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Villa Thuret’s beautiful garden is helping science advance
The Villa Thuret Botanical Garden is an arboretum that harbors an exceptionally rich flora and that acts as a plant biodiversity reservoir. It is also a living laboratory in which scientists are studying the acclimation mechanisms of tree species, an important issue in the face of climate change.
Located near the Cap d’Antibes peninsula in southern France, Villa Thuret and its garden (photo 1) were created in 1857 by Gustave Thuret (1817-1875), a renowned phycologist and botanist. In 1877, the garden was donated to the French government and then, in 1927, control was handed over to the institute that would later become INRA in 1947. On January 1, 2012, the garden became one of INRA’s experimental units.
Rare tree families that you can see while wandering around the 3.5-hectare grounds of the Thuret arboretum include the Myrtaceae (e.g., eucalyptus), the Proteaceae (e.g., macadamia), and the Malvaceae (e.g., hibiscus) (photos 2 and 3).
These trees, native to far-away lands and planted starting in the 19th century, are serving as model organisms for acquiring data on plant acclimation to climate change (photo 4).
A tree’s shedding of its bark (photo 5) is one signal of its physiological state and can allow researchers to quantify the effects of climate change.
Certain plant species are being studied to see if they can be used in new ways. For example, an arbutus native to the eastern Mediterranean Basin (photo 6) might be a helpful addition to periurban green spaces and forested parks because it can serve as an ornamental, resists drought and heat waves, and produces high-quality wood.
Overall, the garden contains 1,250 woody species from 150 plant families (photo 7). At Villa Thuret, plants are allowed to grow freely, without being trimmed, watered, or treated with pesticides or fertilizers. Indeed, the goal is to see how well these non-native plants deal with natural local conditions, such as the climate and soil.
In addition to the collection of live plant species, the wealth of Villa Thuret includes a herbarium and library, which have historical value (photo 8), as well as extensive archives (e.g., notes and correspondence related to the acclimation research, various documents, and schematics).
The Villa Thuret Botanical Garden is open to the public. Each plant bears a label with its scientific and common names, its taxonomic family, and its native range (photo 9). In 2013, INRA’s Villa Thuret team of botanists and its associates welcomed 12,000 visitors, who explored the garden on their own or as part of a guided tour.
THE GARDEN: A TRUE FIELD SITE
The Villa Thuret experimental unit, which is run by Catherine Ducatillion, an INRA engineer, is responsible for maintaining, managing, and taking advantage of the plant collection found at this historical site. “We are studying how certain tree species are adapting to changing conditions, particularly those that are useful because they yield biomass, natural compounds, forest cover, or high-quality wood,” explains Ducatillion. She continues, “The approach we are using to adapt the garden to changing conditions has shifted as we have gleaned more knowledge. We are now better able to select the species to plant, and even the best plant regions, all while taking genetic variation into account. Also, for our study on climate change, we are going to more frequently monitor the trees’ life cycles, depending on the season. Over the course of the last decade, for instance, we have focused more on the introduction of oaks native to the eastern Mediterranean Basin or Central America.”
For more information, see this film on Villa Thuret, in which Catherine Ducatillion gives a tour of the botanical garden (in French).