Community Kitchen Garden coordinator Brian Vick inspects the fall cabbage crop at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond. (Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden)

You can find direct and amusing parallels between traditional museums and botanical gardens. Both house works of beauty that are artfully displayed, and the shows come and go. Viewing the sculptural and priceless bonsai collection at the National Arboretum, for example, has to be every bit as thrilling as seeing a great art show with the added frisson that these century-old plants (and older) are alive and someone has to keep them that way. But botanical gardens have taken on a greater value in recent years as they have found their work touching on some of the most pressing social and environmental issues of the day.

Local and sustainable agriculture, urban farms, crises of diet and nutrition and the ecologically minded life: All these strands now intersect in the world of public horticulture.

On Tuesday, the D.C.-based Institute of Museum and Library Services announced its 2011 National Medal awards. Among the 10 recipients was the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, only the third garden to receive the award. The Chicago Botanic Garden was recognized in 2005, the New York Botanical Garden last year. But those are venerated gardens. Lewis Ginter is the new kid on the block.

Named for the 19th-century landowner who carved out the property in north Richmond, the botanical garden was conceived just 30 years ago by civic-minded garden lovers. It has since become a major cultural institution in the Virginia capital and features a large visitors center, conservatory, display gardens and a children’s garden. It draws about a quarter-million paying visitors a year.

In recent years, its gardening experts have been actively educating children and adults about the interdependence of plants and humans. As the economy tanked three years ago, the gardeners decided on a more practical course: planting a large vegetable garden that generates about 10,000 pounds of fresh produce annually for the city’s food banks. It occupies about a fifth of an acre, and although it’s not one of the garden’s attractions, visitors can view it if they want, said Frank Robinson, president and chief executive. “It’s not very attractive, aesthetically — not one of the more moving experiences we have here.”

In times of adversity, said Robinson, the garden has also fed the mind as well as the body. The number of visits has swelled during the recession as folks find a certain succor amid the floral displays. The day after Hurricane Irene ripped through Richmond, the garden was crowded. It has become “a place where people have a sense of healing and wholeness,” Robinson said.

This represents a shift from the role of horticultural institutions in recent years. “We were more interested, ostensibly at least, in science and education,” Robinson said.