The gobbledegook on plant labels explained.

By Nicola ‘Froggie’ Rathbone

If you visit the garden regularly you may have noticed that the green vinyl we normally scribble plant names on with a big black indelible marker pen are being replaced with black and white vinyl. They look pretty much like engraved labels but are far cheaper and easier to replace when a name changes. This has happened quite a number of times since the 1990’s when botanists began looking at the DNA of plants and decided that some have been misnamed….. (more…)

The Friends of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden celebrate their 40th anniversary

By Helen Roberts

It can be a little difficult to pin down one of the Friends of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden for an interview these days. Between organising the extremely popular Art and Sculpture Festival, planning for 40th anniversary celebrations – which includes a concert this coming Saturday (21st March) – and their own busy lives, the Friends are hard at work. I spoke to Pat Davie, the Chairman of the Friends, about how the Friends began, their role over the years and what they hope to achieve in future.

Pat joined the Friends group in 1995 after she attended some courses on Garden History at the Botanic Garden; it was then that she learnt about being a volunteer. Since then, she has taken on a number of roles and very much enjoyed being part of the working life of the Garden.

“I am extremely busy volunteering doing various jobs but I wouldn’t have it any other way, the Gardens are a very special place.”

The Friends are an essential part of the Botanic Garden with 1,900 members and over 200 of these members actively volunteering in the garden. They provide valuable resources for the gardens in many different guises, be it the organisation of events and activities to providing funding for trainee horticulturists.

How did the Friends start?

The Association of Friends of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden formed in 1975 when the Botanic Gardens were threatened with closure due to a financial crisis at the University of Bristol. The Friends needed to raise the profile of the garden and persuade academics, administrators and the community at large of the importance of the gardens as a teaching and research resource. Peter Haggett, Emeritus Professor in Urban and Regional Geography at the University of Bristol, was one of the founding members; “Our primary purpose was to get the University to change its mind and retain Bracken Hill”, which was the Botanic Garden site at that time. “The formation of an organisation of ‘Friends of the Botanic Garden’ was a key tactic in that strategy,” explained Peter.

As well as Peter, the original committee included the curator of the garden at the time, Dr David Gledhill (Botany), Keeper of the Garden, Dr Mark Smith, and local campaigner Mrs Anne Hewer (daughter of Hiatt Cowles Baker, a former Pro-Chancellor of the University).

The inaugural meeting was held on 8 December 1975, where the draft constitution was accepted. The aims of the group were to:

promote interest in botany and horticulture,
provide a meeting ground for persons with these interests,
give members opportunities to see and cultivate scarce and unusual plants, and
further the development of the amenities and educational services of the Botanic Garden.

A photo from a 1976 edition of the Bristol Evening Post,
showing Mark Smith in the Botanic Gardens.

The annual fee to be a Friend then was £3 (it’s now £25 for an individual or £35 for a family, which is still good value for money). Membership included free access to the gardens at weekends and public holidays, a number of rooted plants and seed packets, lectures and social events.

Initially, 200 people joined and membership has gradually increased over the years to 1,900. Now, to celebrate 40 years of supporting the garden, the Friends would like to see that membership break 2,000 for 2015.

One of the popular events in the early days of the Association of Friends, was the plant sales started by Dr Mark Smith and from 1984 developed further by Nicholas Wray. According to Pat, the sales were, “extremely popular and queues started early and were very long”. The sale became an important source of income, but with the decision to move the garden the last of the major plant sales happened in

A photo from the sponsored walk from
Bracken Hill, across Clifton Suspension
Bridge, to The Holmes.

2001, after which all efforts were put into preparations for the garden’s move to The Holmes allowing Bracken Hill, to be sold for redevelopment.

The move from Bracken Hill to the Holmes was a huge undertaking and one memorable aspect of the move involved a sponsored walk from Bracken Hill to The Holmes in May 2005 across the suspension bridge with wheelbarrows full of plants! This was to raise the profile of the Botanic Gardens and help raise funds for the move.

The Friends in more recent years

The basic costs of the design and development of the new garden (now in its 10th year) were covered by the University, but many other projects over the years have been funded by the Friends. These include the Welcome Lodge, which was part funded by a long standing member, the replacement of tree ferns in the evolutionary dell when the originals died during a particularly hard winter, purchase of new plants for various displays in the garden and development of the tropical pool in the glasshouses.

One of the most recent appeals has been raising funds for hosting a horticultural trainee full time at the Botanic Garden. The Friends achieved the remarkable feat of raising over £10,000 to fully fund a trainee for a year, thereby supporting and inspiring the next generation of horticulturists. Some of the fundraising events over the last year include an exhibition of botanic art, the Blue Notes Jazz concert and the Friends’ open gardens scheme.

“Without the consistent financial support and direct help by many individual Friends, the Botanic Garden would have simply not survived. Instead in the early years it did survive and as the years passed by and support gathered the garden has seen many investments in both people and plants. The huge task of moving the plant collections and developing the new Botanic Garden has been an immense challenge with the resources and pairs of hands available. The Friends’ financial and physical support has helped th
e new garden to establish so that those that use it can be enthused, inspired and excited about plants and the many roles they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Our students have one of the most modern and relevant Botanic Gardens in the UK to inspire them in their studies. The Friends have helped make this possible.”  –
Nick Wray, Curator

What are the benefits of becoming a Friend?

For starters, you receive free entry to the gardens! Other benefits include free horticultural lectures, special seed packets from the garden that are not available to the public, visits to private gardens of Friends, excursions to other interesting gardens, early booking and reduced cost entry to events, and a quarterly newsletter.

The newsletter, put together by volunteers, contains useful information with pieces written by the Director and Curator of the Gardens, and to further bolster links with the University, there are articles written by members of the School of Biological Sciences. Froggie also has a repeating section in the newsletter that includes fantastic educational activities for children.

A concert to start celebrating the 40th Anniversary

The Friends of the BBG are holding a celebratory concert with the Bristol University Singers and the Bristol University Madrigal Choir at 2:30pm on Saturday 21st March. The event will be held in the Victoria rooms, Queens Road, Bristol and promises to be a relaxing afternoon of music that includes popular opera choruses and summer madrigals. A team over the winter has been working tirelessly and collated 40 years worth of photographs, papers, committee meeting notes, newsletters and extracts of memorable moments, some of which will be on display at the concert and at other celebratory events throughout the year.

For more information about the concert please visit bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/events/2015/179.html

For Friends general information please visit bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/support/friends/

Some like it hot

By Helen Roberts

With the dismal wet wintry weather prevailing in the UK at this time of year, most people look forward to the return of warm long days, evenings outside and picnics on the beach. Things can look a little dreary and dull in people’s gardens at the moment, before the arrival of spring and its profusion of bulbs and other spring flowers. The Mediterranean collection at the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens helps to remind me of summer sun and balmy places.

Maquis: scrubland vegetation of the Mediterranean

Maquis shrubland in Conca de Dalt of Catalonia, northeastern Spain.
Photo by Gustau Erill i Pinyot.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
The Mediterranean Basin of Europe and North Africa display shows examples from different vegetation biomes; the collection includes evergreen forest, maquis or macchie and garique. Many of the highly aromatic and fragrant plants are associated with maquis vegetation. The maquis biome, which often includes leathery broadleaves, evergreen shrubs and small trees, usually occurs on the lower slopes of mountains bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
The climate of the maquis biome is characterised by long dry summers and short mild wet winters, with low annual rainfall. Ocean currents and fog influence the temperature and limit the growing season. The plants that grow here cope with the very hot summers by entering a slow growth period or dormant phase so they can resist long periods of drought.
Plant defences in this harsh environment are numerous. Many shrubs and low growing vegetation have thick tough leathery leaves, which reduce water loss but also deter hungry herbivores from grazing. Many plants contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals help facilitate interactions between plants and the environment – from attracting pollinators and seed dispensers to warding off pathogens, parasites and herbivores. When a plant is under attack from a herbivore, for example, it will release a chemical cocktail of VOCs, some of which have been found to attract natural predators of the herbivores. VOCs are also good at leaching into surrounding soil and so will deter the growth of other plants.
Plants containing VOCs are often very flammable, which is partly why areas of maquis are prone to wild fires.

Pyrophytes need a little fire in their lifecycle

Montpelier cistus (Cistus monspeliensis).
Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
via Wikimedia Commons
Many of the plants in the maquis biomes are pyrophytes (fire loving plants) and require wild fires for reproduction, recycling of nutrients and removal of dead vegetation. Pyrophytes can be classed as active or passive. Active pyrophytes actually encourage fires as they often require fire in order to reproduce. Passive pyrophytes resist the effects of fires.
An active pyrophyte growing in the University of Bristol Botanic Garden maquis biome is Cistus monspeliensis, commonly known as the Montpelier cistus or rock rose. When a fire starts, Cistushas evolved to burn. This combustible conclusion to the adult plant helps destroy competing plants near to it. However, unlike its competitors, the fire will mechanically rupture the seeds of Cistus and the smoke and heat will trigger germination of the next generation. The Cistus seedlings have the advantage of beginning life in a competitor-free environment.

A closed cone and foliage of Pinus pinea.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 es via Wikimedia Commons 
Pinus pinea (the stone pine) is also in the Botanic Garden’s collection and it is a passive pyrophyte. It has a thick bark with high moisture content to help it resist fire. Its hard-coated fire resistant cones open when exposed to high temperatures. This is particularly useful in the harvest of the desirable seeds, known to many of us as pine nuts. As the tree grows, it self-prunes the lower branches, which helps prevent the fire travelling at ground level from jumping up into the canopy and potentially destroying the tree.
Some species spring back from fire events by sprouting new growth from the old. There are two such sprouter species in the Botanic Garden’s collection. The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) re-sprouts from epicormicbuds that lie dormant beneath the bark. These buds are normally suppressed by hormones produced by active shoots, but after a fire event and the destruction of the foliage, the buds are activated. Erica arborea (tree heath) re-sprouts from root crowns so is known as a below ground sprouter. It produces seed in the first post-fire summer.
Fire adapted plants of the maquis biome are only a handful of those plants making up the Garden’s Mediterranean collection. The collection also includes plants (some of which are also pyrophytes) from the southwestern tip of South Africa and displays are also under development from the Western andSouthern Australian, Chilean and Californian Mediterranean climate regions.
The half hardy plants of the Mediterranean collection are planted out in each respective biome in the summer, whilst more tender plants are protected from our cooler Bristol temperatures in the warm temperate and cool zones of the glasshouses. The outdoor collection sits on a south facing rocky bank to maximise the amount of sun and aid drainage. The path meanders through the collection allowing visitors to appreciate the appearance and fragrances of the different plants. These are all good things to look forward to in the summer months, but meanwhile if you have the chance to warm yourself in front of a crackling fire, think of those volatile fire-loving plants! 

A walk through the mendips

By Helen Roberts

A few weeks ago our family, had a great day out walking on the Mendip Hills. We set off in autumn sunshine, through pretty deciduous woodland, to an Iron Age hill fort called Dolebury Warren – an upland area of calcareous grassland. Having lived on the edge of the Mendips during my childhood, I am always keen to show my children where I used to explore as a youngster.
Part of Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England, seen from a
light aircraft. Photo by Adrian Pingstone (1975).
The Mendips are a range of mainly carboniferous limestone hills comprised of at least four convex fold structures formed between 363 and 325 million years ago, during the end of the Carboniferous Period. Weathering of the limestone has resulted in features including gorges, dry valleys, screes and swallets (sink-holes) and incorporates the famous Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe, each with extensive cave systems. The area also has interesting landscape characteristics like limestone pavements and other karst structures.
The geology of the Mendips makes for interesting ecological communities and consists of large areas of open calcareous grassland with many rare flowering plants. For instance, Dolebury Warren owned by the National Trust and managed by Avon Wildlife Trust, sits within the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its important limestone flower communities. These flower communities attract up to 70% of all British butterfly species. Dolebury Warren has a gradation of communities from species rich calcareous grassland, through acid grassland to limestone heathland, with large areas of mixed scrub.
Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus).
Photo by Paul Harvey, via Wikimedia Commons
The charity Plantlife has identified the Mendips as an Important Plant Area (IPA), which is an area of landscape that has very high botanical importance. Some plant species found on the Mendips are found nowhere else. Due to factors such as over grazing, poor land management, scrub encroachment and agricultural intensification, these plants are declining in numbers and some are threatened with extinction. The University of Bristol Botanic Gardenhas a local flora and rare native plant collection, which includes a sub-collection from the Mendip Hills, Limestone Cliffs and Coastal Islands. The collection was developed to help grow and interpret some of the rare and threatened plant species found in these habitats. The collection represents an important habitat and phytogeographic display and is helping meet the objectives of the ‘Global Strategy forPlant Conservation.

Rare plants of the Mendips 


One of the Mendip plants in the Botanic Garden’s collection is the Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus). This is a very pretty scented pink flower that grows in a few places on the Mendips but mostly at the original site of Cheddar Gorge. This plant was originally discovered about 300 years ago and is considered the pride of Somerset and was voted the County Flower. It grows best in rock crevices, high on the limestone crags of the Gorge, and can be seen in June and July using binoculars to search patches of colour visible on the cliffs, just above the road.
Also growing at the Gardens is the interestingly named Starved Sedge (Carex depauperata). This is an exceptionally endangered plant that is only found in one local area – in the woods and on a hedge bank near the small town of Axbridge. This is one of only two sites in the whole of the UK. Fifteen years ago, Starved Sedge had declined to such an extent that the
re was only one plant in the whole of Britain. As appearances go, it’s not much to look at. It’s a tussocky plant with trailing leaves and gigantic seeds and can easily be mistaken for some common woodland grasses. A reintroduction programme has improved the status of this plant by using cuttings and seed collecting to re-establish it at other sites in the UK.
The University Botanic Garden are also helping to preserve another plant at high risk of extinction and classed as nationally rare, known as Somerset Hair-grass (Koeleria vallesiana). Again, this is a fairly innocuous grass restricted to the Mendip Hills with very slow spreading habit. The Bristol Botanic Garden’s specimens were collected from Brean Down, which is the most westerly part of the Mendip Hills, as well as the interesting tiny islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm.
Brean Down is an outstanding example of calcareous grassland and supports endemic plant communities that provide for many important insect communities. Other important plant species growing at Brean Down and now growing at Bristol Botanic Gardens include the White Rockrose (Helianthemum appenninum). This is an attractive white flowered perennial sub shrub, which frequently grows on southern slopes. White Rockrose, Somerset Hair-grass and Dwarf Sedge (Carex humilis) are all particularly at risk due to scrub colonization. This highlights the importance of grazing to maintain grassland habitats. The National Trust introduced grazing by long horned White Park Cattle and British WhiteCattle (feral goats are already on Brean Down) to help keep the grass short and scrub species controlled. 
The rarity of the plants found on the Mendip Hills highlights how important collections, such as those held at the University Botanic Garden, are for ensuring the survival of plants teetering on the brink of extinction. Equivalent to a botanical savings account, these collections help ensure that if plant species are lost, they can be reintroduced back into the wild.