COMMENTARY || Aga Khan Garden offers more than meets the eye

New garden is a valuable "living laboratory" for scientists as well as a cultural asset for Canadians, says U of A dean

As is characteristic of many of His Highness the Aga Khan's initiatives, there is more to the newly opened Aga Khan Garden, Alberta than meets the eye.

The Aga Khan Garden, a hidden gem located at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, is a very special cultural asset that will benefit Edmontonians and all Canadians for generations to come. We owe a world of gratitude to His Highness the Aga Khan, the Imam (spiritual leader) of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims.

The Aga Khan Garden reimagines the rich garden landscapes of past Muslim civilizations in a contemporary Canadian context. In its layout, for example, the garden takes inspiration from the Persian Bustan or orchard, as well as the Chahar-Bagh or "four-garden" design, seen to be a manifestation of the gardens of Paradise in their earthly form.

While the garden's muse may be rooted in lands and civilizations far away, there is evidence at every corner of its distinct Canadian rooting. The rose collection contains a nod to the garden's provincial heritage; its fountain is inspired by Alberta's official flower, the wild rose. In acknowledging its Canadian origin and foundation, all the stonework in the garden that touches the earth is Canadian-quarried, -designed and built to last centuries.

In addition to bringing to life some of the oft-forgotten and striking cultural richness of Muslim societies of the past, the Aga Khan Garden was also conceived as a catalyst for scientific inquiry. The garden, administered through the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, extends the faculty's research programs across many fields including the environmental sciences, agriculture, and ecology at the site with results destined for international distribution.

While a breathtaking work of beauty, the garden becomes a living laboratory, and part of a global network attempting to understand and preserve biodiversity.

The garden also links the Edmonton region to a network of idyllic sculpted landscapes around the globe. The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta joins a series of world-renowned gardens across the globe such as Sunder Nursery in Delhi, Bagh-e Babur gardens in Kabul and Khorog City Park in Khorog, Tajikistan, all of which are sites of global repute in the world of cultural restoration, landscape design and architecture.

In its spaces and design, the Aga Khan Garden will work to enhance the University of Alberta Botanic Garden's existing capacity for educational programming and activity.

From adult learning to well-being and early childhood education, the programs at the Aga Khan Garden will reflect the university's mission and aspiration-to make a difference in society for the benefit of our communities, country and the world.

Adults will have the opportunity to engage in courses on horticulture, and landscape design, while tens of thousands of children will be exposed annually to the importance of environmental stewardship through Kids-in-the-Garden field trips and our award-winning Green School Program.

In the tumultuous history of humanity, garden spaces have endured over the centuries, providing stability, food, convening spaces and solace in times good and bad. In different forms, gardens have provided people with a place of relaxation, of enjoyment and peace. The garden works to cultivate a sense of wonder at the beauty and majesty of the natural world.

The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta does this and more. It will be a space of beauty, peace and laughter, and it will also be a place of learning, of cutting-edge research and of intellectual exchange and enlightenment.

We welcome you to become part of the beauty that is the Aga Khan Garden, Alberta at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden.

Stanford Blade is the dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

This opinion-editorial originally appeared Oct. 16 in the Edmonton Journal.