Why Garden?

By Helen Roberts

Monty Don’s visit in July to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden did not disappoint. He delivered two lectures entitled ‘Why Garden’, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with lunch and a tour of the garden in between. The subject of why to garden is vast and could be approached from a multitude of angles . However, Monty used his personal experiences in working his garden of Longmeadow to discuss how gardening can bring both restoration of the mind and body to people, as well as a reconnection to the landscape.
                                                      
Monty first began gardening because of his mother, but back then it was a chore to be got through, simply a means to an end. She would frequently use the phrase, “…and what are you doing this afternoon?”, which meant “you had better get on with the gardening!” By the age of 17, Monty had a rudimentary knowledge of gardening and was looking after a half-acre vegetable garden.
His first realisation that gardening was what he wanted to do was when he was back home from school and he was sowing carrots in the garden. He described to the audience that in that moment he felt singular happiness. He felt deeply rested and contented.

Connecting to nature 

I could relate to Monty’s words as I feel the same whenever I am in my garden. I feel peaceful and relaxed even if what I am doing could be physically exerting, like digging. I sense a reconnection with the garden and the landscape around me (farming is in my blood so I guess that connection is somehow re-established when I garden).
When I return home from a trip away, those first glimpses from the Mendips across Somerset stir a deep sense of belonging to this landscape.  Hardy’s description of the Vale of Blackmoor in Tess of the D’urbervilles(although relating to country south of where I live) perfectly describes to me the colours and textures of where I live at the foot of the Mendips, the same vivid blue and soft haze with its intricate network of fields. His description describes to me the landscape of home and attachment.
“..the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.”
Panorama of the mendips taken from Durston Drove above Wells.
Photo credit Stewart Black, [via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0]
In today’s society, people are losing their connections to nature and to the non-urban landscape – particularly children. The NationalTrust produced a report on the topic of Nature Deficit Disorder in children and how to address it. Richard Louv also discusses this in great detail in his book, Last Child in the Woods.
There is a real and absolute need to reconnect with our natural world – not only to save it, but to save ourselves. Studies published in 2014, in the journal Environment and Behaviour, showed that our emotional connections with nature influence choices of living sustainably, but also showed there was a connection between exposure to nature and our own happiness.

Finding refuge in the garden – physically and mentally

For Monty, gardening has always been a reconnection to the landscape, to restore balance and order in his (by his own admission) sometimes disordered and chaotic mind. He shared with the audience that after suffering from depression in the 1980s, returning to the garden brought about his recovery and the restoration of his mind. His garden was his refuge.
“In this age of anxiety gardens are a refuge,” Monty explained, “a safe haven from the stresses of everyday life. A garden never lies; you can trust it and it will respond to you. They are ever present and throughout the course of the seasons it will always return, offering both familiarity and stability.”
Not everyone has their own personal garden. The University of Bristol Botanic Garden offers a place for people to reconnect with the natural world and to learn about local plants as well as more exotic ones. It is a plant-packed green sanctuary in the heart of Bristol. The gardens themselves open our minds to the huge diversity and importance of plants. And they are in a constant state of flux, changing over time, as gardens and landscapes tend to do.
Monty spoke about learning from other gardens to gain ideas and inspiration and soak up knowledge from those who work there. I frequently explore different gardens and I take my children with me. They are not bored by plants and gardens. They run around and explore. They discover and forage. They are connecting to the plants and animals – whether it’s watching water boatmen in a pond or looking at the rocks and crevices in a wall.
I was visiting a garden the other day, and I was watching my 4-year old as he walked along a flower border gently touching and feeling different plants, such as the beautiful flowers of the paper-thin Papaver rhoeas and the fluffy fox-like tails of Hordeum jubatum. I bought seed after that visit because I wanted to recreate that sense for my children in my own garden.
Monty said, “when you garden you are building the story of your life.” The Botanic Garden is doing just that. It is evolving and as it changes the imprints of those who have been involved are left behind. Creating a rich and dynamic place to explore, learn and reconnect with the natural world.

We’re gardenin’ in the rain

By Helen Roberts


It has been unbelievably wet since the start of 2014 with England experiencing it’s wettest January since records began over 100 years ago. The Somerset levels have suffered dreadfully and huge areas are still underwater and are likely to remain so for weeks or even months to come. From where I live, on the Mendips, I have far-reaching views over to Glastonbury Tor and the Quantocks and the area of levels in between looks like the vast inland sea it once was. In most other areas, the ground is completely saturated and in some places water is bubbling up to the surface.

Flooding in Greylake, Somerset in February, 2014. Photo
courtesy of Live-vibe on Flickr CC

What does waterlogging do to our gardens and what can we do to solve it?


Many plants do not like to be waterlogged because their roots need oxygen as well as water and nutrients. When roots are starved of oxygen they die and these dead roots can then act as a host for fungi such as Phytophthora, a root rot. Shrubs and fruit trees are particularly vulnerable to waterlogging as they cannot put on new roots as quickly as perennials and cannot stand long periods under water. Add freezing conditions with waterlogging and your plants may be in big trouble.
Winter flooding may not be fatal though, as many plants can experience and survive winter flooding for short periods of time. You can give your plants a helping hand if they’re waterlogged by pruning ornamentals right back so that they don’t have to protect so much above ground. You can also remove any dead or dying shoots and take cuttings as a back-up should the plant die. Smaller plants can be transplanted into pots with fresh compost, removing dead roots before transplanting.
Looking after waterlogged lawns is a different matter. If your lawn is squelchy to walk on at the moment, try to stay off it. Walking on it will only aid compaction and make matters worse. Waterlogged lawns can quickly lead to the grass dying and moss, algae, lichens and liverworts taking over. I do not have an issue with these plants in a lawn per se and I am not one to fret over weeds in a lawn either, but if you do want to make things better and improve a waterlogged lawn there are a number of options.

You can try pricking, spiking or slitting the surface of the lawn with powered tools or even a fork. This leaves holes that can be infilled with lawn top dressings or horticultural sand. It is best to get rid of surface water first, if possible, by sweeping it off with a brush into the borders. Otherwise, wait for it to drain naturally. Alternatively, convert your lawn into a water meadow!

Create a partnership with nature


Sometimes struggling against waterlogging in your garden or parts of your garden is a losing battle. It is simply better to accept the natural conditions of your garden and work with what you have. Rethink your palette of plants and cultivate those that favour wet soil. If the ground is permanently wet, consider establishing a bog garden as bog plants can be truly architectural in their habit and are excellent for attracting wildlife.

Some suitable bog species suggested by the RHS website include:
Herbaceous perennials: Bog primulas, Eupatorium maculatum Atropurpureum Group, Darmera peltata,Iris ensata ‘Rose Queen’, Iris laevigata, Ligularia ‘The Rocket’, Lobelia cardinalis, Rodgersia pinnata‘Superba’, Trollius x cultorum ‘Superbus’
Grasses: Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’, Carex elata ‘Aurea’
Ferns: Athyrium filix-femina, Matteuccia struthiopteris

A sustainable approach to managing flooding

How we manage water and excessive water in our own gardens, particularly in urban areas where there is nowhere to drain excess water, is very relevant at present considering the amount of rainfall we have had over the last couple of months.
Sustainable urban drainage systems or SuDS are approaches of managing surface waters taking into account quantity (flooding), quality (pollution) and amenity issues of water. They ultimately contribute to sustainable development and improve urban design. These systems mimic nature and manage rainfall as close as possible to where it falls aiming to slow water down before it enters watercourses. This is basically done by forming structures and landforms that can store water and allow water to soak into the ground, evaporated from surface water or lost through evapotranspiration. 

The use of SuDS is not by any means a new concept to ecologists, engineers, architects and landscape architects. It has been implemented very successfully worldwide and been effective in its way of managing water but also contributing significantly to the production of some truly innovative and outstanding design as well as creating areas of ecological value.

So how can you manage rainwater on a smaller scale in your own garden?

Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design and Vegetation Technology, and Director of the Green Roof Centre at the University of Sheffield is an expert in rain gardens and small scale rainwater management features. His research has looked at innovative approaches in planting design and landscaping that serve to store, collect and infiltrate rainwater runoff. Examples include the use of storm water or through flow planters, which are essentially raised, planted beds at the base of buildings that can take runoff water directly from roofs or adjacent areas of hardstanding.
The key to Dunnett’s research is that it can be replicated on a small scale in one’s own garden and can be just as effective in terms of its aesthetic and ecological value, particularly in urban areas.
Other approaches to managing rainwater include reducing runoff from hard surfaces, such as driveways and patios, by using permeable paving that allows water to soak directly into the ground. Roofs on sheds and garages or any external outbuildings in the garden could have green roofs installed. Furthermore, you could use Dunnett’s techniques of creating rain gardens and create a truly sustainable garden that works with nature and not against it.
Nigel Dunnett was a recent speaker with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden Friends’ Lecture series.

A Sicilian Grand Tour

By Helen Roberts

It was a distinctly overcast, grey, cold and rainy day last November in Bristol when I went to see Nick Wray, curator of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, give a talk. I, like most people, was definitely feeling the lack of sunshine, but Nick’s talk on Sicilian landscapes certainly helped blow away the winter blues and had me looking forward to (hopefully) another blistering summer.

The Botanic Garden’s interest in Sicily 

Medieval farm quad at the Tasca d’Almerta in the
central rural mountains of Sicily

Nick has been working with a Sicilian horticulture colleague, Sergio Cumitini, for the last 5 years to establish a joint acclimatization project. The project has involved growing Mediterranean plants in the UK at various sites including Bristol’s Botanic Garden, RHS gardens and Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly. It was through this work that Nick became fascinated with the plants and landscapes of Sicily. His fascination led to a plant and garden tour to the island in spring 2013, which involved an introduction to the gardens, architecture and landscapes of the region as well as some visits to beautiful private gardens. For those who couldn’t go on the tour of Sicily, Nick’s November talk brought the Sicily tour to Bristol.  
Nick talked extensively about the flora of Sicily, both native and cultivated, and showed how the cultures and landscapes of the island are markedly connected. He toured us around a number of important buildings and landscapes starting in Sicily’s capital Palermo fanning out from the city and then around the island itself.

The native flora

Sicily is very rich agriculturally due to both the climate and the nutrient rich ash deposited from volcanic eruptions. The flora is distinctive and classed horticulturally as ‘maquis’ or ‘macchia’ in Italian, which refers to this Mediterranean biome that is rich in evergreen shrubs and deep rooted perennials. These plants are adapted to cool wet winters and blistering hot summers.
The vegetation can change with altitude and near Mt Etna – one of the world’s most active volcanoes located on the east coast of the island – the flora is distinctly temperate, whereas in parts of Palermo it can verge on sub tropical.
Also within the Sicilian landscapes are beautiful meadows filled with deep-rooted perennial herbs and aromatic shrubs, such as the spicy smelling curry plant, licorice scented fennel and pungent Tree Wormwood.

Cultures and landscapes inextricably entwined

The first major cultural impact on Sicily was by the Greeks, who built major colonies, such as Agrigento, between the 8th and 6th centuries BC. The people prospered here due to the rich alluvial plains, ideal for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables. The Greeks also introduced olives and vines to Sicily.

In the 3rd century BC, the island became the first Roman province and was held by the Roman Empire for over 6 centuries. Sicily was important in providing food for Romans and was termed ‘Rome’s bread basket’. The Byzantines occupied Sicily in AD 535 until 965.
In 965 the island fell to Arab conquest from North Africa. The beginnings of Arab invasion occurred in 827 (and lasted until 1091) and they successively conquered the major settlements. Palermo became the capital and grew into one of the most populous and cosmopolitan centres of the world with Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic being spoken. Trade flourished, largely due to the island’s central location in the Mediterranean; Sicily has been at the crossroads of trade for over 8000 years. As a result of this trading hotspot many plants were introduced to Europe over thousands of years.
The Arabs worked wonders in agriculture, dividing large estates and diversifying production. They developed sophisticated irrigation systems, known as ‘qanats’, to provide water throughout the city, but these systems were then adapted to use in olive groves. The Arabs also introduced one of Sicily’s most important crops – citrus fruit.
Culturally, Arab gardens were heavily influenced by water and water features w
ere important in symbolizing paradise. Water was often brought into the house by a series of rills, which in turn helped to cool the air inside.

Ancient cloister garden at the cathedral town of Monreale

From 1060 the Normans progressively settled the island and rather than destroying Arabic culture, they embraced it. The Normans were greatly impressed by Arabic architecture and continued to use Arabic architects and craftsmen in their buildings, such as San Giovanni degli Eremiti (a church in Palermo), the Cathedral of Monreale, and the Zisa (a castle in Palermo built for King William I of Sicily). All of these buildings have strong Arabic influences with decorative art on the walls and floors, and domes mounted on cubic towers.

In and around Palermo…


The Botanic Gardens of Palermo

False kapok tree (Ceiba speciosa) growing at the Palermo
Botanic Garden

Palermo Botanic Garden was founded in 1779 and was originally developed to grow medicinal plants. It has fantastic specimen plants including a number of Cycad species (given by the aristocracy of Naples to the aristocracy of Sicily), the beautiful False Kapok Tree, a number of different palms and cacti and the impressive Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). This latter beast of a tree has buttress roots that extend over an area of around 1,000 square metres (about 10,764 ft2). This aggressive tree starts as an epiphyte and then slowly strangles its host.

A British home in Sicily

There are many large country houses in and around Palermo. One of the more interesting is the Villa Malfitiano, an Italian mansion which was built by the Whittaker family (originally from Yorkshire) who made their money importing Marsala wine into Liverpool. This house has amazing examples of Trompe-l’œil with images of gardens painted on the walls. The gardens themselves have rare collections of trees.

Further out of Palermo

As you move out of the city, the built landscape gives way to small scale farming with groves of almonds and olives growing on the slopes. Here you can find weird and wonderful plants, many dependent on wild fire to colonise. One such odd looking poisonous plant is the mandrake (genus Mandragora), which belongs to the nightshades (Solanaceae) family. This genus flowers in October, but otherwise doesn’t look like much for the rest of the year.  Its root is believed to resemble a man and according to folklore, will shriek when pulled up (a fact that JK Rowling incorporated into Harry Potter). It is thought this is likely a rumour spread by herbalists as the plant has hallucinogenic and narcotic properties and they wanted to protect it!

A family estate

The privately owned estate belonging to the Marchesi Paternò Castello Di San Giuliano lies between Catalina and Syracuse and has been with the family for 800 years. The 4 hectare garden here has been developed over the last 40 years and has been gardened by British head gardener, Rachel Lamb, since 2002. It is truly Mediterranean in its use of plantings and also its aesthetics, with swathes of palms, eucalypts, bougainvillea’s, yuccas and succulents. There are beautiful stone pines and pergolas to provide shade and rills to provide irrigation. On the estate citrus are grown to make jams and marmalades, which are then sold at exclusive shops such as Fortnum and Mason.

The garden that wasn’t

Just south of Catania are the gardens of Villa Borghese, which were created by Princess Maria Carla Borghese from a former dry lakes side, a process that has taken forty years. The lake was a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying malaria so in the 1930s the lake was drained. The fishermen left, leaving an ancient harbour wall that was built by the ancient Greeks; this wall is now in the heart of the garden and surrounded by immense succulents and palms.

An artist’s garden

In 1905
, Casa Cuseni in Taormina, on the east coast of the island, was built by Robert Kitson, a famous English artist. In it’s heyday it had many famous visitors notably Oscar Wilde and Picasso. The terraced gardens were carefully designed to enhance the amazing views and are richly planted with citrus, roses, vines, wisteria and irises.

 A rich landscape tapestry

Sicily has it all, magnificent buildings, exceptional history, extreme geography and geology and exquisite landscapes and gardens. The sheer diversity of gardens and landscapes of Sicily is an indication of the many influences from different cultures over thousands of years on this truly distinct island. And if we don’t come by a sun drenched summer this year in England then you can always plan a trip to Sicily instead.

Nick will be leading a garden and landscape tour of Sicily again this year, from 26th April to 6th May. Click here for more information.

Is there a role for plant-based medicine in our modern society?

What is the first image that comes to mind when you read the words “plant-based medicine”? This is the question James Wong presented the audience with last Thursday night at the 5th annual Annals of Botany Lecture held at the University of Bristol.
The audience, admittedly filled with plant aficionados, came up with answers such as aspirin and morphine. However, the same question posed during a university course that Wong teaches came up with some different imagery: dread locks and muddy boots, fads and big business, witch doctors in the Amazon, and cauldrons and concoctions. Imagery that suggests that plant-based medicine is a system of health care that is impractical, ineffective and therefore irrelevant. Given these cultural perceptions, is there still a role for plant-based medicine in an age where we are constructing nanoparticlesand running quantum algorithms?
Wong spent well over an hour exploring this question with an audience of over 200 last week – dispelling many of the myths that surround herbal medicine and distinguishing between scientific fact and cultural belief. But before I get to that, let me tell you a little bit about the man himself.

A self-proclaimed botany geek

If you’re not already familiar with the infectious smile of James Wong and his unbridled enthusiasm, let me introduce you. James is an ethnobotanist. He studies the relationships between plants and people – how people use plants, how they learn about what plants do, and how plants are perceived across societies.  He trained at Kew Gardens and his own research into traditional medical systems has taken him to Ecuador, Southern Chile and Indonesia.
You may recognise James from the award-winning BBC Two series Grow Your Own Drugs and as a member of the BBC One Countryfileteam. If that’s not enough, he’s also an award-winning garden designer and best-selling author. His energy level makes me think that he may have a very thorough understanding of some of the stimulant properties of plants, but as I’m working my way through my fourth cup of tea this morning, who am I to talk!

Drawing a thick black line between conventional and herbal medicine

James puts up a picture of a pile of pills on the left hand side of the screen and a picture of herbs on the right. These represent conventional and herbal medicine accordingly. James then uses some very opposing language to describe perceptions about these two schools of medicine – synthetic vs natural, evidence-based vs ineffective, proven safe vs potentially dangerous. Then, he draws a thick black line between the two.
“In the western world,” says James, “people in one camp immediately dismiss the other camp. But this idea is not scientifically based, it’s a cultural perception. Most scientists don’t see this black line. They are concerned about the efficacy of a substance rather than the source.”
For starters, many pills are derived from plants. In fact, 50% of the most commonly used conventional drugs and 75% of current cancer treatments are derived from natural sources. James provides a couple of fantastic examples:
·         Houttuynia cordata – is given as an injection treatment- known as HCI –as a treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
·         Artemisinin is isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, and is taken as an antimalarial, replacing many of the quinine-based antimalarials.
So why is it that with so many medicines combating some of the toughest diseases of the 21st century coming from natural sources, there is still a perception that herbal medicines are best left for those that dance barefoot in the mud at Glastonbury?

Myth 1: Herbal medicines are ineffective

Reason 1: lack of evidence

The number one reason that herbal medicines are thought to be ineffective is due to a lack of evidence. James sites cost as the main reason that evidence lacks for these herbal remedies. With an estimated 50,000 medicinal plant species on the planet, James estimates that it would cost between USD $4.5 trillion and 36 trillion to test all these potential plant species (assuming we’ve actually found them) for the 300 most common ailments. This is 81 years of the world’s combined GDP. Not only is this unrealistic, there is very little economic incentive to even try to test all medicinal plants as patenting plant sources is very difficult.
The other challenge with providing evidence for the effectiveness of herbal medicines is that much of the testing is, quite frankly, inaccurate. James uses Echinaceaas a classic example of this. In a study looking at the efficacy of Echinacea, they tested the dried leaves and flowers of E. purpurea – the common garden species. However, it is the fresh root of E. pallida and E. angustifolia that is used in traditional medicines.
“This is like testing the fur of a kitten to determine the effectiveness of the claws of a tiger,” says James.
James also referred to a paradigm mismatch as the root of these perceptions.   We are products of our paradigm environments. You and I fully understand the concept of germs because we were raised in that paradigm. However, think about someone from an isolated tribe in the Amazon grappling with the idea that we have little creatures living on and in us that grow and multiply simply by dividing in two and can make us sick. It’s simply not plausible to them!
Morning glory seeds mashed up have mind-altering effects. It was once mainstream to use this powerful hallucinogen during psychoanalysis. The patient, in an altered state, would talk about issues that would otherwise be suppressed and then the psychoanalyst would be able to help interpret these ramblings and resolve the patient’s problems. In Latin America, the seeds are used in much the same way, except replace the psychoanalyst with a shaman and the mind-altered state is an opportunity to seek advice from spirit guides; same medicinal plant, but two very different paradigms.
We also seem to forget that the food we put in our mouth is, indeed, medicine. The prunes I gave my son yesterday…very effective…and I don’t need three clinical trials to confirm that!

Reason 2: loss of traditional medical knowledge

The second main reason for the myth that herbal medicines are ineffective is that there has
been an incredible loss of traditional medical knowledge. When the Spaniards arrived, they brought with them disease that wiped out 70% of the indigenous people of what is now Ecuador and with this, much of the traditional knowledge.
Along with disease, the European visitors carried exotic seed that thrived in the new habitat that they created as they deforested the land.  Today, 90% of medicinal plants in Ecuador are hedgerow species from Spain. The indigenous people had to learn about the uses of these new plants that were now far more convenient than the small isolated populations of their traditional medicinal plants. It was then the knowledge of these new exotic species that was passed down to the next generations.

Reason 3: many herbal medicines simply do not work

Sadly, a few bad seeds with some overly-stated advertising can ruin it for an entire industry. James uses the anti-oxidant powers of pomegranates as an example. Yes, pomegranate does have relatively high levels of anti-oxidants, but in fact, no more than say an apple.

Myth 2: Herbal medicines are impractical

At this point, James returned the discussion back to food and how everything we eat has some biological effect on our bodies…those four cups of tea I had this morning certainly have! Lunch, for example, might include a curry, a couple of fig bars, a piece of chocolate and a cup of coffee.  In our body, this breaks down to antiseptic (onion) and decongestant (chili) in the curry, laxative (fig) in the fig bars, psychoactive (chocolate), and stimulant (caffeine). I don’t know about you, but eating has never been an impractical task for me!
To address this public perception of impracticality, many companies have packaged herbal medicines up in sterile looking ways in order to give the appearance of being synthesised drugs. A brand of IBS relief capsules, for example, is no more than a peppermint jelly when the ingredients are examined. An analgesic cream is simply refined capsaicin taken from chilies.
So, does herbal medicine still have a role to play in our age of information and technology?
“It does still have a role to play,” says James, “because we still eat and because we still use plants as the base for many of the drugs in use.”
In fact, James claims that the UK is now the world’s biggest grower of daffodils. The flowers aren’t for display purposes, they are grown for a stress hormone they produce known as galanthamine. The drug is very effective in the treatment of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The soil conditions in Wales are apparently ideal for stressing these lovely spring flowers into producing the hormone in abundance!
James’ final thought of the evening was that it’s not really a matter of whether herbal medicine still has a role to play, “it’s a matter of whether you wish to accept it.”
If you have an opportunity to listen to James Wong speak, I highly recommend it. He is both entertaining and educational .
A reminder that Sunday May 19th is Fascination of Plants Day at the Botanic Garden. There will be interactive displays, a plant hunt and garden tours running from 10am to 4:30pm. Find out more at the garden’s events page http://www.bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden/events/2013/84.html