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…)

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.


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!

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!

Gardening keeps us grounded

By Helen Roberts

Sir David Attenborough once said:

Connect with Nature in any way you can. Contact with the natural world isn’t a luxury – it is actually a necessity for all of us. All we know about the natural world gives us pleasure, delight, expertise, continuous interest throughout the year – joy on many occasions and solace on sad ones. Knowing about the natural world and being in contact with it is the most precious inheritance that human beings can have.

Even containers in small spaces help make a
connection with nature. 

It is the word ‘connect’ that is so fundamentally important in a world that often feels to many people fraught, pressured and tiring. In the ever-stressful environments that humans have to confront, be it at work or home, working in gardens for many is a tonic and a way to reconnect with the landscape. For many it brings peace, a space in which to reflect and feel restored. The physicality of gardening is not only good for the body, it is good for the soul too.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week; a campaign set up and run by the charity the Mental Health Foundation. People across the nation will get together to discuss mental health through various activities, events, talks and sharing of stories. The theme this year is ‘Surviving or Thriving’ and seeks to look at why so few people are thriving with good mental health. The lovely illustration depicting this year’s theme is rather apt, it shows a tree or shrub growing through the words ‘surviving or thriving’. Gardening undoubtedly can make you thrive on many different levels and it certainly fulfils at least 8 out of the top 10 tips listed on the charity’s website on how to look after your own mental health.
I have seen the benefits that gardening can have on mental health through my work and teaching in horticulture. It can clearly turn people’s lives around, almost like a reset button to recharge and move positively forwards. It helps to build confidence, a sense of worth and forges new friendships and all of this happening as people begin to develop a lifelong love of gardening.
Gardening keeps you active physically, but once you get the gardening ‘bug’ it is mentally energising too. Gardening is both stimulating and relaxing (unless you are digging out a tree stump) and with it comes either peacefulness if working on one’s own or, if working with others, calm chatter. Some people loathe weeding, but I know of a great many who love it either because they can just concentrate entirely on the task at hand (like a form of horticultural meditation) or they get some good thinking done. I think some of my better ideas for writing have come to me when I have been weeding.
With regards to feeding the body, gardening to grow vegetables often means you eat well and nothing tastes better than home-grown produce. I think that people are more likely to eat healthily if they know that what they are about to eat they have put the effort into producing. As a child growing up with access to a family allotment, I was much more willing to ‘try’ a vegetable if it was something that I had grown. So in that sense it makes people more adventurous in their diet and variety is good for healthy eating.
Many of us do not have gardens big enough to grow our own food, and this could be viewed as unfortunate. But as we turn to allotments and community gardens to grow food, we find opportunities to not only reconnect with the landscape, but with people with whom we share at least one shared passion. It is an opportunity to step out of the digital confines of social media and meet with people face-to-face, or at the very least, work peacefully alongside each other in silent companionship.
One of the truly great things about gardening is that it helps to remove boundaries of age, gender and background; if you have an interest in it, then the margins of society that so often leave us feeling alienated and alone are removed. I personally have gardening friends from all walks of life, ranging in age from their twenties into their eighties. Gardening definitely has no barriers and it can be refreshing to meet people who can offer a different perspective or solution on matters (maybe not even related to horticulture). If you have a passion for gardening then you will find others that feel the same. If you garden because you love doing it, then that in itself will make you feel good, both in body and in mind.
In 2013, a review of all the scientific studies of gardening-based mental health interventions found that there was convincing evidence of its benefits. There were reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety and participants described many different emotional, physical, vocational, social and spiritual benefits. In 2015, the JointCommissioning Panel for Mental Health and the Centre for Sustainable Healthcarereleased a guidance document for commissioners of financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable mental health services. The guidance recommends horticulture therapy as an effective, sustainable and resilient intervention to promote mental health.

Helen Roberts is a trained landscape architect with a background in plant sciences. She is a probationary member of the Garden Media Guild and a regular contributor to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden blog.
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