With the retirement of the long-time “curator” Ernst Merz, the end was threatening for the cereal cultivar garden in Eschikon. The maintenance of the unique plants could no longer be guaranteed. As a replacement, the collection was digitised and preserved as a “virtual cultivar garden” for future generations of students.
Show gardens were a tradition in botanical gardens and in agricultural faculties
A cereal cultivar garden also existed at ETH in the Eschikon field experiment station. It served to educate the students of ETH and of the neighbouring Strickhof agricultural school. The leader of our field experiment team, Ernst Merz, took the garden over at a young age, and the garden and he virtually grew together and benefited each other. All traditional cereals such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, which have the most diverse demands on a location, were represented. The quality of such a garden does not come naturally but is coupled with the immense knowledge of Ernst Merz, who took over the training of students there from 2004. With the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), interest also grew in Switzerland. The ETH cultivar garden offered by far the best exhibition material.
Maintaining very few specimens of plants in perfect condition has its price; each one has to be specially looked after. Especially ancient cultivars and wild progenitors grow only weakly and lack winter hardiness. When Ernst Merz was about to retire, we had to realise that it would not be possible to continue the garden without his specialist knowledge and his willingness to intervene even during lunch breaks and at weekends.
But the cultivar garden should not disappear completely. The solution was a virtual garden. There were many images of cereal plants on the web, but there was a lack of information to directly compare the different plants. The aim was to provide a database that contained images of all relevant cereal species in a comparable way. The project was realised by Ernst Merz and the photographer and website designer Jonas Honegger. Ernst Merz provided photos of the cultivar garden and Jonas Honegger photographed the infructescences of the cereal cultivars, all in the same scale against a neutral background. The website was launched in two languages, German and English; the budget was no longer sufficient for French.
All information was intended to be freely accessible and usable by all free of charge. The reactions were extremely positive, many sent us information about where and how they had used our images. It soon became clear that with this virtual garden, ETH had built up the most complete document on the origin of cereal cultivars from wild progenitors to landraces and modern breeding cultivars. Even the Science journal published illustrations from the virtual cultivar garden and they can also be found in an American textbook for the BSc in Biology course.
In the meantime, there is again a small cultivar garden in the area of the Field Phenotyping Platform in Lindau Eschikon, which is used for agricultural excursions and teaching in plant breeding. This means that students will not have to do without visual material in the field in the future.