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Botany versus horticulture

The university administration did not see any practical difference between botany and horticulture, which played a role in how the garden functioned into the 1960s. Botany is a pure science that aims to understand plants in the wild, regardless of whether or not people find the plants useful or beautiful. Horticulture, on the other hand, is an applied science focused on plant breeding, propagation and landscaping. Through the 1950s and 1960s, these different purposes caused Davidson’s successors to move away from his original vision for a large taxonomic garden (a garden focused on the classification of plants) on the UBC campus.

The garden’s focus changed in the 1950s (PDF, 264 KB), when Taylor suggested that he and Neill combine responsibilities and make the whole campus the Botanic Garden, which they did. Originally Davidson had experienced problems with horticulturally trained gardeners, who didn’t understand the purpose of a botanical garden. By making this suggestion, Taylor revived those problems.

Despite the plan’s economic savings, the original garden suffered greatly through the 1950s. Beautiful horticultural plantings took priority over scientific taxonomic beds. That the entire campus was the botanical garden was a unique arrangement that was “the subject of admiring and envious comments by numberless visiting botanists and horticulturalists,” according to Taylor. What the visitors could not see was that the general grounds staff did not appreciate the difference between a flower planted for its beauty and one planted for its scientific importance. This meant that the grounds staff often removed valuable scientific specimens.

Criticisms from Davidson

In retirement, Davidson wrote to the university in 1956 and asked, “Why hasn’t the Botanical Garden been kept up to fulfil the aims of its foundation viz, to have the best collection of native plants of BC growing there?”

In his defence, Taylor replied that when he took over,

the beds in which native species had been grown were largely empty. The specimens that had survived a period of inadequate attention had their names badly mixed up and no data as to their origin were available.

Taylor noted that the rectangular beds were no longer in use but that in 1956, plants could still be found in about the campus and in the ethnobotanical plantings in Totem Park. Taylor also mentioned plans to develop 300 acres (122 hectares) on the south campus to display BC Plants “in a naturalistic setting.”

When visiting the campus in 1960 (PDF, 230 KB), Davidson was horrified to find that the area he knew as the UBC botanical garden had been almost entirely converted to horticultural flowerbeds. Not all of the trees remained where he had planted them and some specimens were destroyed.

Davidson wrote to UBC president Norman MacKenzie:

The shock moved me almost to tears, to see the whole collection of herbaceous plants — classified according to their families — dug up and gone, and the area planted with lawn and horticultural flowerbeds[...] I never dreamed that my successors would be men who did not know the different between a Botanical garden and a Horticultural one. Botanical Gardens deal with Plants as found in Nature, to illustrate some of the different branches of Botany, and provide living material for study, instead of dead herbarium specimens.

President MacKenzie responded that the university was setting aside a “substantial” area for what he hoped would become a permanent botanical garden.

Incompatible interests

Taylor came to regret having merged management of the botanical garden with that of the rest of the campus:

the completely erroneous view seems to be abroad that the Botanical Garden was organized for the purpose of landscaping the campus. This is not so; it was established as the normal teaching and research adjunct of the Department of Biology and Botany [....] As botanists my staff are not concerned with the design of the landscaping but we are greatly interested in the variety and botanical significance of the plants that go into them, we utilize them as an essential teaching resource. We feel very strongly the scientific and academic side of the garden is of paramount importance and cannot be separated from the actual maintenance of the plants.

Section of the West Mall Arboretum, UBC, circa 1964

In meetings, Taylor pointed out “the incompatibility of the interests between Buildings and [Grounds] on the one side and the Plant World on the other.” He wanted the garden to split from campus operations and to have an academic-only focus as well as its own superintendent.

From retirement, John Davidson weighed in on the 1966 lack of appreciation for his life’s work in a letter to the Natural History Society:

To me this area of the University was sacred and hallowed ground. I accepted it as a challenge—not to see how much I could get out of it, but to see how much I could put into it for future generations. Surely when the university has so many hundreds of acres of land lying idle, it should not be necessary to destroy fifty years’ growth of the Arboretum to erect buildings, and start another Arboretum probably less accessible to the public.

A third botanical garden

Old Firehall on UBC Campus, 2007

The board of governors met on May 10, 1966, and, as reported in The University Gazette, agreed to “phase out gradually the area west of the West Mall now known as the University Arboretum and Rockery Garden, as new areas on the south campus are developed.” In anticipation of forcing all outdoor botanical teaching activities to the southern part of the campus, they set aside land west of the new stadium and a block west of Marine Drive for this purpose.

The university had special plans for John Davidson’s second botanical garden on West Mall, plans that members of the botany department did not agree with. They wrote an appeal to the acting president:

Perhaps there is a misunderstanding somewhere of the meaning of an arboretum. Ours is, for one thing, one of the last places on campus where students and staff can relax on fine days and enjoy walking, resting, or studying in quiet peace. However, aside from aesthetic or psychological values, the arboretum is a laboratory. It is part of the academic program for students of Forestry, Agriculture, and Botany, and others including off campus groups. No one considers demolishing the laboratories surrounded by walls. We cannot spare even the old huts. Why then the arboretum? Must parking take precedence over teaching?

Section of the West Mall Arboretum, UBC, circa 1979

Their plea went unanswered, however, and in 1968, what remained of the West Mall botanical garden and arboretum became home to an urban landscape. Roy L. Taylor became the new garden director and began the process of creating the third botanical garden, which exists to this day.