Our islands are so heavily built up that we are missing out on the vital benefits of trees and plants. Architect Amber Wismayer tells Veronica Stivala how the President’s Ethnobotanical Hub is working to help people reconnect with nature through sustainability, conversation and eco-awareness.

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. Numerous definitions of the term exist and a more inclusive definition might be the study of the uses, technological manipulation, classification, agricultural systems, magico-religious concepts, conservation techniques and general economic and sociological importance of plants in primitive or pre-literate societies, as biologist Richard Evans Schultes puts it.

Ethnobotany is certainly not new and the earliest humans must have classified plants out of necessity: those which were of little or no use at all, those which were useful in many practical ways, those which alleviated pain or illness, and those that made them ill.

With time, people became more knowledgeable of the properties, benefits and powers of plants. Yet because of rapid acculturation and westernisation in many parts of the world, a lot of this knowledge has been or is on the brink of being lost. Realisation of the seriousness of this impending loss has given rise to the need for ethno-botanical conservation.

Recognising this need in Malta, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca launched a Hub for Ethnobotanical Research. The hub’s aims include exploring and inspiring relationships between people through their cultural experience of the natural world and discovering innovative and community-centred ways of enhancing well-being through the use of gardens and plants.

The hub will also promote intercultural, intergenerational and interreligious dialogue, with a focus on engaging diversity by bringing together local and migrant communities living in Malta to share and exchange botanical narratives, wisdom and practices.

Architect Amber Wismayer has been involved in the project as a consultant from its early stages and is a member of the core technical committee. Her specialisation is sustainability and energy conservation in heritage buildings. Predominantly, her focus so far has been collaborating with hub coordinator Mario Gerada on the structuring and organisation of the upcoming architects’ roundtable. She has also been involved in the setting up of a seed bank.

“We seem to have adapted to inhabiting a dense urban landscape to the extent that we have lost both our sensitivity to the lack of greenery as well as our appreciation of the symbiotic relationship with trees and plants,” Wismayer says.

Apart from beautifying the landscape, these natural elements have a positive therapeutic effect: they decrease pollution, provide shading, offer a good opportunity for physical exercise and, on a societal level, function as our lungs. However, we have focused so much on the need to architect that the benefits of the natural environment have been pushed aside.

“Where do trees feature in contemporary urban design?” she asks.

In order to address these issue, an architects’ roundtable is being set up with the hope that this serves as a platform to generate a discussion centred around the need for a greener Malta, for instance, by reviving the concept of the Maltese garden and courtyard.

“The traditional Maltese courtyard is a particularly interesting element to explore in the light of its duality as a recreational space as well as a contributor to the energy efficiency of a building,” Wismayer explains.

“Its reuse is a perfect example of a harmonious amalgamation of several distinct principles, namely heritage, energy and greenery conservation. By bringing together experts in different fields, we hope to prompt dialogue and foster an examination of the multi-dimensionality of selected themes.” This discussion forms part of a much larger schedule of events targeting a more holistic group of participants, namely an inter-faith roundtable and a farmers’ roundtable. The ultimate scope is to bring people together through an appreciation of the environment.

The President’s Hub is also running a project which aims to promote local species and to encourage the public to cultivate and maintain their own gardens.

The seed bank initiative was developed based on the fundamental principle that ethnobotanical knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next. It strives to preserve these traditions and facilitate their transfer by creating a space where seeds are collated, propagated and distributed.

The project also promotesharmonious coexistence by exchanging experiences and exploring the ethnobotanical traditions of other cultures.

“Although the residential garden is a personal and unique space, it also provides a medium for ties to be forged and relationships to be strengthened. It’s also a place where both children and adults can form memories,” Wismayer says.

The principles underlining the creation of gardens evolve over decades and centuries, and become an integral part of societal heritage. Wismayer notes how it can, therefore, be deduced that gardens are a means of showcasing different cultures.

“Throughout history people have explored the different properties of species indigenous to their area, for instance as remedies for ailments and as part of traditional cuisine. Through the seed bank, we hope to establish and foster an intercultural dialogue of theoretical and practical botanical value.”

Although the architectural proposal for the building structure is still being developed, the fundamental importance of incorporating particular concepts has already been recognised.

Energy efficiency and sustainability principles, the use of alternative and ecological building materials, as well as water conservation mechanisms will be integrated to embody a greener strategy and outcome.