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21 May 2020

Science and the importance of nature

During this period of self-isolation due to COVID-19, it has been heartening to see all the ways people are interacting with nature and recognising the need to be in green spaces and outdoors.

Nature cravings during quarantine

We have been inundated at our gardens and parks with people out exercising in our fabulous green spaces, something that is mirrored across Sydney as we all crave exposure to nature and respite from looking at walls and screens. We are also taking time to notice the small things in the environment – tiny plants, fungi, insects and other invertebrates – the tiny nuances that are sometimes lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life in normal times.
Gardening certainly appears to have made a comeback during these times, and not just because of a prepper mentality! It’s so popular now that it’s quite difficult to purchase plants, seed and other gardening equipment.
It is also wonderful to see examples of kids growing plants, producing something to eat and watching seeds germinate on social media. That connection with a better understanding of how plants grow, where food comes from, and the patience (or not!) to wait for natural processes to take place is likely to result in a cohort that might have a better understanding of nature and a stronger desire to care for it in the future.

Plants get sick too

Plants, like us, are subject to disease, even those caused by viruses. In fact, the first viruses studied were those in plants, most notably Tobacco Mosaic Virus, and methods of control and aspects of epidemiology of virus was determined in plants.

Colour breaking in tulips resulting from a viral infection caused a fad known as tulip-mania in the Netherlands in the 17th century and prized bulbs sold for astronomical prices at the time. Myrtle rust is a fungal disease first recorded in New South Wales in 2010, which has quickly spread the full length of the east coast and is pushing many plant species rapidly towards extinction – a catastrophic outcome.
Natural spaces need to be cared for and protected. Biosecurity applies not only to us, and our food and other agricultural ecosystems, but also to ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine.

We are fortunate to be an island, protected by the tyranny of distance, but we have a litany of exotic pathogens, pests, feral animals and weeds that have adversely affected our bush. In this, the International Year of Plant Health, we need to continually remind ourselves of the importance of plants to us.

Myrtle rust attacking a plant in the Myrtaceae family.

Turning over a new leaf after lockdown

All of the Gardens' scientific facilities, programs and living collections are being united under the new Australian Institute of Botanical Science. The Institute will be one of the nation’s premier botanical research organisations, advancing fundamental knowledge of flora and driving effective conservation solutions to ensure the survival of plants, and all life that depends on them.

Hopefully when we move out of this experience there will be a greater recognition of the importance of regular exposure to nature, the need to have a greater concentration of green space in urbanised landscapes and the importance to protect and care for these landscapes so that they are sustainable. There is a need to treasure and care for existing green spaces, enhance their sustainability and utility, especially in the face of climate change, and where there are opportunities, expand the footprint of accessible green space.
In contrast with some of the other major challenges facing us, it has mostly been reassuring that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been based on scientific consensus. The recommendations have been formed by science and as the scientific understanding has evolved, those recommendations have been modified.

As a scientific organisation we hope that this might provide an opportunity for society to transfer this focus to some of the equally complex challenges facing us such as climate change and the protection of the environment. Just as we have turned our lives upside-down based on scientifically based recommendations to protect the most susceptible in our community, we need to do the same in order to protect the environment in which we live in – with the ultimate aim of keeping us all healthy, physically and mentally.

Want to know more about the importance of nature?

Hit play below to listen to the Garden's Branch Out podcast episode with nature play educator from the Ian Potter Children's WILD PLAY Garden at Centennial Parklands, Sam Crosby. 

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