A couple of days off last week were well-timed with a spell of lovely weather and, as much as I love my plot, I do like the opportunity to get out and about. We’d been thinking about visiting the Bristol Botanic Garden for a while but had never got round to it, so with the sun shining we thought we’d give it a try.
Part of the University of Bristol, the garden has moved around quite a bit. In 1882, the first botanic garden was created on a site in the Clifton area of the city, the gardens were then relocated twice before 2005 when they were moved to their current location, known as The Holmes. It must be some task moving an entire botanic garden, the prospect of moving house and wanting to take so many plants with me fills me with trepidation I can’t quite imagine having to move enough plants to fill almost 2 hectares.
I love botanic gardens but it’s important to approach them in a different way to other garden visits. Whilst they can still be beautiful places, the focus is on learning, showing how plants have evolved, how they fit within our ecosystems and how humans can exploit plants in a multitude of ways. The ideas behind the planting and design of botanic gardens is different to any other type of garden. Plant labels are in abundance. There tends to be only one plant of a variety, as the idea is about showing diversity within species and not necessarily creating a ‘pleasing to the eye’ planting scheme. Often plants are included that have very few aesthetic qualities; they wouldn’t make it onto most ‘must buy’ lists. Visiting a botanic garden though, is about seeing plants in a different way not just looking at them in terms of beauty but removing our gardening glasses and appreciating plants for the food they give us, the chemicals within them that provide important medicines and understanding how they have evolved over 500 million years.
The first section of the garden is an area where plants have been grouped according to how they are pollinated. It was fascinating to discover that it’s not just bees, butterflies and moths that pollinate plants and that there are some plants that have developed a special relationship with a particular species of pollinator. There are orchids pollinated by wasps, bat pollinated bananas and bottlebrush plants pollinated by possums.
There is an area devoted to flora local to the Bristol and Somerset area which includes some rare species. There is the rare Bristol Onion and Sorbus bristoliensis and Sorbus wilmottiana which can only be found in the Avon Gorge and nowhere else.
The botanic gardens have strong links with the Register for Chinese Medicine and, in partnership with them, have created a Chinese Herb Garden where students can study. Some of the plants are not found anywhere else in Britain. It’s rare, for example, to find a female Ginkgo biloba tree in cultivation because the fruit it produces, when ripe, smell disgusting.
I particularly loved the section devoted to plant evolution. The path dipped down here to create a dell with some gorgeous specimen plants. Rocks from key geological periods had been used along with plants from the time to show that the first plant life existed only in water but then mosses and liverworts evolved, as did ferns and horsetails. There were some beautiful tree ferns and cycads followed by Monkey Puzzle trees and Wollemi pines until you reach the first flowering plants to evolve. Many of these first ancient flowering plants became extinct but the magnolia family is one of the few to have survived.
In the area devoted to Mediterranean planting there were crops specific to this climatic area. It is intriguing to see Flax plants, from where linseed comes and durum wheat. I’ve eaten pasta made from the wheat and often put linseed in my cereal but I’d never actually seen what the plants looked like.
My favourite area had to be the glasshouses. I love the intense heat, the damp musty smell and the exotica inside these places. Here, at Bristol, the glasshouses are divided into different climatic zones. There was an impressive collection of cacti, pelargoniums and succulents representing the warm temperate areas of South Africa and the Americas. The sub-tropical area included orchids, ferns and, the always fascinating, fly-catching plants but it was the tropical zone that was most impressive with the Giant Amazon Waterlily and lotus plants in the central pool. Around the edge were plants we all know from our weekly shop such as the banana plant and the cocoa plant. A stem of some sugar cane had been cut open and it was possible to see the gleaming white sticky sugary liquid inside.
Botanic gardens are important places and it’s good to see that the University wanted to invest in a new site when the garden was moved rather than closing it. No university in Britain now offers Botany as a full degree, which is incredibly sad when the potential of plants is so vast and our knowledge of them is still so limited. As climate change increases, I think our need for understanding plants will only become greater. The gardens are still a work in progress and it will be some time before some areas have become established and I do wish there was a more ‘appealing to the eye’ way of labelling the plants than the green plastic labels with marker pen scrawled on them. I’m sure it is the cheap option, important when funds are tight but it did look sometimes like they were cultivating the labels and not plants. But as a place to while away a few hours it was well worth the trip and I now know what a chickpea looks like when on the plant.
P.S. It appears that these dangling pods above, are not, in fact, chickpeas. I am none the wiser to what they actually are. One of the problems with Botanic Gardens is having lots of labels dotted about can sometimes make it difficult to work out what plant relates to what label. Hence, the chickpea misidentification. Thank you Christina for making me wonder and thanks to the internet for confirming her thoughts. Just thought I’d clarify, wouldn’t want to be giving out duff information.
For more information about the garden and events and courses held there visit the Bristol Botanic Garden website.