Maria Albuquerque (Master’s graduate, SFU, visiting Canada from Brazil)
For those of us living in a fast-paced society, moments of reflection are crucial to remind us of where we came from and where we want to be. The VanDusen Botanical Garden comprises an abundance of beautiful places with both native and exotic plants that can foster this reflection.
Although initially I found it hard to identify my favorite place or plant in the garden, my tropical heritage and passion for exposure to the sun pointed me to it: a special place with tall Douglas fir trees near a pond and a bench right in front of it, where I remember sitting down to take my observation notes during our research. Between one activity and the next, I recall feeling the sun touching my skin after a long winter. I would observe the life in and around the pond and look up to appreciate the trees. I would say that my favorite place is right there, at that bench near the pond.
This spot in the garden reminds me that there is beauty in nature wherever I am.
Reflecting further, I remembered that, back in my hometown in Brazil, I was often exposed to sunlight and green areas. I always preferred writing my university assignments outside in the backyard. Pausing between paragraphs, I would observe the plain parakeets (a species of small parrots) on the palm trees, feel the sun on my skin, and look at the lake about a hundred meters from my house. This spot in the garden connects me to this memory and reminds me that there is beauty in nature wherever I am.
My Favorite Plant Goes By the Name “Heather”
Jacquie Kwok (Master’s graduate, University of British Columbia, Vancouver resident)
The heather garden quickly caught my eye upon my first visit to VanDusen Botanical Garden. Although heather is considered relatively ubiquitous in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and is often used decoratively in landscaping, I couldn’t help but be brought back to my numerous alpine encounters with this shrub. Over the last several years, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the alpine. Backpacking and mountaineering have brought me to many beautiful high-elevation meadows, which are frequently speckled by heather’s pinks, whites, and purples and filled with its subtle earthy scent.
I was fortunate to have been brought up by adventurous parents who found more ease setting my brother and me free in forests than in shopping malls. As teenage immigrants from Hong Kong in the early 1970s, both of my parents were quick to adapt to their new environment and identified spaces that resonated with them. Independent of one another, they both took up hunting, fishing, and a range of other outdoor pursuits.
Later on, my brother and I were brought along on such outings before we could even walk. Some of the most visceral memories that I carry with me from my childhood are of exploring all day with my family by the Squamish River or along small backroad lakes, stopping for a packed lunch, and continuing on until after it got dark.
Heather shrubs represent how I have personally chosen to interact with the environment as I have grown to know myself better. They also represent stillness for me, for you must slow down and lower your body to the earth to appreciate them.
The Sweetness and Power of Hibiscus
Poh Tan (Doctoral candidate, SFU, Burnaby resident)
The hibiscus is a tropical flower that comes in many different colors. It is so much more than a pretty flower you put in your hair! It is found in tropical environments around the world and can also be seen at the Bloedel Conservatory.
The hibiscus has many stories, and all deserve a narrative of their own. Did you know that this flower comes from hibiscus ancestors found variously in Hawai’i, Fiji, Madagascar, Mauritius, India, and China? Whether sought after for its beauty or for its sweet nectar, or whether used as a remedy or as a tea, the hibiscus was transformed from its ancestral line.
In Bahasa Melayu — the Malay language spoken in Malaysia, where I originally come from — the hibiscus is called bunga raya. It became a national flower in Malaysia three years after the country gained independence from British rule. It was chosen for its red color and its unique shape of five petals. For Malaysians, the hibiscus symbolizes the principles of nationhood, courage, and unity. For a seemingly delicate and sweet flower, it represents strength for so many. For me, bunga raya means many things: home, connection, courage, and belonging, as well as joy, resilience, and passion. It also reminds me of fond childhood memories, when my friends and I would follow the butterflies to the flower, to taste the sweet nectar it offers.
The hibiscus is known as pua aloalo in Hawaiian. Unlike Malaysia’s bunga raya, which is red, Hawai’i’s native pua aloalo is yellow. It is also more than a flower: it is Hawai’i’s state flower, symbolizing beauty, joy, and respect. It brings people together in community, reminding them of their ancestral heritage. For me, pua aloalo is also synonymous with home and connection. As a haumana hula (student of traditional Hawaiian dance here in Canada), I take part in dances that tell the story of how pua aloalo brings beauty and joy to the people of Hawai’i, and more importantly how it conveys respect.
The hibiscus’s survival and resilience in different climatic and geographical environments reminds me of my own experiences moving away from my home country.
As a Malaysian and a haumana hula, the hibiscus’s survival and resilience in different climatic and geographical environments reminds me of my own experiences moving away from my home country. These ideas build on my deep sense of respect for and reciprocity with the land coming from a holistic place of mind, body, and spirit.
Bananas in the Garden
Gladys Runtukahu (Visiting graduate fellow, Sam Ratulangi University, Indonesia)
When I first entered the Bloedel Conservatory, I felt as if I was “coming home.” The various plants that I encountered seemed to cure my longing for my home in the city of Manado, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Some of these plants even grow at my house. But then, nothing catches my eye more than a banana plant. It started with a conversation with Poh, who asked me, “Did you know that, in Malaysia, banana blossom is commonly used as the basic ingredient for making curry?” That made me smile. As we talked about this fruit, the presence of bananas in Manado milled about in my mind.
The banana has a special attraction for me to begin with because it is one of the fruits that are a source of income for many people in Manado, sold on roadsides, in coffee shops, and even in restaurants and hotels. In my hometown, banana blossom is often used as a culinary base but with a different preparation: steamed first and then grilled on coals. In this form, it is called saut vegetables in Bahasa Indonesia. My husband and I are culinary entrepreneurs, and this dish is our most frequently ordered menu item. The basic ingredient is banana, with our bestseller being the variety goroho gula merah (abbreviated as goroho gulmer). This goroho banana is well-known as the typical banana of North Sulawesi because it grows only in hot and humid tropical climates, especially in lowland areas. Our cooking method, according to our “secret” recipe, is to mix it with flour, then fry it and sprinkle the fruit with palm sugar.
I don’t know the ending for my banana story yet, but it is clear that the banana is a fruit that connects me to my home. In the spirit of true reciprocity, the banana blossom provides me with food and a livelihood.
Chantal Martin and Hailey Moran (VBGA Education)
David Zandvliet (Professor and UNESCO Chair, SFU)
The VBGA’s mandate is to connect people with plants, and our research fellows’ stories certainly show the strong cultural connections the fellows made with plants in both the VanDusen Garden and Bloedel Conservatory. The stories reveal their deep sense of reverence, respect, and reciprocity toward plants they intimately relate to. In Maria’s reflection on her favorite place among the Douglas firs, we can hear her reverence for the beauty in nature and how plants form a vital part of our human ecology. Jacquie’s musings speak of the quieting effect she experiences in relation to the heather plants in the garden and the respect she feels for the emotional role that plants can play in our busy lives. Poh’s story about the hibiscus and Gladys’s story about the banana reveal both the respect and the sense of reciprocity that people in many different cultures feel with plants they care for and cultivate, which in turn provide the people with cultural values and sustenance.
These experiences point us to the importance of considering how environmental learning can encompass other forms of cultural knowledge.
These experiences point us to the importance of considering how environmental learning can encompass other forms of cultural knowledge. As we continue to pursue our work with VBGA through the dynamic lens of biocultural diversity, we hope that this work will help us enhance programming for teacher education, volunteer training, field trips, workshops, and summer camps taking place within these urban gardens and beyond. In the bioculturally diverse regions that make up British Columbia, that can mean incorporating Indigenous perspectives by focusing on native plants and First Nations’ ecological knowledge, along with contemporary ethnobotany, to explore our connection to place more deeply.
The coauthors are a group of educators, graduate students, and researchers linked to the fellowship program run by the Institute for Environmental Learning and the Vancouver Botanical Gardens Association. The project is led by David Zandvliet, Professor and UNESCO Chair at Simon Fraser University.