Itching to get out somewhere over the Christmas holidays we trawled through our books and the pile of tourist leaflets I have stashed in a cupboard for some inspiration. Bright ideas were few though as so many places were shut. It seems unless you want to go to the cinema or theatre the only other way to amuse yourself at this time of year is traipse around the shops. I don’t really like shopping … well, unless it’s for books, plants or food. Even worse is the strange frenzy that takes over some people in their desperation to get their hands on the prized sale item they have their eyes on. So, since I wasn’t up for a round of elbow jabbing over a pair of shoes we ended up at the Botanic Gardens in Birmingham.
A soggy day in December isn’t really the best time to visit a garden, especially for the first time, as initial impressions are so important but at this time of year I’m just so desperate to immerse myself in plants again.
The gardens were first opened in 1832 by the Birmingham Botanical and Horticultural Society with the aim of providing a home for the increasing numbers of plants being brought to Britain from around the globe. Combined with this were the ideas of improving the lives of those living in an increasingly industrial and polluted city by providing somewhere green for them to enjoy and encouraging education and the thirst for acquiring knowledge.
The four glasshouses housing tropical, subtropical, Mediterranean and arid loving plants provided shelter for us when the rain inevitably came. I have to admit I find glasshouses a slight disappointment now after visiting the biomes at Eden and the Norman Foster designed glasshouse at the National Botanic Gardens in Wales, which are both so spectacular. Putting this to one side though, there was something beautiful about the Victorian metalwork of the palm house and it was possible to see how, although now a little faded in comparison to modern built glasshouses, these and the exotica inside would have wowed people over a hundred years ago. There were some fascinating plants on display. I loved the prickly pear, the beautiful flowers of Mackaya bella, a plant from Africa, and the delicate white flowers of Begonia suaveolens. And I was intrigued to see tiny white flowers on a money tree. I had no idea it even flowered. I wasn’t quite so keen on the coleus/poinsettia combo though which ran the length of one of the benches in the Mediterranean house. I think the element I love most about botanic gardens is the desire to inform. Little panels were dotted about giving you some fascinating bits of information about the plants on display or the plant hunters that discovered them and brought them to Britain.
A courtyard adjoining the glasshouses is home to the National Collection of Bonsai in what I can only describe as looking like a tree prison. I understand that these trees are worth a lot of money but it was very weird to see them displayed behind bars like they were captives. I felt like leaving a little placard saying ‘Free the Trees’.
Outside it may have been damp and chilly but there were some beautiful faded flowers and seed heads to see. But most importantly, to lift the spirits, were signs of new life; flowers on the witch hazels, bulbs appearing all over and fat, hairy buds on the magnolias.
In the 19th century the gardens weren’t just a home to plants but also included a zoological collection. All that remains of this today is a small collection of birds housed in four domed aviaries. Some may think another placard was needed saying ‘Free the Birds’. I’m uneasy about creatures being kept like this and in an ideal world they wouldn’t need to be but whilst habitat is being destroyed being able to protect species in captivity is important. There’s also a strong argument for the educational value of being able to actually see such creatures so close up. It’s not the greatest photo in the world but we were particularly taken by this little bird with what looked like a toupée. It was reminiscent of a 1970s game show host.
The gardens are very much true to their Victorian roots but there were elements with a more modern take such as the prairie planted area and a garden designed by Chris Beardshaw which shows how a garden can be used as a classroom, encouraging a new generation of growers. Bearing in mind the educational remit of botanic gardens I was surprised, and slightly disappointed to discover that there wasn’t a single gardening book for sale in the shop. Now I’m not sure if there was some secret corner of the shop we failed to find that was actually stuffed with them but it certainly didn’t look like it. There were plenty of scented candles and Christmas decorations though.
Botanic gardens, like Birmingham’s, are precious resources and even though there were elements that felt a little dated and could do with a bit of TLC it was a great place to while away a few hours. I’m looking forward to visiting again when the sun is shining and the roses are blooming.
For more information about Birmingham Botanical Gardens.