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What's the Difference Between a Botanical Garden and a Nursery?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Botanical gardens and nurseries both raise and care for plants, though with different purposes in mind. Briefly put, a botanical garden is usually a nonprofit institution, which has a constantly growing and evolving collection of plants on extensive grounds maintained for people to walk through. A nursery, on the other hand, raises a large stock of plants for sale to landscapers, the public, and institutions. Both provide important contributions to our society.

The concept of a botanical garden has been around for centuries. In the age of exploration, many leading powers had large botanical gardens stocked with exotic plants that explorers had brought back. The botanical garden was a place to raise, maintain, and display numerous plant species. Many scientists used botanical gardens to study the relationships between plants. A botanical garden with a heavy proportion of woody plants and trees is called an arboretum.

The modern botanical garden often has an extensive collection broken up regionally or by genetic relationships. Visitors are given a guide to the botanical garden and encouraged to walk through and examine the collections. In addition to being a beautiful respite from everyday life, the botanical garden is also educational, providing information about the collection and nature in general.

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The botanical garden is also used to research and preserve endangered plant species. Especially in areas like the Brazilian rain forest, which is experiencing rapid deforestation, scientists strive to preserve plant species before they are lost forever. A botanical garden, much like a zoo, can breed and preserve species that will not survive in the wild.

Scientists use botanical gardens to study the medicinal properties of plants as well, most famously in the Chelsea Physic Garden. For example, when Jesuits first brought the cinchona tree to Europe from South America, scientists studied and cultivated the tree, along with its valuable quinine-containing bark, in arboretums. Botanical gardens provide numerous services to our society: educational, conservationist, and medical, as well as aesthetic.

A nursery raises plants for commercial sale. While many botanical gardens integrate a small nursery and museum store, these are usually designed to supplement the income of the botanical garden, whereas a commercial nursery is a for-profit endeavor. In an increasingly paved and deforested world, nurseries distribute plants, trees, shrubs, and everything in between to a world hungry for greenery.

Some nurseries specialize in a particular family or type of plant, such as roses or shade trees. Others have a wide and varied stock, often arranged in a garden to make the plants more appealing and to give customers an idea of how various plants look together. Nurseries don't just specialize in ornamental plants — many sell starter vegetables, fruit trees, and so forth, as well. Usually, nursery staff are very knowledgeable about the stock and eager to help new gardeners.

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