Rule botan­ica

An­thony Lam­bert cel­e­brates the Bri­tish pas­sion for all things green and grow­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain -

WHAT is a botanic gar­den ex­actly? Def­i­ni­tions have changed over time and they can sound off-putting. A con­tem­po­rary one — ‘‘ in­sti­tu­tions hold­ing doc­u­mented col­lec­tions of liv­ing plants for the pur­poses of sci­en­tific re­search, con­ser­va­tion, dis­play and ed­u­ca­tion’’ — doesn’t be­gin to con­vey the plea­sure they can of­fer to non-botanists.

It’s the re­mark­able char­ac­ter­is­tic of botanic gar­dens that they can be en­joyed in many dif­fer­ent ways by the most knowl­edge­able plant tax­onomists as well as by peo­ple who can’t tell an aza­lea from a rhodo­den­dron.

Lit­tle re­gard was orig­i­nally given to the aes­thetic ar­range­ment of plants, but many botanic gar­dens now de­vote as much ef­fort to pre­sen­ta­tion as do coun­try­house gar­dens. For gardeners, botanic gar­dens are like a liv­ing cat­a­logue; fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will be thank­ful for their work in cre­at­ing seed banks. Most botanic gar­dens are in or near ur­ban ar­eas and pro­vide spec­tac­u­lar green lungs and space for res­i­dents and vis­i­tors; many also gen­tly ed­u­cate in the im­por­tance of the nat­u­ral world. The first botanic gar­dens were nar­rowly func­tional: known as physic gar­dens, they were in­tended to pro­vide plants that could be used in medicine. The first was founded in Pisa in 1543, and they can be seen as a de­vel­op­ment of the monas­tic gar­den, in which all man­ner of plants were grown, whether or not their use was known. (It was thought that all plants must be of use to man.) Which was the first in the Bri­tish Isles? The old­est is Ox­ford Botanic Gar­den, founded in 1621 by Henry Dan­vers, first earl of Danby, whose por­trait by An­thony van Dyck hangs in the Her­mitage in St Peters­burg. He leased from Mag­dalen Col­lege 1.8ha of river­side land and gave £5000 (more than $8 mil­lion to­day) ‘‘ for the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of God and for the fur­ther­ance of learn­ing’’.

The land was soon ringed by the high stone walls that stand to­day, en­clos­ing the tra­di­tional bor­ders and glasshouses for lilies, or­chids and palms; out­side the walls are the Wa­ter Gar­den and Rock Gar­den. The gar­den con­tains more than 8000 plant species, some laid out in beds to il­lus­trate their uses, such as thorn ap­ple, which is be­ing tested for the treat­ment of Parkin­son’s dis­ease. The gar­den has pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for var­i­ous writ­ers, from Lewis Car­roll and J. R. R. Tolkien (who would sit un­der his favourite tree, the enor­mous Ent-like black pine, or Pi­nus ni­gra , from Aus­tria) to Philip Pull­man, who used the wooden bench at the back of the gar­den in TheAm­berSpy­glass . Open daily; www.botanic-gar­ Are there any tra­di­tional physic gar­dens left? The best known is Lon­don’s Chelsea Physic Gar­den es­tab­lished in 1673 as the apothe­caries’ gar­den. Thanks to Dr Hans Sloane (af­ter whom nearby Sloane Square is named), the 1.4ha gar­den is held on a lease of £5 a year in per­pe­tu­ity. Its early seed-ex­change pro­gram helped in­tro­duce cot­ton into the US state of Ge­or­gia. It’s tucked away be­hind tall brick walls on Royal Hospi­tal Road and has been open to vis­i­tors only since 1983. It’s se­cluded and in­ti­mate and the heat-trap­ping walls help to grow some trees rare in Bri­tain, such as the most northerly out­door grape­fruit and the largest fruit­ing olive. Open Wed­nes­days to Fri­days and Sun­days; www.chelsea­physic­gar­

The Ed­in­burgh Royal Botanic Gar­den was es­tab­lished on its present 27.9ha site in the 1820s, yet it dates from a gar­den set up in 1670 to teach the medic­i­nal use of plants to med­i­cal stu­dents. It’s renowned for the largest col­lec­tion of wild-ori­gin Chi­nese plants out­side China, for its vast rock gar­den of moraines and streams with more than 5000 alpine plants, and for the Scot­tish Heath Gar­den, which re-cre­ates the land­scape of the High­lands. Open daily; Why is there of­ten a queue for Kew? With more than 1.3 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, the Royal Botanic Gar­dens can be busy on sunny days at key times of the year for colour, but there are four en­trances and fre­quent vis­i­tors may find it worth be­com­ing a Friend, which al­lows un­lim­ited ad­mis­sion (and no queu­ing). Cov­er­ing more than 121.4ha be­side the Thames at Kew in south­west Lon­don, it is the largest and most im­por­tant botanic gar­den in Bri­tain. Along with the jointly man­aged Wake­hurst Place in West Sus­sex, it has prob­a­bly the largest and most di­verse liv­ing col­lec­tion in the world. Kew has been de­vel­oped from two ad­ja­cent royal gar­dens land­scaped by some of Bri­tain’s finest land­scape de­sign­ers, such as Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown and William Cham­bers, who in 1761, as a sur­prise for Princess Au­gusta, de­signed the 10-storey Great Pagoda that dom­i­nates the south­east cor­ner; he also de­signed the Or­angery and three tem­ples.

Two years ear­lier, a 3.6ha botanic gar­den was founded, mark­ing the beginning of the gar­den’s sci­en­tific pur­pose, though its ear­lier his­tory has helped Kew re­tain its ar­tis­ti­cally pleas­ing de­sign and plant­ings. It is im­pos­si­ble to see ev­ery­thing in one visit but, to find tran­quil­lity even on a busy day, head for the south­west­ern cor­ner around the cot­tage ornee (cre­ated for Queen Char­lotte, wife of Ge­orge III), in the old­est area of con­tin­u­ous wood­land in the gar­den. The cot­tage was used for the oc­ca­sional meal and the nat­u­ral state of the blue­bell woods is thanks to a stip­u­la­tion by Queen Vic­to­ria; though her re­quest was not en­tirely hon­oured af­ter her death, it re­mains the wildest part of the gar­den. Open daily; Is there any­thing new at Kew for the 21st-cen­tury botanic trav­eller? A new gallery de­voted to botan­i­cal draw­ing and paint­ing (the world’s first) has opened. The Shirley Sher­wood Gallery of Botan­i­cal Art kicks off with an ex­hi­bi­tion show­ing the scope and rich­ness of Kew’s and Sher­wood’s col­lec­tions, with many of the pic­tures on pub­lic dis­play for the first time.

Kew has one of the world’s great­est col­lec­tions of botan­i­cal art, more than 200,000 items by mas­ters such as G. D. Ehret, the Bauer broth­ers and Pierre-Joseph Red­oute along­side 19th-cen­tury artists such as Wal­ter Hood Fitch, one of the most pro­lific botan­i­cal artists.

Be­sides its size and scope, the im­por­tance of Kew’s col­lec­tion lies in hav­ing the only sur­viv­ing record of some ex­tinct species. Sher­wood’s com­ple­men­tary col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary botan­i­cal art by more than 200 artists from 30 coun­tries is also on long loan to Kew. The strik­ing new glass build­ing is linked with the nearby Mar­i­anne North Gallery, a per­ma­nent dis­play of 832 botan­i­cal and land­scape paint­ings by that re­doubtable Vic­to­rian trav­eller and artist.

Many of the pic­tures are as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful, and the re­mark­able de­tail and sub­tlety make it easy to ap­pre­ci­ate why photography has not killed botan­i­cal art, even for sci­en­tific re­search. The open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion runs un­til Oc­to­ber 19, to be fol­lowed by an ex­hi­bi­tion of tree sub­jects from Novem­ber 1. Any­thing else? Botanic gar­dens can also trans­port vis­i­tors by recre­at­ing dif­fer­ent cli­mates. It was in this arena that Vic­to­rian in­ge­nu­ity re­ally came to the fore. New ma­te­ri­als made avail­able by the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion al­lowed the construction of huge build­ings with an un­in­ter­rupted floor area. Ship­build­ing tech­nol­ogy was used to cre­ate build­ings that look like up­turned hulls.

The pre­cur­sor of the palm houses that be­came so pop­u­lar in botanic gar­dens was Joseph Pax­ton’s Great Stove at Chatsworth, erected in 1836-40. It was de­stroyed in 1920, so the old­est sur­viv­ing palm house is in the Botanic Gar­dens in Belfast, be­gun in 1839; www.belfastc­

Prob­a­bly the finest ex­am­ple in the world, how­ever, is the Grade I-listed wrought-iron and cast-iron palm house at Kew, built in 1844-8 to a de­sign by Dec­imus Bur­ton and Richard Turner. It was orig­i­nally heated by coal-fired boil­ers, whose smoke was fed through un­der­ground pipes to the Ital­ianate campanile chim­ney that still stands by the Vic­to­ria Gate Cen­tre. The tem­per­ate house, twice as large as the palm house, is the largest Vic­to­rian glasshouse in ex­is­tence.

The pur­pose of th­ese build­ings was to cre­ate a cli­mate in which ex­otic flora could flour­ish, giv­ing a sense of what trop­i­cal rain­for­est looked, smelled, and (if birds were in­tro­duced) sounded like. They also il­lus­trated the use of plants by show­ing prod­ucts made from them.

Splen­did dis­play: Palm House, Kew Gar­dens Any other great iron glasshouses? The first glasshouse at the Royal Botanic Gar­den, Ed­in­burgh, pre­dates Kew and re­mains the tallest, at al­most 22m; the trop­i­cal palm house was built in 1834 and ex­tended in 1862 by adding a tem­per­ate palm house. Vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence 10 dis­tinct cli­matic zones.

Also com­bin­ing var­i­ous cli­matic habi­tats within a sin­gle build­ing is the 1930s Glasshouse Range at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Botanic Gar­den. Made partly of teak, the range has a re­plant­ing pro­gram that ex­plores how plants have evolved to sur­vive in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments, from icy moun­tains to desert and jun­gle. Cov­er­ing 16.1ha, the gar­den is an oa­sis of tran­quil­lity, pop­u­lar for lunchtime sand­wiches away from the of­fice. It was be­gun in 1831 by John Henslow, the teacher of Charles Dar­win, and opened in 1846. Henslow re­garded trees as the most im­por­tant plants, and they form the frame­work of the gar­den, though there are more than 10,000 plant species, notably (and iron­i­cally for the Fens) alpine plants and laven­ders. Open daily; What about spe­cific species? Some botanic gar­dens fo­cus on lo­cal plants or on a par­tic­u­lar species, some­times hold­ing the na­tional col­lec­tion of a par­tic­u­lar plant, which means that it’s the most com­pre­hen­sive in Bri­tain. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Botanic Gar­den does both. It works to con­serve and prop­a­gate rare plants of the Fens and sandy Breck­lands, as well as hold­ing nine na­tional col­lec­tions. Ox­ford Botanic Gar­den has the na­tional col­lec­tion of euphor­bias, while Bedge­bury Na­tional Pine­tum, in Kent has 608 species of conifers, the world’s most com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion. Open daily;; www.bedge­buryp­ine­ For in­spi­ra­tion? One of Bri­tain’s most vis­ited gar­dens is Wis­ley, in Sur­rey, which has been looked af­ter by the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety since 1903. The 97ha es­tate in­cor­po­rates nu­mer­ous for­mal and in­for­mal dec­o­ra­tive gar­dens, sev­eral glasshouses, an ex­ten­sive ar­bore­tum, small-scale model gar­dens and a tri­als field where new cul­ti­vars are as­sessed. Open Mon­day to Fri­day (and at week­ends from March to Oc­to­ber); And when I’ve seen enough plants? There are plenty of diver­sions in York Mu­seum Gar­dens, with 4500 plants and trees in the cen­tre of York. Cov­er­ing a lit­tle more than 4ha of the for­mer grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, it is home to the re­mains of the Ro­man fort of Eb­o­racum and the York­shire Mu­seum, with its oc­tag­o­nal ob­ser­va­tory. Open daily; www.york­shire­mu­

At Exbury Gar­dens in Hamp­shire, a nar­row-gauge steam rail­way takes you around the wood­land gar­den, known for its rhodo­den­drons, aza­leas and camel­lias. Open daily; Any new botanic gar­dens? The most am­bi­tious re­cent cre­ation is the Eden Project in Corn­wall. The three domes in the china-clay pits mimic three en­vi­ron­ments: the trop­ics, a warm tem­per­ate zone and the Mediter­ranean. The first is the largest green­house in the world, 1.5ha of ba­nana trees, cof­fee and rub­ber plants. Olives and grapevines fill the tem­per­ate biome. Its huge ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre, the Core, aims to com­mu­ni­cate the project’s cen­tral mes­sage, about the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween peo­ple and plants. Open daily; www.eden­pro­ What if I pre­fer trees to flow­ers? Some ar­bore­tums are part of botanic gar­dens, oth­ers merely the re­sult of a pri­vate pas­sion for trees. One of the first sur­rounded the bishop of Lon­don’s palace at Ful­ham, with North Amer­i­can spec­i­mens sent back (start­ing in 1675) from the rel­a­tively new colony in Vir­ginia; some of them sur­vive in what is now a mu­nic­i­pal park.

The Na­tional Ar­bore­tum at We­ston­birt in Glouces­ter­shire is renowned for its au­tumn colours, thanks to what is ex­pected to be­come the world’s finest col­lec­tion of maples. Cov­er­ing 243ha, it has more than 3000 species, with a sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion of oaks. Open daily;­ston­birt.

In com­plete con­trast to the Ox­ford Botanic Gar­den is its ar­bore­tum at Har­court, to the south of the city. The best time of year is May and June, when the aza­leas and rhodo­den­drons are ablaze, or Oc­to­ber, when the Ja­panese maples are at their best. In sum­mer there is the all-too-rare sight of a wild flower meadow; www.botanic-gar­ Where can I find out more? The Botanic Gar­dens Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional links 2500 in­sti­tu­tions in 120 coun­tries, work­ing to­gether to pre­serve and pro­mote plant di­ver­sity; The In­de­pen­dent


Some gar­dens are closed in win­ter; check web­sites for full de­tails. The Great Bri­tish Her­itage Pass of­fers ac­cess to 600 cas­tles, stately homes and gar­dens in Eng­land, Scot­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land and saves about 40 per cent on ad­mis­sion fees. From $70 for a four-day pass to $175 for a month-long pass. More: www.visitbri­ The In­ci­den­tal Tourist — Page 7

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