Botanical Garden an important bridge between university and public

By Sonia B. Glover

It may not be high-tech, but research carried out at Memorial's Botanical Garden is exciting and very significant to the university and the general public.

During a recent interview with the Gazette,  Director Wilf Nicholls displayed great enthusiasm when he talked about research projects ongoing at the garden, and stressed the importance of basic research like a fervent salesman.

"I think people can get a little bit seduced by the 'high-techy' nature of some research. Obviously, I believe that it needs to be done and think it's great that there's so much high-tech research carried out at MUN, but there's also the need for basic research, which is what we do here," he said.

"I view a botanical garden as a very important bridge between a university and the public, whether it be people who want to see a nice garden, people who want to learn about gardening or industry who want help or partnership in new production methods or new plants; so the research doesn't have to be high-tech."

Several exciting projects are taking place at Memorial 's Botanical Garden, including ornamental plant research, which Dr. Nicholls believes will help boost the province's nursery industry.

"We've got a nursery industry here in Newfoundland which is really beginning to develop and one way it can really take off is by producing plants instead of having them imported. If we can help out in any way by plant breeding, plant selection and provide expertise about propagation of plants,  then I think we can increase the rate at which the industry develops here."

A selection of perennials is already under propagation and Dr. Nicholls said various shrubs are also being selected to undergo propagation this summer.

"This ornamental research is at its very beginning….Developing our own plants takes quite awhile of course, but we do have the opportunity here. We have a large collection of plants and we can put new ones into the market to bring about export from Newfoundland to the mainland, instead of the other way around… and the botanical garden can help."

Dr. Nicholls was quick to point out that there's far more to Memorial's Botanical Garden than ornamental horticulture activities. Other major projects include potential agri-food crops and revegetation ecology.

The garden recently received a $28,000 grant from a private environmental foundation in Quebec for re- vegetation work at Sheppard's Pit - as section of the garden just off Gillies
Road.

"Sheppard's Pit used to be an old quarry site that got filled up with over-burden from the work done on the Outer Ring Road. It was dumped there three years ago and if you walk across Sheppard's Pit you can see very little natural revegetation has occurred there. It's a moonscape prime for some trials."

Dr. Nicholls said information from this research can be transferred to industry.

"The information we get from this project will be very useful to government and all sorts of people who have re-vegetation or restoration mandates, projects like mining or dam construction; all the things that end up with large amounts of scarred landscape."

The revegetation project, which will last about 10 years, will involve hydro-seeding, and  using some native plants.

"Is revegetation just about making it green? Is that good enough or should we try and recreate the environment? If we are going to recreate the environment, then we should be using some of our native plants; European grass and clover mixes is not what should be our ultimate goal," he said.

"With this study we will look at the way biodiversity builds up with the use of native plants. We'll have numerous people looking at lots of things, everything from bugs to birds to other species of plants."

Other projects Dr. Nicholls is involved in include studying the potential for cranberry production on the island, and the possibility of growing ginseng.

Besides conducting his own research, Dr. Nicholls stressed the garden is also available for anybody else on campus who wants to do research.

"There is an invitation, 24 hours a day, for other researchers who want to use the facility. If they want to come in and look at plants, whether it be from a biochemical point of view, or if they want to look at animals, insects or anything, please come on in… we are here for you."

Until a few years ago, there wasn't a lot of research activity at the botanical garden, but today, Dr. Nicholls said it can become an important research and educational facility.

"I think universities need places like a botanical garden where the public can see a beautiful place, learn a bit about gardening and learn what we are doing. I think what we do is easy to explain and if the public feels we are doing a good job here then it reflects well on MUN as a whole."
 

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