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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 22 January 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Local Government (Funding), Business Motions, Decision Time, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (350th Anniversary)


Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (350th Anniversary)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20401, in the name of Jeremy Balfour, on the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s 350th anniversary. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the 350th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the announcement of a year-long programme of events; understands that many events will focus on the climate crisis and global loss of biodiversity; notes that highlights include an expedition to Papua New Guinea, a Big Botanics Birthday Party, a gala concert, and the opening of a Garden of Tranquillity, which will provide a safe, peaceful and sensory space for visitors with dementia and their carers; further notes that the Botanics will also exhibit in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Discovery Zone in May 2020, showing how its work will help secure the future of the world’s plants, and understands that, in the last of its events, scientists will discuss the biodiversity crisis from a botanical perspective at a Halting Plant Extinction debate in November.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

It is an honour for me to hold today’s debate to mark the 350th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I am delighted that Paula Bushell and Suzie Huggins, from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, have been able to join us in the visitors gallery.

Over the past 10 days, MSPs have sponsored and supported special events that have taken place in the Scottish Parliament to mark this very special anniversary. Guests who attended last week’s reception in the garden lobby, which was sponsored by Christine Grahame, enjoyed a fashion show by second year students of Edinburgh College of Art, who revealed a magnificent array of fashions that were inspired by the treasures of the Edinburgh garden collections. There was also an opportunity to meet teams from across all the organisation’s divisions at the reception and at the exhibition stand that was sponsored by Ben Macpherson.

Tonight’s members’ business debate is a chance for MSPs to discuss the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s achievements and to acknowledge its efforts to highlight the growing need to protect the world’s plants, and the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

My memories of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh go back to my childhood. At the age of six or seven, my brother and I used to run manically around the garden and pretend to be Tarzan in the jungle when we entered the glasshouses. Whatever the weather is like outside—I have visited the garden in the snow and, sometimes, in the sunshine—it is always warm in the glasshouses. There is something unique and interesting to see in each of the 10 public glasshouses, which are home to more than 8,000 exotic plants from around the world.

A visit to the garden always provides me with a sense of wonder. Never more was that the case than when I visited the garden in December with my family for “Christmas at the Botanics”. The illuminated trail through the gardens, followed by toasted marshmallows round the fire pit, was magical. In addition to being a life-enhancing experience, such events introduce new visitors to the gardens. If members have the opportunity, I encourage them to attend one of the many events that are taking place to mark the 350th anniversary. Some events, such as the big botanics birthday party in June, are free, and I know that people will not be disappointed.

Many people who visit the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for the first time might not know about the pioneering research that takes place there. Today, it ranks as one of the top four botanic gardens in the world, working in partnership with more than 35 countries on research projects. Every week, its scientists discover and describe an average of one plant species that is new to science. Each year, its four gardens in Scotland attract more than 1 million visitors and its education programmes reach 12,000 students around the globe. In 2019, visitors from 42 countries visited the botanics and, to the people of Edinburgh and Scotland, there is no doubt that the botanics is a national treasure.

People visit the gardens for a number of reasons. Increasingly, people in Edinburgh seek a peaceful haven in the centre of the capital—a calming green space that provides a sense of wellbeing. Twelve per cent of visitors to the garden say that they have a long-standing health problem or disability; two thirds of those people have a mobility issue and one fifth have a mental health issue. As part of the 350th celebrations, a garden of tranquillity is being created for people who live with dementia and their friends, families and carers, to provide a safe, peaceful and sensory space.

Last year, I had the privilege of visiting the garden in Edinburgh, in order to discuss the plans to introduce a changing places toilet as part of the Edinburgh biomes project. I have been working on that subject. The plan is to have a specialist toilet that will allow people with multiple learning or physical disabilities and their carers and families to access activities and resources in the garden, which the rest of us take for granted.

The Royal Botanic Garden’s origins are grounded in health and wellbeing. Founded in 1670 by doctors Andrew Balfour—no relation—and Robert Sibbald, the Royal Botanic Garden started as a small garden near the Palace of Holyroodhouse, with the purpose of supplying fresh plants for medical prescriptions and to teach botany to students at Edinburgh university. It quickly outgrew its limited plot at Holyroodhouse, so, in 1675, the garden moved to its second site at Trinity hospital, where Waverley station now stands. In 1699, the garden received a royal warrant. In 1763, it relocated again to what is now Leith Walk, then outward in 1820 to Inverleith, where it is located today.

Today, the garden’s collections include its internationally important living collection of 13,500 plant species, its world-renowned herbarium, which contains 3 million preserved plant specimens, and a highly acclaimed library and archive.

As we read and watch the reports of the devastating fires in Australia, we recognise that never has the work of the garden been more important. We live in unprecedented times. We face the challenges of climate emergency, increasing biodiversity loss and the need for sustainability.

The global climate emergency poses a threat to people and our planet. At this crucial time, people must stand up and give us evidence of the impact, take action to change things and enhance biodiversity through the rescue and translocation of rare species. Importantly, the work at the botanics also gives a positive message that things can change and that people are acting.

Looking ahead to the next 350 years, I have no doubt that the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh will continue to be a national treasure—providing enjoyment not only to those in Edinburgh but to millions of visitors from further afield, as well as hope and optimism that, as we face the global challenges of the climate crisis, we can find solutions to protect the world’s plants. Those challenges will provide the focus of the organisation’s efforts, not only for our city, country and continent but for the world. For its 350th anniversary, I am sure that everyone in the chamber will wish the botanics a happy birthday.


Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I congratulate Jeremy Balfour on securing the debate. As he said, last week, I had the pleasure of hosting an event in the garden lobby to celebrate 350 years of the botanic garden. At my side is the constituency member, Ben Macpherson, who was also at that event.

During my lifetime, I have seen us all become more aware of the importance of plant science for nutrition and medical purposes, and, notwithstanding what Donald Trump says, for dealing with climate change. It is in the nature of some plants to survive extremes of weather, for example—I know that the botanic garden’s scientists are engaged with that issue.

Also important are the preservation of the diversity of plants and trees, and the discovery and safekeeping of new species. One has only to see the tragic loss of forests in the Australian bush fires—the destruction of habitats as well as wildlife—to know that there is a huge role for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in assisting with regeneration. Perhaps out of the horrors of the droughts, the flash floods, the bush fires and our own warming climate in Scotland come an increased awareness and a duty to protect and preserve this planet for generations to come, and we must start with our flora.

That brings me to Dawyck botanic garden in my constituency. It is one of three outreach gardens of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh—the others are Benmore and Logan—and I have visited them all. As you would expect, Presiding Officer, I will focus on Dawyck.

To get to Dawyck, simply aim for Peebles, then Stobo, and you cannot miss it. This 65-acre, 5-star garden is renowned for its seasonal displays, on which we can feast our eyes and senses as we walk the many woodland paths. The year starts with the snowdrops—galanthus—which are just coming into bloom now, and moves on to carpeting bluebells. Then come the stunning varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas in May and June, which, with the space to grow unimpeded by garden secateurs, are breathtaking. All is kept shipshape by a small army of gardeners, including 13 registered volunteers. Dawyck is also famed for its blue poppies, or meconopsis, and—perhaps the pièce de résistance, at least for me—its stunning autumn colour.

Whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter, come rain, cloud or shine, any time someone is feeling down in the dumps or up to high doh—and we all sometimes do—they should take a walk along Dawyck’s meandering paths. Even in the rain, the trees are awesome. If they take detours and then have a bit of cake and coffee in the tea-room, it will do them a power of good. That is my promise. Indeed, 37,000 visitors a year cannot be wrong.

A garden, whether small but perfectly formed, such as my urban garden, or magnificent, such as Dawyck, is also a place where we can regenerate and reflect—as Jeremy Balfour mentioned—and put behind us life’s stresses and troubles. To that end, the four botanic gardens have signed up to Silent Space’s green calming places project as an antidote. I cannot commend Dawyck enough. Indeed, it is time I took my own counsel and went back there to enjoy those trees and the quiet, and then have that coffee and cake.

Dawyck is, of course, famous for its arboretum, which has one of the largest range of trees of any in Britain. I have been lyrical about its seasonal beauty, but there is a scientific side to the garden. It has one of the finest tree collections in Scotland, including some of Britain’s oldest trees, with some dating back to 1680. Just think of that: in 1680, Rob Roy MacGregor was nine. It was the age of the covenanters and then the Jacobites. In 1682, the Presbyterians became a movement, and Scotland was in religious and regal war. In 1685, Charles II died, embracing Catholicism on his death bed. William of Orange eventually became king and although Bonnie Dundee—John Graham of Claverhouse, who was a very distant relation of mine—won the battle of Killiecrankie, he died on the field. If only trees could talk. What would the giant Sierra redwoods and the skyscraping stately Douglas firs have to say of that past, and of today? Perhaps they would lament our casual and damaging contempt for the planet.

So diary Dawyck: you will not regret it.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I thank my friend and colleague Jeremy Balfour for bringing this member’s business debate to Parliament. I also thank Christine Grahame for sponsoring such a successful parliamentary reception last week. It was one of the best-attended receptions that I have seen in the Parliament for some years, and it was a real pleasure to meet many Edinburgh residents who told me about their love of the botanic garden.

That love is often a lifelong one. Many people talked to me about their childhood memories of the garden, which they now enjoy with their children and grandchildren. I must admit to being slightly concerned when, during her speech at the reception, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform started to recount her memories of rolling around in the grass—childhood memories that she qualified. It was fascinating to hear so many stories about people’s love for the garden. We have just heard about that from Christine Grahame, too.

As has been said, the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh is one of the world’s leading botanic gardens. It contains 100,000 plants over 70 acres and 10 wonderful glasshouses that, together, make up one of Scotland’s national collections, and it is a collection that ranks among the best of its kind anywhere in the world. The garden provides a diverse range of formal and informal education programmes for people of all ages and all levels, from primary school to PhD, and from amateur to professional. The Edinburgh biomes project, which I believe is the most significant project in the garden’s history, will protect the unique and globally important plant collection for the future, for Scotland and for the world. I welcome the City of Edinburgh Council’s positive support for that project.

I also believe that the spectacular new experience—the leaf-shaped greenhouse that many people will have seen—has the potential to become an iconic design building for the capital in the future.

I will touch briefly on the human importance of the garden and the positive impact that it has on the health and wellbeing of citizens, both in the capital and beyond. Members will be aware that I campaign on dementia, so I want to highlight two very important projects in the garden for people living with dementia. The first is the dementia socials project, which offers regular social sessions for people affected by dementia, their carers and families. The sessions are free, with refreshments and activities, and usually take place in the garden room.

The second project, which has attracted significant interest, is the garden of tranquillity. As Jeremy Balfour outlined, the garden offers a safe, tranquil and sensory space that is designed specifically as a respite for people living with dementia and their friends, families and carers. With natural boundaries for privacy, fragrant plants, comfortable seating, a water rill and art, this social inclusion project is quickly becoming a vital one for many people living with dementia across the capital.

Conceived by Judy Good, while studying for her diploma in garden design, the idea started as a piece of coursework with very personal resonance. Judy was inspired by a good friend, Gillian Lindsay, whose mum had early onset dementia. Gillian was always looking for a space to take her mum, where they could get out of the house and spend time together, but where her mum would also feel safe and relaxed. That can be difficult—as many people know, there are not many spaces in Edinburgh or the surrounding area where that need can be met. The garden of tranquillity was created with that idea in mind: it is a place where people can spend time together, to reminisce and be peaceful and happy in the moment. Such a huge part of the 350-year history of the botanic garden has been about therapeutic and restorative work, and I see the immense value that the garden of tranquillity brings to many of those living with dementia and their families.

Recent visitor and membership surveys highlighted the impact the botanic garden has on the personal health and wellbeing of citizens from across the city and beyond.

The debate has presented us with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate 350 years of the botanic garden, but, perhaps most important, we need to look to the future, as the botanic garden is doing. That is best summed up by what the new chair of the board of trustees, Dominic Fry, said at last week’s parliamentary reception. In words that have been with me all week, he said:

“All life depends on plants—and today, 1 in 5 plant species are under threat.”

That should concern all of us. We should all rededicate ourselves to supporting the vital work of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh now and in the future.


Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I am grateful to Jeremy Balfour for this opportunity to speak about the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which has brought such joy, inspiration and wonder to the people of Edinburgh and many others. Given the growing concerns about urban creep and the loss of green space to development, we should celebrate the fact that we have such a marvellous space in our capital city that is dedicated to nature and plant life. I, too, extend my sincere congratulations to all those who are involved with the garden, and I wish it another 350 years of success, at the very least.

Jeremy Balfour did a good job of outlining the ways in which Parliament is rightly marking and celebrating the contribution of the botanics, as they are known to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Edinburgh. The botanics are consistently listed as one of the top tourist destinations in Edinburgh, but their value is not limited to entertainment. They are an important educational and conservation site that engages in vital work on tackling climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

From hosting events and lectures and delivering courses to teaching children and young people about the natural environment, the botanics engage people with nature and foster a real connection and sense of ownership in people with regard to Scotland’s fauna and flora. There is much to be learned at the botanics. The programmes focus on topics ranging from the expressive arts to health and wellbeing—a subject that is gaining the recognition that it deserves—and even to mathematics. More important, the botanics instil in people an appreciation for nature and all that it has to offer.

We should not underestimate the importance of early education for future generations who will have to deal with even more serious consequences of climate change than we in this chamber will ever face. The garden offers learning programmes to which the science of plants’ structure and function and the importance of biodiversity and conservation are core, and I have no doubt that arming our young people with that information will help them to prepare for the challenging and difficult road ahead.

Alongside the education programmes, as we have heard, the garden takes part in groundbreaking research. It has published world-leading research since the 17th century and has established collections of plants from around the globe that serve as essential resources for conservation. In the past 12 months alone, botanists have been cultivating specimens in specialist research facilities in Scotland and have formally recognised 65 new species of plants. Recent research conducted by the RBGE in conjunction with China’s Kunming Institute of Botany and the Columbus State University in the United States revealed that several species of iconic Himalayan poppies could soon be threatened as climate change restricts them to ever smaller mountain sanctuaries. Such discoveries are crucial in the fight to limit the impact of climate change on ecosystems, and the work of the botanics is ensuring that Scotland is at the forefront of that endeavour.

We benefit from that work in Scotland, too. RBGE has been collaborating with Scottish Natural Heritage to save the rare and endangered alpine blue sow thistle, which members may have seen on the news recently. It is thought that the plant’s distribution in Scotland was wider in the past, but it has been reduced by grazing and the species is identified in the Scottish Government publication, “Scotland’s biodiversity: a route map to 2020” as a target for conservation action. That is a key example of how the garden is crucial to our efforts to improve Scotland’s biodiversity and preserve its natural landscapes.

The garden also contributes to work on food sustainability. The edible garden project, which is based at RBGE, aims to give people the skills and knowledge that they need to grow their own food. It is targeted at those who may be interested but who do not know where to start. Getting people more involved in how their food is grown is a great way of raising awareness of the damage that food production is inflicting on the environment while emphasising the benefits of locally grown produce. It can empower people to make informed choices about not only what food they eat but where it comes from. Those issues are of great interest to all our constituents. Members will be aware from their mailbags of the value that people place on trees and parks. Whenever those are threatened, we can be sure that we in Parliament will be called on to act and intervene.

The botanic garden is a beautiful attraction that is loved and cherished by residents and visitors alike, but it is also a vital resource in the fight against climate change and the loss of biodiversity. That should be commended, and I warmly welcome the opportunity to do so today.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I thank Jeremy Balfour for the opportunity to recognise the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s 350th anniversary and to talk about the work that it has done to protect biodiversity and provide solutions in a changing world.

Jeremy Balfour referred to the founders of the RBGE, Balfour and Sibbald, who wanted to study plants for medicinal purposes. Particularly in earlier centuries, Edinburgh was the centre of medical research in Europe.

Three hundred and fifty years after its foundation, the botanics continue to be a national and international treasure, attracting over 1 million visitors annually. Over the weekend, my intern, Airin Wu, who has helpfully provided my speaking notes, chose to visit the botanics. It was only her second week in Edinburgh, so it was high on her agenda. She told me that she was astonished by the greenery and the diverse plant life that she saw. I imagine that it is very different to the arid climate of California to which she is more accustomed.

The beauty of the gardens is well deserving of appreciation, but more to the point is its mission in relation to science, conservation and education, to which other members have referred. The RBGE should be highly praised for having that as a large part of its work, as well as for its focus on accelerating species discovery. Jeremy Balfour and Alison Johnstone referred to the new plants that are discovered—they gave slightly different numbers and I have a third, but we all acknowledge that a lot of plants are being found.

This year, the botanics are hosting a wide range of events—from an expedition to Papua New Guinea to the big botanics birthday party—which will bring attention to the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and the role of the RBGE in all that. Who is the culprit in the climate and biodiversity crises? We are—the human race. Our activity has been the biggest driver of climate change. We pressure wildlife to make room for us as we mismanage aspects of agriculture, continue with urbanisation and pollute too many environments that many species call their home. We know that around 1 million species face extinction globally because of us.

In the past 22 years, numbers have decreased in 49 per cent of Scottish species. Numbers have gone down in 54 per cent of vascular plant species, 44 per cent of bird species and 39 per cent of butterfly species. Almost one in 10 Scottish species are at risk of extinction. Species that are at risk include the world-renowned Atlantic salmon, which do not find the warmer oceans to their liking, and the Arctic char, which is a cold-water species that might not survive in our waters.

Our iconic habitats—peatlands, uplands and oak woodlands—are all vulnerable to the hands of climate change. As humans, we need biodiversity, as it sustains the very ecosystems that keep us alive. In Scotland, biodiversity is also an important part of our economy, as it supports our tourism, farming, forestry, aquaculture and fishing industries. It improves our quality of life, too.

The Scottish Government is doing its bit to support the mission of the RBGE through its biodiversity strategy and 2020 challenge, which are in response to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the European Union’s biodiversity strategy. It is clear that the Scottish Government’s funding is a crucial part of our support of ecosystems and the environment as a whole. They depend on it.

I am confident that the botanics will continue to support our environment and to entertain and engage us all. Like other members, I wish the RBGE another successful 350 years from here onwards.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The last speaker in the open debate is Claudia Beamish.


Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, am delighted to have the chance to join in the celebration of 350 years of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I heartily thank Jeremy Balfour for his interesting and informative speech and for the motion that has enabled tonight’s debate. I add my voice to the respectful comments that will flood in throughout the year from around the world.

Jeremy Balfour’s motion recognises the wide range of events that will be held this year, which he encourages people to attend. I, too, encourage people to attend the events. Like him, I am particularly drawn to

“the opening of a Garden of Tranquillity, which will provide a safe, peaceful and sensory space for visitors with dementia and their carers”.

For many years and until recently, I was co-convener of the cross-party group on carers in the Scottish Parliament, and I am keenly aware of the need for safe tranquillity for the cared for and carer alike. Miles Briggs’s explanation of this therapeutic and restorative work was very interesting. What better way is there to enable that than through such a haven of the senses—from fragrance to texture, from to flavour to harmonies of sound and from colour to shapes. The experiences and wellbeing opportunities created by this garden will be a delight for all.

Jeremy Balfour’s efforts to ensure that the botanics has an accessible toilet have also been important. It is vital for those who would not otherwise be able to go to the garden.

The motion of course emphasises the fact that

“many events will focus on the climate crisis and global loss of biodiversity”.

The long tradition of respect for and research into plants and their habitats places the botanics at the forefront of challenging those crises globally and in Scotland. Does it need to be stated that the climate emergency and nature crises are inextricably linked?

Last week, at the RBGE event in the Scottish Parliament, one of the posters in its exhibition highlighted the climate emergency, stating that the botanics is

“Scotland’s plant biodiversity institute and a major centre of public engagement with the natural world, leading the way to achieving net zero for Scotland by 2045.”

The poster explained that one of the ways that it does that is by providing

“evidence of the impact of climate change on species and habitats around the world.”

The meticulous investigations of the botanics over 350 years and the cataloguing and protecting of species put it at the forefront of helping our planet, nature and humanity now.

The RBGE covers so much. I want to focus on one species, the rhododendron, which is a great favourite of mine. Rhododendrons are natives of the Himalayas, south-east Asia and New Guinea, though not exclusively. The RBGE’s rhododendron collection is internationally renowned, and last year’s rhododendron festival was a sight to behold.

I pay respect to everyone who has collected and catalogued our flora, from those who do so today, back to the early intrepid plant hunters such as Scot Dr Francis Hamilton, who, in the early 1800s was sending consignments of seeds back to the RBGE, of which he became regius keeper.

I also want to recognise the other gardens that come under the auspices of the RBGE. In my region of South Scotland, I visited Logan botanic garden with my family when the children were small. We went round the luscious garden in the morning and had delicious lunch in the cafe. The sun then came out and we went round the garden again, and I thought that we had been teleported to Tenerife.

Since becoming an MSP, I have tried to support Logan, and I have also visited Dawyck botanic garden, the magic of which was highlighted by Christine Graham. It has a hydroelectric scheme that is powered by the Scrape burn. I was inspired by its hard-hitting outside photographic exhibition, based on Bob Dylan’s song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Today’s regius keeper, Simon Milne, said at the event in the Parliament last week:

“All known life depends on plants, yet one in five species is threatened with extinction.”

In this year of celebration, I wish the botanics a positive future that will build on its fine history. I hope that it will take the anniversary year theme of climate change and biodiversity loss into the future. We wish it a hearty happy birthday.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I apologise to members, but I had missed out Graham Simpson, who is, in fact, the last speaker in the open debate. He was obviously hiding his light behind a rhododendron bush or something.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I could, indeed, do that, as we have a large rhododendron in our garden. You are welcome to visit any time to see it, Presiding Officer.

I was not planning on speaking in the debate, but I could not help myself, because I just wanted to say how I feel about the botanic gardens in Edinburgh and the other botanic gardens in Scotland, all of which I have visited.

When I was five years old, my family lived in Edinburgh, and we were regularly taken to the botanics. I do not recall rolling around anywhere at the time, but we certainly enjoyed our visits. Coming back here as an adult, I have a renewed appreciation for all that is offered by the garden and, indeed, everything that is offered by all gardens—they do not need to be botanic gardens; all gardens offer something special. They give us an appreciation of nature and a sense of wellbeing. Walking around a garden aids your physical and mental health. People have mentioned the garden of tranquillity in the Edinburgh botanics. I have not seen that bit, but I will definitely check it out, because it sounds impressive.

I went to the reception last week and I heard Christine Grahame speaking powerfully. My wife had asked me to get some free samples. I did not get any, but I got to make some hand cream. I took it home and she loved it. She told me that I need to go into business but, sadly for Mrs Simpson, I have forgotten the recipe. It is very good stuff. That highlights the fact that people can take various classes at the botanics that cover all kinds of topics and are open to all ages and levels of ability. It is a great place.

I noticed a mention of Papua New Guinea in Jeremy Balfour’s motion. I do not know whether he is angling for a trip there—perhaps he is.

I was pleased to note that the botanics will be exhibiting at the Chelsea flower show in May. When I go there with my wife, we will definitely check out that display. I look forward to that very much.


The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

I echo what has been said around the chamber tonight, and I thank Jeremy Balfour for highlighting the subject and for bringing to the chamber a debate that has been enjoyable to listen to and be a part of. I also thank Christine Grahame for sponsoring the event last week to celebrate the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s anniversary. As Miles Briggs said, it has been fantastic to hear everyone’s stories and to hear about the love that everyone has for the botanic garden, which is a haven and a hub for health and wellbeing. It is great to see the strength of feeling that inspired Graham Simpson to take part in tonight’s debate. His contribution emphasised the appreciation of nature in the gardens and the restorative power that they seem to have, which others have mentioned.

I am absolutely delighted to be part of this debate, which, as we have heard, highlights a year-long programme of organised events. Obviously, 350 years is quite the milestone. It makes the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh one of the oldest public bodies in Scotland. This year’s celebrations come at a time of rapidly increasing understanding of the need to take urgent action to tackle the global climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency. I am sure that the garden’s planned programme of events will play an important role in highlighting that priority even further.

We have heard a lot about the history of the gardens tonight. They were founded in 1670 by two doctors, who established a garden near the palace of Holyrood house to study and supply plants for medicinal purposes. It is only fitting that, last week, the start of the 350th anniversary was marked at a parliamentary reception close to the site of the original garden.

As we have heard, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh now encompasses four gardens around Scotland: Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck, which was mentioned by Christine Grahame, and Logan, which, as we have discovered tonight, is the Tenerife of South Scotland. I have not visited all of them, and I am desperately keen to see them all.

Christine Grahame

I take this opportunity to invite the minister to Dawyck, whether she is down in the dumps or up to high doh, neither of which I have seen her being. I hope that she will accept that invitation.

Mairi Gougeon

I would be absolutely delighted to accept that invitation, because I am keen to get out and see them all, since I have visited only the botanic garden in Edinburgh.

As we have heard, the garden attracts over 1 million visitors a year and its expertise and knowledge reaches over 35 countries around the world. Global challenges require global solutions, and the botanic garden’s worldwide reach places Scotland at the vanguard of international efforts to address the issues that we face.

We mentioned earlier that 350 years is a big milestone, but it is even more apt that the 350th anniversary falls in 2020, which is a critical year for our environment. It is the year of coasts and waters and also, importantly, it is the international year of plant health. Christine Grahame stressed the importance of plant science in her speech, and I made a statement on plant health towards the end of last year, because it is only right that, given the challenges that we face, we focus on what is essential for our planet’s survival. Plants and plant science are absolutely key to that survival.

Global progress is required to tackle the interlinked challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Claudia Beamish highlighted that vital point. The crises that we face are not separate from one another; they are intrinsically linked.

World leaders will come together to discuss how to tackle climate change when we host COP26 in Glasgow, which will follow hot on the heels of the biodiversity COP15 in Kunming in China, where the botanics already has fruitful partnerships. We will also host our own international thematic workshop on biodiversity at the botanic gardens, and will invite delegates from around the world to help to influence the post-2020 international framework for biodiversity.

Stewart Stevenson and other members spoke about the importance of the botanic garden’s work on biodiversity. He put it really well when he said that biodiversity sustains the ecosystem that keeps us alive. Scotland was one of the first countries to acknowledge that the world faces a climate emergency and we are leading by example with the most stringent climate legislation of any country in the world.

Through innovative plant science and conservation, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh places Scotland at the forefront of international efforts to respond to the climate change crisis and to increasing biodiversity loss. Its national botanical collection is used as a conservation, scientific and cultural heritage resource, here in Scotland and abroad, to directly respond to both challenges. Its plant health programme is one of the most rigorous in the world, playing a growing role in protecting Scotland’s natural environment and the horticulture and agriculture sectors from the growing climate-related threat of emerging pests and pathogens. That is particularly relevant for the year of plant health and will celebrate the benefits of healthy plants.

As we have heard tonight, the garden means different things to different people. Many people visit the beautiful collections to enjoy the peace and tranquillity. As we have heard, some visit even for the sheer fun, such as Jeremy “Tarzan” Balfour. I too had that fun in my most recent experience of the gardens, because I had the chance to escape Parliament one day to visit the botanic gardens and see the titan arum—I am sure that I will be corrected if I have pronounced it wrongly. If members do not know what that is, I urge them to google it—they will not believe that this plant is real and exists on earth. It is from west Sumatra and looks like a plant that has survived the time of the dinosaurs. It is also called the corpse flower because of the delightful odour that it emits when it flowers. That only happens once every few years, just for several days. One day when I was in Parliament, an emergency phone call came to say that I should go over to see it, and I am so glad that I had the opportunity—it really was incredible.

Others who go to the garden benefit from the scientific expertise and the diverse range of educational programmes and research resources that are on offer, from primary school to PhD, amateur or professional. Those resources are vital because, as Alison Johnstone highlighted, they engage people with nature. The garden’s work and impact go well beyond the traditional aspect of plant research and engagement, to include the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities from Scotland to Nepal, contributing directly to sustainable economic development, food security, upskilling and doing an enormous amount to enhance Scotland’s place and influence in the world.

I will follow up on Jeremy Balfour’s contribution by putting a focus on the garden of tranquillity, which is an important initiative and further strengthens the botanic garden’s wellbeing, social inclusion and community engagement work. The project builds on the garden’s existing community support work including its programme of community gardening, cooking and other initiatives. Last year, around 2,500 people took part. We all know about the health benefits of using outdoor spaces, so such initiatives have a massive impact, which was highlighted by Miles Briggs.

The programme that is planned across 2020 includes a diverse range of events, including celebrations, exhibitions, concerts, debates and lectures, each one designed to be accessible and appealing to as wide an audience as possible. The events will stretch across each of the botanic garden’s four locations, so I encourage everyone here and outwith the building to take a closer look at what is on offer, as there will be something for everyone.

I am grateful for having the chance to focus on the sheer depth and breadth of work of the botanic garden. There are so many facets to that work: conservation, education, biodiversity, science, tourism and health and wellbeing. The garden represents 350 years’ worth of experience, one of the richest plant collections on earth and a world-class scientific institute— attributes that well deserve celebration and of which we should be hugely proud.

Meeting closed at 17:50.