Jay Turner provides a fascinating history of the first U.S. Botanic Garden, and the coin that has helped restore plant conservation in the U.S.
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This month’s Modern Coin of the Month marked a new beginning for a sometimes underappreciated yet important institution. Proceeds from the sale of 1997 Botanic Garden commemorative coins helped fund a renovation of the historical United States Botanic Garden and its continuing efforts.
Throughout history, botanic gardens have played an important role in the study, preservation and collecting of plants and plant life. While the study of botany can be traced back to ancient times, the plant life studied was often only in the surrounding area of the person studying it. As trade routes developed, and through the colonization of new lands such as Africa, the Americas and Asia, exotic plants became more accessible for study. These plants were also desired for their medicinal properties, as food sources, and for other uses. Soon, botanic gardens would appear in major European cities as explorers returned with new plants they had collected overseas.
The United States Congress felt this endeavor was important for America to participate in as well, since such institutions had existed for hundreds of years in Europe. The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences proposed the idea to collect the plants of America and other countries to grow, distribute and benefit the American people. The United States Botanic Garden was officially established in 1820, but by the 1830s, meetings for the institution ceased. However, the Botanic Garden was reestablished in 1842 when plants from across the world were brought back to Washington from an exploring expedition to the South Seas. The Botanic Garden has moved several times, but the current structure established in 1933 is located in Washington, D.C., on the U.S. Capitol Grounds.
By 1994 the Botanic Garden needed funding for restoration, to continue projects and start new missions. The Botanic Garden commemorative dollar was proposed and signed into law with a $10 surcharge per coin going toward such projects. The coins went on sale in 1997 being offered individually, in Botanic Garden Sets with a special matte finished Nickel, and in Prestige Sets. The coin, though generic in its design, was well received, and over 264,000 proofs and over 57,000 mint state examples were sold.
Through funding from the coin and other sources, the Botanic Garden closed in September of 1997 for restoration and reopened to the public in 2001. Construction continued on parts of the garden until 2006.
The mission of the Botanic Garden is not only to offer visitors the experience and education of viewing exotic plants. The collection and preservation of specimens allows for genetic research and the conservation of plant life. As unfounded fears of GMO plants are spread, the Botanic Garden holds original plants as they were found and collected in nature. Also, it allows for species of plants that are threatened in the wild to be preserved for future generations. Today there are over 700 botanic gardens in the United States alone. However, the Botanic Garden commemorated on the 1997 coin was the first started by the United States government.
The United States Botanic Garden is certainly an institution worthy of commemoration based on its history alone. The 1997 Botanic Garden Commemorative Silver Dollar not only helped to preserve that history, but also helps support the future of the institution, making it an interesting choice for Modern Coin of the Month.