How a small square of Scotland influences world politics

In Simon Milne’s office is a very unremarkable sideboard, which nevertheless tells the remarkable story of the Regius Keeper and the age-old organization he protects.

There is a shimmering statue of an oriental dragon – a gift from the Prime Minister of Nepal, in recognition of the two centuries of ecological activity between the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Himalayan region.

There is also a silver tray, emblazoned with Arabic script, thanking Milne for RBGE’s work in Qatar, and a framed map of Tajikistan, acknowledging the garden’s research programs in Central Asia.

The garden’s royal connections are also proudly displayed – a portrait of Queen Elizabeth denotes royal patronage of the RBGE, flanked by a photograph of Milne and Prince Charles walking through the gardens.

Sitting in his office, the Regius Keeper – analogous to the Managing Director – begins by describing his tenure as custodian of RBGE’s 350 year history as ‘wonderful’ adding: ‘We have enjoyed and will continue to deliver and continue to deliver a really strong contribution from Scotland to the rest of the world.

We are the custodians of a global botanical collection with very few rivals in the world.

Picking up each item from the buffet and turning it over in his hands, each plaque, keepsake and certificate tells another chapter in the history of the RBGE and how the roots of the garden first spread across Scotland and then into the world.

With a small medal in his hands, depicting the Great Seal of the United States of America, Milne said, “There was a guy called Benjamin Rush, who was one of the secretaries of the United States Declaration of Independence. United. It started here.

“So in the 18th century, all medical students had to learn botany, because of the importance of plants for medicine, and he was one of those students. And then he went back to America and ended up being one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Our reach therefore extends to events that change the world.

Simon Milne is his office at RBGE

There are also other stories of international significance. Between 1750 and 1850, Russia made a fortune thanks to the trade in rhubarb root, used in medicine. Russia supplied the world and effectively had a monopoly on the product, as it prohibited the export of the seeds. At one time it was worth more than gold. However, Dumfriesshire-born doctor James Mounsey, who performed surgery in Moscow, smuggled several pounds of the seeds out of the country, where they found their way to the RBGE, where they were successfully grown. Russia’s monopoly was broken and the UK made millions from the export of rhubarb.

“Mounsey worked at high levels in Russia,” Milne said, “and he learned he was going to be arrested and put to death. He escaped and took some rhubarb seeds with him, which then been propagated here in Edinburgh, when the garden was based on Leith Walk.

“It was a source of revenue for botany, until the rest of Europe also got hold of the seed, which is a product of history.”

Today, the global reach of the RBGE is more focused on altruism, and in particular on saving the damaged ecosystem of the planet.

“For us, obviously, spying on plants is a thing of the past,” Milne said, “but dealing with plant loss is not a thing of the past. There are still a lot of plants that are being pulled up in the nature these days.”

Milne was Regius Keeper for nine and a half years, before which he ran the Scottish Wildlife Trust for a decade. His first career, after graduating from the University of St Andrews, was in the Royal Navy for 23 years.

“These days,” Milne said, “I think of myself as a conservationist and the leader of this amazing organization that’s been around for 352 years.”

Today, the RBGE works in partnership with organizations and communities in more than 40 countries, to “conserve and restore biodiversity, support sustainable livelihoods and co-create learning opportunities”.

This “plant diplomacy” places Scottish horticultural expertise at the center of a global conservation network.

“We are one of the leading botanical gardens in the world,” Milne said, “and that’s based on the breadth and depth of our collections and our expertise.

“We have an irreplaceable plant collection of 13,500 species from all over the world. We have a herbarium with three million specimens, the first dating from the 17e Century, plus a technical library and archives.

“We are the custodians of a global botanical collection with very few rivals in the world.”

Simon Milne on field research in Nepal

Founded in a small 40 square foot garden near Holyrood Palace in 1670, the “physical garden” – so called because it was first used to grow medicinal plants – was moved to the present site of 70 acres in Inverleith in 1820. This small square in the capital city launched Scotland onto the national stage on several occasions and provided British diplomats with “soft power”, according to Milne.

In Milne’s office is a large guest book, containing the signatures of powerful men and women who have visited the gardens.

“We have heads of state, kings, queens, a huge array of ambassadors, leading experts in the field and as many politicians as you can imagine,” Milne said.

“And it’s right here, rather than moving around the world. We have a chairman of the Communist Party of China, we have the Prime Minister of Nepal, we have royalty from various countries.

“An example of this would be during COP26 in Glasgow, we hosted a number of heads of state and diplomats here.

“It’s not just about coming to visit a beautiful garden, it’s about collaborating more, because we are considered in many ways as the benchmark for botanic gardens.

“A number of countries are very keen to work with us to develop their own capacities or to work collaboratively on projects.

“Such an example would be Nepal. Often our ties start at the highest level, which sometimes includes presidents and prime ministers, and the president of Nepal has been here.

“It’s just about putting Scotland on the map with this particular country. If you mention Scotland to the Nepalese Ambassador to the UK, he’ll think ‘Royal Botanic Garden’, and that’s thanks to the extensive collaboration we’ve had.

“Examples would be working, directing and advising on the production of flora from Nepal.”

The garden, nestled in the center of an Edinburgh suburb, is home to some of the rarest and most fragile treasures on earth. There are species that grow in Inverleith that exist nowhere else in the world, and many more that are threatened with extinction in their natural habitat.

“Previously, there were only one or two trees of the small ‘amentotaxus argotaenia’ conifer left in Hong Kong,” Milne said.

“We propagated it here from our material, and that material went to Hong Kong and was replanted in the wild. It’s fantastic.”

I’ve seen bad things in my time, especially in the Marines, I’ve seen what humans can do to each other, and they still do.

According to Milne, “the China/Botanical Garden relationship is very strong, especially with the Chinese Academy of Sciences”. As an example of Scotland punching above its weight, the RBGE has a shared field station in Kunming, Yunnan province – a city with three million more citizens than the entire population of the EU. Scotland.

Milne is also the custodian of historical artifacts, including flower cuttings Charles Darwin took while in the Galapagos Islands in 1835, while a passenger aboard HMS Beagle.

On Milne’s buffet of international gifts and certificates, however, there’s one object that stands out from the rest, for all the wrong reasons – a decorated wooden box donated by Russian botanists.

“It’s soft diplomacy,” Milne said, “it’s not controversial.

“It’s about experts coming together to solve a global problem without the political rhetoric and avoiding all the nasty things going on in the world right now. So, while relations with certain countries may be difficult for whatever reason, we work with our counterparts, keeping the lines of communication open in our field. And do good, in fact.

“Very often I will say that we are on a different level from politics. I’m not saying we’re superior or inferior, we’re just in a different space of politics, which was true until the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was therefore appropriate to suspend our formal links with the institutes with which we had agreements in Russia. However, we still conduct individual research projects with individuals rather than with public institutions.

When asked if it was a tough decision for the RBGE, Milne replied, “Yes, because it goes against our values ​​to some degree. However, it was the right decision to make, given the seriousness of the problem.

“We could be criticized for working with countries that don’t have a particularly good human rights record. But I think it can be justified because we are getting back to the point of working together for a common goal, which is to combat the loss of biodiversity around the world, for the benefit of all.

“Whatever we do, we will never compromise our own values ​​abroad. And in fact, in many ways, we help because equality and inclusion are very important to us. Training people from all over the world on our courses is very inclusive. »

RBGE propagated plants arrive in Singapore

RBGE success stories can feel like science fiction, bringing near-extinct species to the brink, sending 3D models of plant specimens around the world, and discovering new species at a rate not seen since the discovery of the new. world, ushering in the Age of Explorations. Last year, the organization discovered 72 new species of plants previously unknown to science.

“I think in this relatively small part of Scotland,” said Milne, “there is the collective ability to harness our expertise and work in collaboration with so many people around the world, for the good of society. and the planet.

“I’ve seen some bad things in my time, especially in the Marines, I’ve seen what humans can do to each other, and they still do. I can see what we’re doing to the planet, to see what is happening and personally, it gives me enormous satisfaction to be part of an organization, a Scottish organization, which is doing good in the world and at a time when the world is not necessarily good place, it’s precious.”

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