The Garden and the University

Here’s one of the gardens at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus, right smack dab in the middle of the grasslands of Ellison, north of Kelowna. Given that the American half of the valley doesn’t have a university, you could say it’s the only game in town.

A Garden No One Can Afford

Gardens like this spring from a decorative tradition. The blue spindles from the street sweeper are an extra splash of colour.

Universities and gardens have a long, shared history. The science of botany, for instance, sprang up in the University of Jena, in what is now Germany, as a means of putting the city’s botanical garden to use and to transform a small, provincial university into an economic driver capable of supporting an economy and competing with large, urban universities. Before long, Jena’s old monastic medicinal garden, expanded by a poet-scientist-politician and which served as a vital resource in the creation of our latin naming system for plants, gave us our modern university. During the communist period in East Germany, it was the only place in town where you could get a breath of fresh air. High school students, taken there on school outings, report coming close to fainting when they stepped back out into the industrial air of the city. Here’s what it looks like today:


Glasshouse, Jena Botanical Garden

The garden is a working garden, which functions as an archive and a library. In it, plant families are grouped together, so that their similarities and differences can be studied. Books aren’t a necessary part of the process. Like the university, they are what has come out of the garden, not what went into it. Again:

Water Pond

Glasshouse, Jena Botanical Garden

Jena’s university was originally built on this local resource, in a tradition that continues to this day. Now, the garden is used extensively for the development of new pharmaceuticals, such as here:

Patented Medicinal Plant

Jena Botanical Garden. Many such plants are the property of the graduate students who developed them, sometimes in concert with their professors.

 Those kind of plant patents are occurring, periodically, in the Okanagan. Wilfrid and Sally Mennell of Cawston hold the patent on the Ambrosia apple, for instance. Here’s an account of the apple’s history. A word of warning: the parentage of the apple remains unknown. This ain’t science, folks. It’s advertising copy. It is easy as pie to throw in some other possible varieties with as much or greater probability of parentage. Anyway, it is an example of how industrial development currently proceeds outside of the university. Seemingly, the university has its eyes set on purer forms of knowledge. Fine enough. This, perhaps?

 Feathered Grasses and Oregon Grape Framing the Student Services Building

University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus. Note the bare bones built-in advertising for a banking institution, framed by the bare bones landscaping. Money appears to be in short supply.

Plants at UBCO are an integral facet of the architectural statement of the place — something very different from their use in Jena, in which they are a part of the intellectual resource of the place. Here is what the native sub-strains of those oregon grapes look like in the hills:

Oregon Grape in the Wild …

…and looking more like Jena’s gardens.

Is it any wonder that the university’s flower planters look like the following?

 University Floral Planter

Student Services Building. Students? Organically unimpressed, architecturally denied an ashtray, but resourceful, and very tidy. Thanks, guys.

So… one model, a university makes use of local plant resources to create a new model of plant classification and a new model of intellectual activity that both go worldwide, a tradition that survived communist neglect to stand at the leading edge of technological and economic renewal. In another model, a university makes use of non-local resources to create subdivision-inspired decorations for buildings, in which, nonetheless, (and I quote):

The effect of global climate change on natural and managed ecosystems, emerging infectious diseases, food security, species extinctions – these are all critical current global problems being tackled by biologists. Biology is a dynamic and relevant field of study, where new molecular approaches, analytical instrumentation, theoretical models and computational abilities are facilitating unprecedented advances in our understanding of plants, animals and microorganisms and their interactions with each other, their environments, and humans. Source.

So, both good things, Jena and Kelowna. Full marks all the way around. Something’s just not right, though, when the biological face presented to the world by such a vibrant, talented and dedicated institution looks like this…

Decorative Botanical Garden Used as Snow and Salt Dump

Dying fast. Ouch.

… while the world under study looks, perhaps, like this …

 Midwinter Cactus Garden

Okanagan Landing

Quite the difference! Why does nature have to be kept distant, innovation left to marketing agencies, and the work of inspiring architects and dedicated researchers poorly framed? To illustrate, this:

Nature and Architecture as High Art

The plan was great: students would move through an exquisite series of painterly and sculptural spaces, in which buildings and plants framed each other and were both lifted to aesthetic and intellectual purity. Very inspiring! Unfortunately, an apparent lack of landscaping funding has left the idea only as a hint of what it might have been — a place uniting art and science in common vision and passion.

Now a suggestion. Perhaps it still can be so. Perhaps a way forward is to bring the garden home from the fields, and use this space both as its intended aesthetic space and as a primary research space. The university was intellectually designed for that, it was architecturally designed for that, it lies in a valley that wants to function like that, and it has the people with the talent to make it work. Isn’t that a rare a wonderful thing? For the moment, though, we have to rely on Dutch innovation out in the apple orchards. It too is so expensive that hardly anyone can afford it anymore:

Private Slender Spindle Apple Orchard (Royal Gala)

Okanagan Landing

Imagine what we could do if we brought our wild gardens, and these expensive industrial plantations, into the university, and made a new kind of university out of all of that, with new faculties and new working methods, one in which nature was more than decorative or distant, and then took what we have learned back out into the natural gardens and a renewed, affordable, local industry with dozens of new fruit varieties, not just one a little sly about its parentage.

Why, I think we’d create the future. Not just for our students and for our valley, but with them every step of the way. Maybe our school classrooms would start to look like this…

Alpine Garden

Jena Botanical Garden

… or like this …

 Natural Tundra Garden in Downtown Vernon

Turtle Mountain… about 3500 kilometres from the Arctic tundra itself.

Who knows what our kids would learn in an open school like that, but I, for one, sure think we need it.

6 replies »

  1. Harold,
    I love this!
    Somehow the University buildings and campus have to be “of the land”, rather than
    “on the land”. as Frank Lloyd Wright preached.


  2. this post made me think, I also do believe our education system will have to change, but on the other hand it is important to use the resources we do have-and I do not think money and funding may change everything, I guess it is question of mindset…


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