The Botanic Garden and D-Day

This week the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day was observed in Northern France by veterans, world leaders and politicians. Even though the second world war was so long ago, its echoes still reverberate. The operation needed 156,000 troops with 73,000 from the US. So, in the lead up to the invasion, thousands of American GIs were stationed across the South West and many throughout the areas of Bristol. (more…)

A portrait of a boy and his plant

By Nicola Temple

On the 12th of February 1809, Charles Darwin was born in a large Georgian house, known as The Mount, in Shrewsbury. As a biologist, I am very familiar with the works of Darwin. And when I conjure an image of this man in my head it is of him in his 60s, bald on top and with a formidable beard. However, on a recent visit to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, the curator, Nick Wray, showed me a portrait I had never seen before.

The portrait was completed in 1816, just before Darwin turned 7 years old and he is with his sister Catherine. It is a magnificent piece done using chalk on paper, by the artist Ellen Wallace Sharples (1769-1849), who was settled in Bristol at the time – not far from the Botanic Garden in Clifton [see note 1].

Nick pointed the portrait out to me because he is interested in the plant that Darwin is holding in the portrait. Children would have often been given something to hold while sitting for a portrait – it gave them something to do with their hands to prevent fidgeting. While Catherine has a posy of flowers in her hand, Charles is holding a clay pan on his knee with a plant in full bloom. This would have been no small feat for a child.

The portrait painted by Ellen Wallace Sharples in 1816
of Charles and Catherine Darwin.

Nick recognised the plant held by Darwin as almost certainly Lachenalia aloides (the opal flower), which is a native to the Western Cape of South Africa. Nick informed me that Cape flora were very in vogue during this period. The collecting activities and botanical observations of horticulturist-explorers, such as W. Paterson, Francis Masson, Robert Gordon, W.H.C. Lichtenstein, John Barrow and William Burchell, created a voracious appetite among Europeans for the curious plants of the Western Cape, while established trade routes enabled their transport back to Europe. So it is very likely that the children of a wealthy family would have been given such exotic pieces to hold rather than a favourite toy.

The artist almost certainly painted the portrait at the Darwin’s family home, The Mount. Records show that their impressive house had equally impressive gardens, including a conservatory and hothouse. The Lachenalia aloides likely came from one of their own glasshouses. Grown correctly in a cool frost free glasshouse, this little plant flowers from February-March. In a warm glasshouse it would flower earlier.

In an article written for the Garden History Society by Susan Campbell (Vol. 40, No 2 Winter 2012), she lists the plants cultivated at the Mount, including those growing in the Conservatory and Hothouse. In these lists, one species of Lachenalia is mentioned, Lachenalia pendula, which is now known as Lachenalia bulbifera. This species is almost always red in colour with the robust flower spike leaning to one side. However, yellow tipped orange forms have been recorded in the wild. Whether the plant in the portrait was misidentified in the original plant list or it was correct and an unusual orange and yellow form was cultivated, we shall never know. On examining the portrait carefully, its habit, erect inflorescence and the colour of the flowers, suggests the plant was wrongly identified and should be Lachenalia aloides. Nick goes onto suggest that, “the presence of this Cape bulb flowering in this portrait is evidence that the chalk picture was made around the 12 February 1816, Charles Darwin’s seventh birthday. The picture may have been commissioned deliberately to commemorate the occasion”.

About Lachenalia aloides

There are about 110 different species of Lachenalia, 80 of which are found in the Cape region of South Africa. L. aloides has a number of different varieties, all of which grow on granite or sandstone outcrops. The flowers can vary quite a bit in their colour. Some plants have flowers that are nearly entirely yellow, while others are magenta at the base turning yellow and then to green.

The Lachenalia genus are geophytes, which means that they spend part of the year dormant as a fleshy underground structure, such as a bulb, rhizome or tuber. South Africa is a global hotspot of geophyte diversity. There are 2,100 species across 20 different families in the area and 84% of them are endemic.

Lachenalia aloides is naturally pollinated by sunbirds, which use their long curved bill to access the nectar at the base of the tubular flowers. It was widely-thought until fairly recently that sunbird-pollinated plants had almost always evolved perch-like structures to make feeding for the sunbird easier. However, L. aloides has no such structure and the sunbirds simply sit on the ground to feed on the flowers – an observation that has been made with other low-growing sunbird-pollinated species.

Lachenalia in the Botanic Garden

Lachenalia aloides is in bloom at the
Botanic Garden right now if you want to
have a look at this interesting South African bulb.

The Botanic Garden has some specimens of Lachenalia aloides and other Lachenalia species in the glasshouses and, much like the plant Darwin is holding in the portrait, they are currently in bloom. The portrait would have been painted around this time of year, when there would have been very few plants in bloom. This further supports Nick’s conclusion regarding the species.

The Lachenalia story was one aspect of a lecture titled The Origin & Diversity of Flowering Plants, which was given recently by Nick Wray to the members of the annual Darwin Festival, held each February in Shrewsbury. The audience, made up of academics, ecologists, naturalists and keen amateur and professional gardeners, were taken through the flower pollination syndromes, illustrating the diversity that has evolved over millions of years. Nick discussed the work of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) work, the planting of the APG III displays at the Botanic Garden and the difficult task of cultivating Amborella trichopoda and its place at the base of the ex
tant living Angiosperm phylogenetic tree. The talk was illustrated by plants that were brought from the Botanic Garden. This created a lot of interest and added to the sense of place as the talk was held in the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church where Darwin’s mother took him and her other children to worship until Charles was thirteen. When, with an eye to his future university life, Darwin would have to attend a Church of England Church to ensure he would be eligible for a university course as students from Unitarian families would not be admitted.

The group were very appreciative of Nick’s talk and plan to make a summer visit to the Botanic Garden to enjoy the garden and explore its various evolution displays.

Notes:

1. Ellen Wallace Sharples met her husband in Bath where he was her tutor. After they married, the couple travelled back and forth a couple of times between England and America. When Ellen’s husband died in 1810, she moved to an apartment in Clifton with her two children (also artists) in 1811. She made her living doing portraits, as did her children. When she died in 1849, she left a substantial sum to the Bristol Academy which was instrumental in financing Bristol’s first art gallery, now the Royal West of England Academy.

Sources:

Campbell, S. 2009. ‘Sowed for Mr C.D’: The Darwin family’s garden diary for The Mount, Shrewsbury, 1838-65. Garden 
     History 37 (2): 1-16.
Campbell, S. 2012. ‘Its situation…was equisite in the extreme’: ornamental flowers, shrubs and trees in the Darwin 
     family’s garden at The Mount, Shrewsbury, 1838-65. Garden History 40 (2): 1-32.
Procheş, Ş., Cowling, R.M., Goldblatt, P., Manning, J.C., Snijman, D.A. 2006. An overview of the Cape geophytes. 
     Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 87: 27-43.
Turner, R.C., Midgley, J.J. 2016. Sunbird-pollination in the geoflorous species Hyobanch sanguinea (Orobanchaceae) 
     and Lachenalia luteola (Hyacinthaceae). South African Journal of Botany 102: 186-9.

Saving our nation’s lost landscapes

By Helen Roberts

Historic gardens are an integral part of our cultural link with landscapes; a place where we can connect with nature. They represent a form of artistic expression and illustrate snapshots of past ages, cultures and societies. For that reason alone these garden masterpieces deserve recognition and preservation. 
Often the final level of protection for many of these gardens falls to English Heritage, a registered charity, independent of government since April 2015, which essentially acts as guardians for the upkeep of some 400 historic sites. English Heritage is often seen as the last resort of protection for these sites, some of which are so special that the government has stepped in to look after them and rescue them for the nation. 
Late last year the Friends’ Lecture was given by Christopher Wedell, a former trainee of The University of Bristol Botanic Garden (21 years ago) and now senior gardens advisor to English Heritage. 
Bridge in Sheffield Park Garden.
Photo credit: ReflectedSerendipity
courtesy Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Christopher’s horticultural career began early; as a teenager he already expressed a keen interest in the outdoors. A stint of work at Sheffield Park in Sussex fuelled his passion for horticulture and historic landscapes and led to a degree in Horticulture at Writtle College with a final year dissertation on historic gardens. After his work at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden and Tylney Hall, Christopher obtained his Kew Diploma in Horticulture and then spent 18 months working in the famous Palm House. From Kew he went to Wisley where he eventually became superintendent under curator. When a 6-month contract offered itself at English Heritage he applied and 7 years later he is looking after 23 historic and contemporary gardens ranging from Elizabethan to contemporary in design.  
Christopher spoke in detail about the gardens under the care of English Heritage, the complexities of restoration and the many challenges the team faces when completing historic garden works. 

The importance of authenticity

The restoration of historic gardens is a difficult task in itself when there is a lack of historical information in the form of maps, descriptions and documents. Often gardens are multi-layered over time, making it difficult to know at what particular point in time to restore the garden to. 
Belsay Hall, a thirteenth century site located just north of Newcastle has magnificent Grade I listed gardens and were primarily the work of Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867). He was influenced by the Picturesque movement, which sought to create landscapes less conventionally beautiful and more naturalistic in design. The restoration of the unique Quarry Garden, a dramatic place with a special microclimate with many exotic trees and shrubs, presented English Heritage with a challenge of maintaining the correct authenticity. To achieve this, the team used a number of photographs collected over the decades to aid in the restoration process.
“Photographic and historical documents are very important in the restoration process,” explained Christopher, “and it is vital that as much historical information is collated as possible, thereby restoring the landscape at the most significant point in historical time”. 
Osborne House from the road to Swiss Cottage.
Photo credit: By Loz Pycock from London, UK
[CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes, as gardens change over time, plants become over-mature and cease to provide the effect for which they were first planted. English Heritage faces a number of challenges with such restoration projects because people often develop strong attachment to these mature trees. One such example includes Sovereign Avenue at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – the private home of Queen Victoria. The avenue was planted in 1851-1854 with two lines of alternating deciduous and coniferous trees. Over time (as expected), these trees matured, but eventually became too large and made the avenue dark and oppressive. This was not the intention of the design when planted by Prince Albert. English Heritage then faced the challenge of how to visually present this avenue with the possibility of replanting every 50 years to maintain authenticity. 

Maintaining the fabric of the garden

The fabric of a historic garden represents the context in which a garden is situated. Gardens do not simply exist as islands on their own but connect and integrate with surrounding landscapes to create cohesion and robustness, both of which are sought after qualities in designed landscapes. Often it is difficult to maintain connectedness in historic landscapes due to the simple issue of land ownership. 
One such English Heritage example is that of Audley End House, a Jacobean Mansion landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and set within the rolling cou
ntryside of Essex. English Heritage has in their care the mansion and grounds itself, but also a tower located outside of the boundary of the mansion grounds some distance away and the land in between is not under English Heritage ownership. Here, English Heritage faces the difficulty of maintaining a connected landscape, as the sites are geographically distant from one another, but sit within the same landscape. Belsay Hall also faces similar challenges as the existing car park is set within the historical landscape fabric, which disrupts the harmony of the site. 

The visitor experience

It can be difficult to maintain a good visitor experience all year round in many of the English Heritage gardens. Many of the gardens are very seasonal in nature as bedding schemes took precedence over year-round interest. At Kenilworth Castle (just north of Warwick) an Elizabethan garden was created by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in order to seduce Queen Elizabeth I when she was staying at the property for a mere 19 days. This garden was restored in May 2009 using advances in garden archaeology and the survival of a fascinating eyewitness description from 1575. When the garden was originally designed for a short spell of interest, English Heritage now faces the difficult task of creating a garden that is attractive to visitors throughout the year. 
To attract visitors to the gardens, many English Heritage sites hold contemporary art exhibitions, such as the one held at Belsay Hall called ‘Extraordinary Measures’ with many of the installations located in the grounds of the Hall. 
Other attractions to entice families have recently been sensitively incorporated into some historic landscapes. An imaginative wooden play structure for children has proved very popular at Witley Court near Bromsgrove with a tree house in the form of a seed pod, outdoor musical instruments and wobbly bridges, scramble nets and slides. The opening of the beach at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight has been well received with people enjoying swimming, paddling, building sandcastles and looking inside a bathing machine. With the opening of access to the beach though, English Heritage was then faced with the challenge of incorporating essential utilities, such as power and water, into a historic landscape. Other interesting plans for enhancing the visitor experience described by Christopher included the potential restoration of the unique hard tennis court at Down House, home of Charles Darwin, which would provide a great play facility for adults and children alike when visiting this historically significant place. 
“It’s really important that sites do not simply stagnate in terms of a design sense and that the gardens are able to evolve and be used imaginatively,” explained Christopher. 
Many sites have successfully integrated contemporary spaces into the gardens adding a new vitality to these historic places. A new contemporary garden was added in 2000 to the kitchen garden of Osborne House by designer Rupert Golby as part of the contemporary heritage garden project. It includes many plants with names associated with Albert and Victoria. 

The future

Christopher’s message was clear throughout the talk. These gardens need to be brought to life for current and future visitors and be places that continually thrive for decades and centuries hereinafter. 
Christopher emphasised that, “English Heritage is playing a vitally important role in looking after these sites; we are the landscape custodians helping to safeguard some of England’s most treasured historic gardens.”
The next Friends’ Lecture will be given by Nick Wray, Curator, University of Bristol Botanic Garden on 21 January 2016, Frank Theatre, Wills Physics Laboratory from 7:30pm – 9:00pm. Nick will be speaking about the ballast seed garden project. Friends are free with presentation of membership card; non-Friends will be asked for a donation (suggested £5).

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/