Magnificent May

How did it get to be May already? It seems a very short time ago that we were looking at the low sun and listening to the lone robins sing, bare earth and branches waiting for a temperature hike. Well, the Garden has plumped up with leaves and life, almost fluorescent in its vibrancy. It’s a wonderful time of year, even when it rains you can almost see the plants growing. 

While the rain is soaking into the May soil, it also threatens the flowers of one group of plants in our Chinese Herb Garden. This year we have completed our peony garden, a unique display here in the west country, and on Sunday 12th May we’re holding a day dedicated to peonies in celebration. One thing we’d like for people to see in this area is of course the flowers of peonies, and the weather was doing its best to rain on our peony parade. So we decided to pamper these plants with an umbrella each. It might seem over the top, but it’s a treatment that some of them are accustomed to. In days gone by the gansu mudan peony has led a life of privilege; ancient China knew it as the Emperor’s flower and law decreed that it was only grown in his gardens. Specialist growers were tasked with cultivating it for use in the imperial borders, but if anyone got ideas above their station and sneaked some in their own garden, well, they were executed! So some of these peony flowers have the air of ‘an umbrella is no more than I deserve’.

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Tea, thatch and early spring

Crocus appearing in the Garden.

Today as I write this the sun is shining, the birds are in full voice singing, cawing and screeching around the Garden. Bulbs are popping up, crocus are the first with daffodils a week away from carpeting the ground with yellow. Primroses are dotting grassy areas and bees are beginning to forage in the middle of the day; the minimum temperature that a bee can fly is said to be 13 degrees, so when you see one out and about you know the season is changing. (more…)

Plant blindness

 

You may or may not of heard of the term ‘plant blindness’; it’s a phrase that we in the Botanic Garden have been hearing much more of in recent years and will continue to throw around in the future. It refers to the slow shutting off of plant knowledge from generation to generation resulting in an inability to acknowledge plants around us. The simple things that were once common knowledge, such as dock leaves used for nettle stings are becoming bred out of a collective instinct and plants are becoming irrelevant and annoying green things to many people.

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Native American foods

By Claire Cope

Having worked as a trainee at the Botanic Garden for nearly two years I am now coming to the end of my time with the garden. I have learned more than I thought possible to learn in just two years, have gained my RHS qualifications, have had the opportunity to work with an amazing range of plants and have acquired a huge amount of practical horticultural experience. Best of all, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some very wonderful people who have shared their knowledge and passion with me and have made me feel very welcomed into this beautiful community. 


In terms of my horticultural work here at the garden, my favourite part of this last year has been my project to work on the Native American Vegetable display. This included everything from designing the planting lay out, propagating and maintaining the plants, through to harvesting the food and collecting the seeds. Therefore, for this article I want to share with you some of the fascinating information I’ve learnt about this amazing group of plants.

Firstly, I had no idea that so much of our food originated in South America and has

Squash originated in South America and was one
of the ‘three sisters’.

been being cultivated for so many years. Many plants that today we consider as staples such as tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, squash, and peppers were originally cultivated thousands of years ago by native civilisations such as the Inca, Maya and Aztec peoples.


In North and Central America, prior to the European invasions, it was the three crops – Sweetcorn, Beans and Squash that formed the foundation of sustainable subsistence agriculture.  These crops became known as ‘The Three Sisters’ and were grown as companion plants where the tall stems of the sweetcorn support the climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen into the soil to feed the hungry squash which in turn provides a living mulch to suppress weeds and shade the ground for the corn. Unfortunately, due to the differences in climate and the need to protect the corn from the badgers, we weren’t able to replicate this exactly but I made these three plants the centre of the display in order to tell the story of the three sisters and to show how these ancient cultures had devised methods to work with the plants and with natural systems to increase productivity …. Unfortunately, the pesky squirrels feasted on all of our tasty corn kernels but we did get some lovely large squash and lots of purple beans!

Quinoa
The next thing that I found exciting to grow was the more unusual range of plants that were grown in cultivation so long ago but are only just coming into popularity now such as Quinoa. This plant is grown for its grain which is high in protein and was originally domesticated by the Andean people over 3000 years ago! The Incas held this crop as sacred and referred to it as chisoya mama meaning ‘mother of all grains’. We grew two different cultivars of Chenopodium quinoa – The first ’Quinoa’ was the more common form and the second ‘Huauzontle’ is the lesser known and is primarily grown for the immature seed-heads which can be eaten as a vegetable like broccoli. This form grew extremely tall and bushy and by October it was looking very beautiful with its pink- burgundy seed heads.   

There were also plants in this display that were more unusual and some I hadn’t heard

Cyclanthera pedata

of before which have the potential to be incorporated into western food production in the future. For instance – I really enjoyed growing the Cyclanthera pedata ‘Fat Baby’ and ‘Bolivian Giant’. These were vigorous climbers which produced very strange spikey green fruits which tasted just like a cucumber!


Then there were plants that I had always considered as ornamentals which I can now look at in a new light – such as the Dahlias with their edible tubers, Lupins with their edible beans and Nasturtium with edible leaves and flowers.

Some of the cultivars chosen for the display had really interesting stories – for example the beans we grew, Phaseolus vulgaris ’Cherokee trail of tears’, were originally from the native American Cherokee people who were driven out of their homelands by European settlers – a forced march know as ‘Trail of Tears’. This bean was one of their heirlooms which has been passed from generation to generation ever since.


We are now coming to the end of the season and soon the bed will be nearly empty again and ready for the next trainee to start all over again! What a great project to have been given, I have learnt so much and hope that those of you who saw it enjoyed the display!