June 28, 2024

The plant doctor

In a world where plants are often seen as green wallpaper that merely blends into the background, paleobotanist Dr Leonie Scriven is on a mission to cure what she calls “plant blindness”.

Life has come full circle for Adelaide-born plant professional Dr Leonie Scriven. Currently in her seventh year as deputy director at the Botanic Garden and State Herbarium’s Living Collections, Leonie’s career has been interesting and varied having spent time at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens, along with stints in local and state government agencies.

“Working with plants from one end of Australia to the other and now here, certainly gives me an immense appreciation of how diverse this country’s flora palette really is,” she ponders.

Leonie fondly remembers her early Adelaide Botanic Garden connections, regularly catching the tram from Glenelg to visit the garden with her grandmother.

“These trips to town always started with a Milo and chocolate doughnut at the John Martin’s cafeteria, then off to the gardens. I loved exploring, ducking in and out of the fern and water lily-filled shade houses, wandering amongst what felt like forests of giant trees, and filling my pockets with dried leaves – something I probably shouldn’t have done!”

So, it’s little wonder she remained plant-focused, completing her science degree and then post-doctoral studies in paleobotany, which is the fascinating study of ancient plants and their evolutionary history.

Leonie’s role at the Adelaide Botanic Garden makes her accountable for site management and horticulture, as well as the development and curation of the living plant collection for the four estates – Adelaide, Botanic Park, Mount Lofty and Wittunga.

She willingly acknowledges that being able to call these gardens her “office” is a true privilege.

Often introducing herself as a “doctor who cures plant blindness”, Leonie’s experience as a research scientist investigating complex systems, designing processes and policy protocol, places her in a perfect position to address the symptoms and importantly provide the cure for people who simply don’t see plants.

“People are quick to see animals, birds, and insects in the environment, but trees and plants tend to disappear into the background, like green wallpaper. I believe botanic gardens have a role in changing that perception by immersing visitors in an amazing plant world, filled with knowledge and energy, providing pathways where the more people understand plants, the more appreciated they become.”

More than 1.4 million visitors wandered through the Adelaide Botanic Garden in 2023, which proves the drawing power of this magnetic green space; it has made an indelible mark on generations of South Australians and tourists alike. Everyone, it seems, has a “Botanic Garden” story.

The current North Terrace site was set out in 1855. Incorporating existing mature River Red Gums in that inaugural design, these grand beauties remain today and have witnessed a dramatic change in the surrounding landscape of open grassy plains with patches of trees and shrubs, to the CBD metropolis it now borders. If only their trunks could talk.

An important contribution the Garden provided the emerging colony was an economic one. But that vital connection with local First Nations people to gain an understanding of Indigenous food sources and land uses was missing and early settlers relied on their European heritage for horticulture. Trial plantings across a range of fruit, vegetable and other commercial plants were undertaken by the Botanic Garden to help guide newly arrived settlers in what produce would or would not grow in these antipodean conditions.

One of Leonie’s “must visit” places is the imposing Museum of Economic Botany, located in the Adelaide Botanic Garden, which harks back to that era. Renovated in 2010, a trip among the many quirky and fun collections transports you back 150 years.

“I admire the tenacity of our early Garden staff. When the Gardens were first established there was no piped water, you couldn’t just turn on a tap, connect a hose, or move a sprinkler. Keeping plants alive and thriving relied on carted water and watering cans. We are all reaping the rewards of their efforts.”

Today’s staff continue that passionate and dedicated tradition, albeit with the assistance of automatic irrigation, power tools and even AI-operated mowers.

Climate change and plant extinctions have led botanic gardens across the world to pivot their focus.

“Traditionally, the Botanic Garden has been a recreation and leisure destination, though over time our increasing awareness of habitat loss, coupled with climate change and other factors, has seen us raise the importance of horticulture and plant conservation.”

Adjacent the Schomburgk Pavilion (which is undergoing major restoration), the Mediterranean Garden aims to pair education with garden aesthetics. Incorporating expertise from the Mediterranean Garden Society of South Australia it has forged strong bonds and upskilled already knowledgeable staff.

Once finished, this garden on one level, will be a plant-filled and attractive space to spend time in. On another level, it will be an ideas generator, showcasing a range of Mediterranean climate and water-smart plants, available from garden centres, that visitors can easily access and plant in their own yards.

“The redesigned Mediterranean Garden is a great example of how we can successfully blend the general experience of being amongst nature and the added benefits of health and wellbeing, with improving a visitor’s plant and conservation knowledge,” Leonie says.

It’s all part of lifting the plant blindness veil. The Adelaide Botanic Garden has benefitted greatly through its plant society collaborations over the years.

Thanks to the Dahlia Society of SA, the dazzling late-summer and autumn displays in the Dahlia Triangle opposite the Dead House have wowed many a walker and passer-by. Similarly, as has the fabulous International Rose Garden, opposite the Bicentennial Conservatory, which was awarded the World Federation of Rose Societies, Garden of Excellence status in 2023. This would not have been possible without the valued assistance and expert knowledge from the Rose Society of SA whose members volunteer pruning and maintenance throughout the year.

Paleobotanist Dr Leonie Scriven, who works at the Adelaide Botanic Garden, describes herself as a plant doctor who is out on a mission to cure “plant blindness” … whereby people fail to recognise the trees and plants around them.

Leonie enthuses with the mention of events. Botanic Park was the traditional hub for major events like WOMADelaide, however thanks to the vision of previous Garden director Dr Lucy Sutherland (and continuing under current director Dr Michael Harvey), they are flinging open the Adelaide Botanic Garden gates to events,
such as Illuminate and the Adelaide Fringe. It has proven an enormous success.

“These events are a rare chance to visit the Garden at night,” Leonie says. “Even regular patrons are amazed at how the place sounds, smells and feels so different. That’s even before they are entertained by the clever and mind-bending events.”

Of course, no event happens without lots of largely unseen hard work. Leonie with her small and enthusiastic team are tireless in ensuring everything goes off without a hitch and the plant collections are protected and featured.

“While every event is fantastic, I’m so excited about the upcoming Dale Chihuly exhibition commencing in September and running until April 2025. This is the first time Dale Chihuly’s Garden Cycle exhibition has been shown in the southern hemisphere. It will be astounding and an incredible privilege for Adelaide.”

Loving the seasonality of the Garden, Leonie admits that while everywhere is wonderful, she does have a soft spot for the Palm House. Noting it arrived disassembled as possibly one of the world’s first “flat packs” in 1875, it now houses the Madagascan Collection. How apt indeed this paleobotanist has such a close affinity with the weird and wonderful plants evolving from an island geographically isolated for 88 million years.

Asked about her legacy, Leonie muses: “It is the work by directors and staff over the garden’s history that has put this space in the position it is today. We are its custodians. Each of us has a space in time to contribute, to help improve and then hand it on to the next carer.”


This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.


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