How many times can you move a botanic garden? For Bristol University Botanic Garden the answer stands at three times.
In 2005, after 3 years of careful planning and preparation, the garden moved to its fourth and current site, at Stoke Bishop. The shuffle does make it trickier for the average Bristolian to keep track of one of their city’s attractions, and I imagine makes marketing the garden slightly more of a challenge too.
I was invited to join a small group of local garden bloggers for a tour round the garden on Easter Monday. I set off, battling through the bank holiday traffic that swamped the main arteries out of Wales, armed with notepad, camera, postcode and satnav, expecting to pick up signposts to the garden as I drew closer. Perhaps I was being particularly unobservant, but I reached my destination without having passed a single sign to it. Given my lack of familiarity with the area, parking along the perimeter of a large expanse of parkland (Durdham Down) was largely a matter of faith. In fact, a few minutes’ brisk walk revealed that I was only a few hundred yards from the entrance to the garden, though even on foot I passed no obvious signage, and it was the presence of a couple of volunteers at a makeshift table at the entrance, rather than any written information, that confirmed I had found the right place!
Looking online again later, I did find a bit more information on where to find the entrance, tucked away on the Contact Details tab of the Contact us page for the garden, but it had eluded me earlier, and looking at tripadvisor reviews it would appear that I was not alone in my confusion. For a garden that is trying to raise its public image, I would expect that a few (more!) well-placed signposts could make a huge difference, both to reassure the ‘intentional’ visitor, and to be informative for residents and passers-by. When I moved to Cambridge some years ago, it was a road sign that soon alerted me to the existence of that city’s botanic garden, and led me to look it up online and subsequently visit. A good trick, one would think, for minimal effort.
A minor gripe, though, in the scheme of things, and having found the garden, I joined our small group in one of the teaching rooms, where we were treated to tea and cake – an important part of the culture here, where the majority of the team are volunteers, and apparently rather good bakers too. The curator, Nick Wray, gave us an eloquent introduction to the garden, before his colleague Andy Winfield showed us around. In the early days on the new site, tours were heavily reliant on the vision and enthusiastic wordsmithery of Nick and his team; a few years on and there are just a scant handful of areas still to be finalised, which elicit the old refrain “… and this area is going to be…”.
The UK’s university botanic gardens are in a less enviable position than their state-funded brethren such as those at Kew or the Botanic Garden of Wales, with recent sharp cuts leading to the unfortunate closure of several university gardens. The team at Bristol works hard to secure almost sixty percent of their funding themselves to supplement the University’s support, and despite tough times, seems to be beating the odds. Primarily a learning garden, there are strong links with core teaching programmes at the University, a growing involvement with local schools that provides pupils of all ages with tailored learning, and a wide range of RHS courses that run for much of the year. Collaborations are also fundamental to the garden’s ethos; from the sculptures that were on display throughout the garden on our visit, to the intriguing ballast seed beds that can be found in the city’s floating harbour.
The gardens house four core collections: evolution; Mediterranean climate areas; useful plants – comprising a Chinese herbal garden, and its western equivalent; and rare or threatened native plants and local flora to Bristol and the south-western peninsula.
A number of garden displays are used to illustrate the evolution of plants, with specimens including a tiny grass-like fern displayed in a rock pool, rare trees such as Wollemia nobilis, and magnolias, the grand old dames of the ancient world. Floral diversity and adaptation to environment is highlighted throughout the displays, and a fairly recently planted garden documents different methods of pollination: alongside the more familiar wind or bee-pollination, a new method to me was that employed by the mouse-tailed arum, Arisarum proboscideum, whose dark flowers are hidden beneath its glossy foliage, close to the ground to facilitate pollination by gnats. Further adaptation was also illustrated in many of the species displayed in the glasshouses, which maintain collections under different temperate conditions.
The five varied Mediterranean climate regions are represented in outdoor and indoor displays (though several of the outdoor ones are among the outstanding works-in-progress). The blooms of one of the outdoor plantings filled the air with such an authentic sweet Mediterranean scent; to close your eyes in the bank holiday sunshine was to be transported for a moment. Delicious. And then there was the swathe of Anemone pavonina glittering on a grassy bank like jewels in the soon-to-flee sunshine – superb.
The western herb garden was laid out with beds according to function, typical of the layout of many such physic gardens, while the Chinese medicinal herb garden has been developed in close conjunction with the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine to give an authentic living exhibition. A peony garden is also being developed to complement the existing displays; an important component of the Chinese medicinal herb garden.
The displays of local and endangered species are prominently placed early in the journey through the garden, to highlight their importance, and the relevance of the work that botanic gardens undertake in conservation. Different habitats, from aquatic to grassland and woodland, have been created to showcase these natives in their typical environments.
As the day drew to a close, punctuated by a few drops of rain, I left my first visit to Bristol University Botanic Garden with a spring in my step. While the gardens are still developing, they seem to have found their feet in their latest home, already encompassing a wealth of plant life and education that made them a pleasure to explore. With events throughout the year, and a substantial collection of plants with stories to tell, these gardens are well worth a visit, and I hope to return again in the future.