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World Environment Day: “Celebrate Biodiversity”

June 5, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

Every year on June 5 is World Environment Day, and in 2020 the theme is “Celebrate Biodiversity.” World Environment Day was first celebrated in 1974 and has spread to 143 countries. It’s organized every year by the United Nations Environment Program and is one of the most important such annual events. This year Colombia is the host country for World Environment Day, and that’s very appropriate: about 10% of all species call Colombia home, including the largest number of orchids, one of the two families of vascular plants with the largest number of species (at about 28,000 species, the Orchidaceae are just edged out as the richest family by the Asteraceae, at 32,000).

Celebrating biodiversity is a good idea any time of the year. It’s from biodiversity that we get so much that make our lives better in a practical sense: our food (and many of our drinks) comes from it, as do many of our medicines and raw materials for industry. Our lives are also deeply rooted in biodiversity in non-tangible ways, although it seems we often forget it. Plants and animals are both integral to many of our religions and spiritual traditions, are the subjects of countless works of art and literature, and some are even the companions we live with day by day. Our culture and landscapes owe so much to biodiversity that it’s difficult if not impossible to consider them without it. Where would Algonquin Park and the Group of Seven be without Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) or Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)? Much of the wild spirit of Ontario is felt in the call of the Common Loon (Gavia immer) and the howl of the Grey Wolf (Canus lupus lycaon). And where would we be without the White Trillium (Trillium grandiflora), the floral symbol of the province? There’s even a term for loving all this natural richness: biophilia.

Royal Botanical Gardens has an interesting and important relationship with both natural and cultural biodiversity. Our nature sanctuaries have been documented as holding many plant species, more than most areas in Ontario. Like a number of other botanical gardens, we manage these natural areas for conservation and for educational purposes. We also celebrate biological diversity that has been enhanced culturally, in the form of horticultural cultivars and varieties. Having both rich natural areas and large horticultural collections and gardens means we can teach people about biodiversity — and especially about plant diversity — in unique ways. Education has been a leading program at RBG from the earliest days of our programs in the late 1940s, and we still believe that teaching people — especially children — to fall in love with nature is one of the most important things we can do.

Baba Dioum, a forestry engineer from Senegal, understood this very well when in 1968 he told the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

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