They are directly in the path of danger brought by climate change, with many species facing an uncertain future as the planet warms up and threatens biodiversity across the globe. 

But now scientists are hoping that plants themselves could hold the key to protecting people from some of the worst vagaries of changing weather patterns, by soaking up flood water and absorbing heat and pollution in our towns and cities.  

Large-scale experiments are to take place in Scotland to investigate whether garden shrubs, flowers, bushes and trees could be deployed as a first line of defence against the vagaries of extreme weather events and rising temperatures across the globe. 

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has announced a £500,000 programme to spearhead research into providing resilience for our towns and cities in the face of rising temperatures and increased rainfall. 

The five-year ‘Plants with Purpose’ scheme, which will be officially launched later this spring, will employ the research institute’s unique blend of scientific and conservation horticulture expertise to assess how society as a whole can more effectively utilise garden plants. 

Scientists will study whether plants could be used to absorb flash flood water, or moderate extreme temperatures and provide cleaner air in built-up areas. They will also examine how common flowers could be used to provide better conditions for key pollinators such as bees, moths and insects, which are vital in ensuring a good harvest of crops and fruit. 

The Herald:

The Royal Botanic Garden’s four sites around Scotland will all be used as living laboratories for the project, which it is hoped will provide ‘ecosystem solutions’ to looming climate challenges. 

Raoul Curtis-Machin, RBGE Director of Horticulture and Visitor Experience, said: “While we know intuitively that green is good, and that plants are essential for our planet and our lives, we need to find out more about how different plants can tangibly work in the battle to cope with our changing climate. 

“Plants are already incorporated into landscape features such as green walls and roofs, rain gardens and stormwater planters.  

“Collectively referred to as blue-green infrastructure and Nature-based Solutions, these are now making differences in towns and cities around the world.”  

He added: “As a leading botanic garden and also a visitor attraction, we are perfectly placed to work with a broad spectrum of partners to measure, improve and communicate these traits, to equip individuals, industry and policy makers with the knowledge, tools and skills to use natural solutions to help us adapt to the changing climate.” 

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The research programme will also explore how deploying plants as a defence against extreme weather could promote economic growth, by encouraging increased productivity and jobs as knowledge and skills evolve.

He said: “The legacy of traditional urban grey infrastructure is that our cities are ill-prepared to contend with the impacts of heat and extreme weather in our changing climate.  

“Therefore, using traditional infrastructure to engineer our way out of the climate emergency is not always the most efficient path forwards; nature already holds many of the solutions that we can deploy for more sustainable and liveable future cities. Including Nature-based Solutions in our adaptation toolkit makes good sense.” 

The Herald: Nature Based Solutions scientist Dr Emma Bush and RBGE Director of Horticulture and Visitor Experience Raoul Curtis-MachinNature Based Solutions scientist Dr Emma Bush and RBGE Director of Horticulture and Visitor Experience Raoul Curtis-Machin (Image: NQ)

The research team is headed-up by RBGE ecologist Dr Chris Ellis, who said that towns and cities needed to adapt to an uncertain future as the climate shifts.  

The Botanic Garden’s Nature-based Solutions scientists, Caitlyn Johnstone and Dr Emma Bush, will run the Plants with Purpose research programme.  

Over the next few weeks, they will be speaking to teachers, specialists and industry around the UK to gather their views on the project. 

The views of local authorities and members of the public will also be sought to ensure the research achieves maximum impact across Scotland. 

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Caitlyn Johnstone said: “Rapid climate changes are simultaneously fuelling the biodiversity crisis alongside infrastructure and wellbeing challenges for humans. It is too urgent of a situation to address piecemeal.  

“In nature, we have excellent examples of plants acting as integral parts of effective strategies to complex problems. This new programme will give us an opportunity to collect and share data while demonstrating ecosystem solutions in real time, pairing the right plants to the right dilemmas for the good of both humans and nature.” 

Emma Bush added a call to action. 

She said: “We desperately need to make more space for nature in our cities. Designing plants into our buildings and streets can help us soak away excess rainfall, cool and clean our air, and even improve our own health and wellbeing.  

“But, knowing which plants to use where, and how to look after them, can be a challenge. We cannot wait to get stuck into this new research programme and share what we learn with visitors to our Gardens, the wider public and partner organisations.”