Pure research: botanists fear visitors seeking the purity of nature will damage the collections.

China's largest botanical garden is to get a major upgrade, as officials try to involve it in educating the public about science. But some botanists at the garden are appalled at the idea of thousands of people tramping through their precious collections.

The South China Botanical Garden in Guangzhou has until now been run primarily for research purposes. Over the next three years it will receive 300 million yuan (US$36 million) from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the government of Guangdong province and the city council. Plans still stress the garden's scientific role, and the project calls for 30 internationally recognized articles to be published each year. But the refurbished garden is hoped to draw two million visitors every year with its new slant on education and entertainment.

During the SARS epidemic, the number of visitors to the garden's open areas surged fivefold. “They were looking for something clean and pure,” says deputy director Zhou Guoyi. To keep their interest, education facilities will be expanded and the number of species increased from 5,000 to 9,000. Many additions will be wild and endangered plants, opening up new areas of research.

Nonetheless, some botanists fear that their work will be compromised and the change could harm existing collections. The most important ones — including magnolia, ginger and bamboo gardens — have until now been closed to the public. Researchers are worried about vandalism and theft.