A Historical Look at Botanical Gardens and Their Contribution as Spaces of Social Integration in the Present

When thinking of a botanical garden, some of the concepts that tend to come up are conservation and protection of various vegetable species. Perhaps due to these associations with conservation, the devastating fire that affected the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar in February 2024 caused such an impact. The fire caused the death of four people, consuming 90% of the park’s 400 hectares of surface area, which was home to 1,300 plant species. That a place aimed precisely at “protecting” could be destroyed in such a way is, to say the least, disconcerting.

But along with the conservation of vegetable species, this space also fulfilled many other functions. The concept of the botanical garden as we know it today is a relatively recent invention from the first half of the 20th century in Chile. Although most of the elements that have historically characterized these over-500-year-old natural artifacts have survived, just like all human creations, the functions of botanical gardens have changed throughout time. They have adapted to different contexts, the current needs for the space they provide and the role they play for people, societies and cities they interact with.

It is therefore important to understand that, above all, a botanical garden is a human creation. Although these are spaces where nature is the protagonist, giving them their reason for being, they are nonetheless manufactured places, maintained and even destroyed by personal actions and interests. By accepting this cultural condition, we can see that their advantageous historical role in the preservation of vegetable species does not exclude changes to its purpose. On the contrary, they are living places, in constant adaptation. Therefore, given the damage to the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar, it is worth reflecting on the current role of these spaces and their value for the future, as we face its restoration process.

Créditos: El Salto, Corporación para el Adelanto del Barrio Industrial (Ladera Sur).

Gardens As A Sign Of A Modern Republic

The first indications of the creation of a botanical garden in republican Chile date back to the first government meeting of 1810. Within the framework of the national educational plan, promoted by Juan Egaña in 1813, the project for the creation of the National Institute included the formation of an anatomical amphitheater, a museum, a library and a botanical garden. The latter would serve to complement botanical studies, not just in terms of the medicinal properties of plants, but also regarding agriculture, commerce, manufacturing and the arts.

However, the political events of 1814 changed the fate of this initiative. The defeat of the patriot forces against the royalist army in the city of Rancagua in December of that year would come to imply the restitution of the colonial administration, beginning the period known as the Spanish Reconquest. Faced with these events, and with the suppression of the National Institute, the plans to create a botanical garden dissolved. The initiative was finally resumed in 1822, a few years after regaining independence, this time at the hands of Bernardo O’Higgins, who hired Juan José Dauxion Lavaysse, a Frenchman with a general knowledge of natural history who was in Argentina and was invited to Chile to organize the creation of a National Museum and a Botanical Garden.

Although this initiative also did not prosper, a third attempt was made in 1828 with the Italian botanist Carlo Giuseppe Bertero, who was entrusted by the liberal government of Francisco Antonio Pinto to found a botanical garden in the city of Santiago. Bertero’s enthusiasm and his connections to European scientists even led him to approach his colleagues of the Jardín des Plantes in Paris, France to send seeds that would be planted in the new projected space in Chile. But the political instability facing the country, now due to the outbreak of the conservative movement in November 1829, once again affected the fate of the project. This time, the Italian botanist’s links to the liberal government made his stay in Chile increasingly dangerous, leading him to abandon the country definitively in 1830.

The efforts of the Executive power to create a botanical garden in the context of the young republic’s construction can be partly explained because the existence of these types of spaces seemed an evident part of the scientific, educational and economic apparatus of modern nations. Therefore, the attempts continued on. Finally, in 1853, the creation of the Botanical Garden of Quinta Normal was announced, headed by German naturalist Rudolph Philippi, which was finalized in the 1870s.

Along with the state’s attempts to build a project of this nature, as the 19th century progressed, many of the most prominent families of the national elite would join the efforts; not just for the scientific value of these spaces, but as places for recreation, contemplation, leisure and social distinction. A legacy of this movement is the Quinta Normal greenhouse, built during the second half of the 19th century to house the botanical collection of the family of the railway businessman Henry Meiggs. In addition, the donation made in the 1930s by businessman Pascual Baburizza, from the El Olivar estate to the Compañía del Salitre de Chile, is where Lastly, the role of the universities is also noteworthy, especially the botanical gardens of the Universidad Austral de Chile, created in 1957 and located in Valdivia, Los Ríos región. Most recently, the Universidad de Talca inaugurated in 2006 its own botanical garden, which is located in the Maule region.

Crédito: Portal del Plan Nacional de Conservación de Sophora toromiro (Ladera Sur).

Expansion Of Traditional Functions 

When thinking of the role that botanical gardens have historically played as spaces for the preservation, collection, cultivation and exhibition of vegetable species, it becomes evident that they have similarities with other cultural institutions, such as museums and archives. In the case of botanical gardens, these are spaces where one can experience living nature, while in a natural history museum, as well as with biological collections, there is the potential to protect and exhibit extinct species. This complementarity between botanical gardens and museums persists to this day, in spite of –or perhaps thanks to– the important transformations and resignifications that both institutions have undergone during the last centuries.

In the case of botanical gardens, as previously mentioned, the preservation and scientific study of nature are joined by enjoyment and leisure. This way, it isn’t surprising that today, among the range of activities offered by the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar –before the incident– were barbeques, canopy, picnics, bicycle renting and trekking. In addition, there has also been an expansion and diversification of the public that visits these spaces; instead of just scientists and students, now there are also tourists and people who are looking to learn from and enjoy nature.

To some, this expansion and diversification of a botanical garden’s functions could strain the more traditional roles that botanical gardens fulfill today, and that continue to be fundamental, such as their contribution to the study and maintenance of biodiversity –through the ex-situ conservation of vegetable species– and to resilience in the face of climate change.

>But the reality is that, as with any entity or space that is of public interest, it is also important for it to meet the needs of the present, which many times exceed the scientific and environmental value. This is in addition to a context of inequality in Chile regarding people’s access to green areas. A 2019 study by the System of Urban Development Indicators and Standards found that only 15.4% of municipalities comply with having at least 10m² of public green areas per inhabitant. Added to this is the fact that, the larger the income of a family, the better the standard of green areas per inhabitant in our country. In this scenario, the functions that botanical gardens can fulfill are expanded, incorporating scientific, environmental and ecological values, together with a social and cultural role.

Thus, the current value of a space like a botanical garden in Chile far exceeds its initial historical function. For this reason, faced with the devastation caused by the fire in the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar, there is an opportunity to rethink its function and use in terms of current and future interests and needs. The historical approach of centuries ago that conceived a botanical garden as a selection of natural species contained in a cared and unaltered space, or as a piece of protected and exposed nature in a glass beacon, has long failed to reflect the potential impact of these spaces for their environments and communities.

Rather than recovering the National Botanical Garden of Viña del Mar –understanding the concept of recovery as an effort to return it to its previous state before the incident– it might be interesting to think of the concept of enabling, which relates to the capacity to make something suitable for one thing. This way, the action of enabling centers on the potential of the place, and to define its possibilities it might seem unavoidable to involve the people and communities who use and benefit from this space. It would advance towards a view that reinforces botanical gardens in their scientific and environmental role, but also as catalysts of social integration processes, which provide well-being, health and safety to people, in addition to contributing to and strengthening territorial relevance.

Crédito: Jardín Botánico Nacional de Viña del Mar (Ladera Sur).

Daniela Serra

Daniela Serra has a PhD in History from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC). Currently, she is head of the Department of Heritage Studies and Education of the Undersecretariat of Cultural Heritage and an academic at the Institute of History and the Master of Cultural Heritage of the UC. Her research topics include the history of culture in Chile, museums and heritage. Her professional experience has focused on the management, research and development of public policies regarding cultural heritage.