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Botanical gardens play an often unrecognised role in international development — from supplying medicinal plants to HIV/AIDS patients to improving urban food security — according to a report published today (20 April).

The report by Botanic Gardens Conservation International argues that botanical gardens are uniquely placed to use plant diversity to contribute to human wellbeing.

"We feel it is both a practical and ethical imperative that botanic gardens are encouraged and enabled to link plant conservation with improvements to human wellbeing," says Suzanne Sharrock, the organisation's public awareness director.

"We hope the report will help to build support for them — especially in developing countries."

The report stresses that many botanical gardens have a strong research emphasis, and are involved in developing plants for use in agriculture and healthcare.

The Kisantu Botanic Garden in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has conducted research to extend the shelf life of mangosteen fruit. Ghana's Aburi Botanical Garden has been improving access to herbal medicines by helping local communities to set up medicinal gardens.

While it is possible that displaying plant diversity in such centres could slightly increase the risk of samples being taken by unscrupulous researchers, Sharrock believes that research benefits provided by the gardens greatly outweigh such risks.

"Being able to produce plant material in a sustainable way is likely to empower communities and reduce such biopiracy, rather than promoting it," she told SciDev.Net.

The report also notes botanical gardens' role in plant conservation. Many globally threatened species are represented in their living collections and seed banks.

Botanic Gardens Conservation International is the largest professional body representing 800 botanical gardens in 120 countries.