A few weeks ago we had the great pleasure to visit Bristol botanic garden!
Bristol B G is very new to its current site having only been there for 6 years and has developed a very interesting take on its own collection.
There is an Angiosperm phylogeny garden where the beds are laid out in the same order as the evolution of the flowering plants. There is a garden where the plants are ordered as to their ailment in Chinese herbal medicine. Another that is for western medicine and a large South African area. Most importantly for us though they have a garden very similar to our own, the evolutionary dell.
A stroll through this sunken garden was a bit like being at home! There were so many plants familiar to us, and the odd one or two that were not. One that is missing from our garden was the pillwort, a small aquatic member of the fern family that is replaced in our garden by Marsilea quadrifolia the four leaved clover fern. Both of these plants hale from the lower cretaceous and are members of the fern order Salviniales. They have been lucky enough to have been able to plant a large stand of the tree ferns Dicksonia Antarctica and fibrosa (we only have two Antarctica and one fibrosa) although like us the lack of protection over the dell from trees has meant that many of these are starting quite slowly this year. Many of their tree species are in the ground (ours are in pots due to lack of space). Another obvious gap in our collection were some of the trees in the family Podocarpaceae, having only one small creeping Podocarpus lawrencei, we went some way to rectifying this by the end of our trip!
Bristol B G also have the luxury of being able to plant some of the more invasive species of Equisetum as the Evolutionary dell is in quite a confined area (unfortunately many of these where just labelled Equisetum sp).
But the main plant we wanted to see at Bristol botanic garden is their most unique and we were lucky enough to be taken to see it! They have the only plants in the UK of Amborella trichopoda (the most basal of the extant basal Angiosperms). Off show to the public and cared for lovingly by a lady called Penny they sit in a structure made of bread crates that attempts to mimic their natural environment as an understory plant in the New Caledonian rainforest.
For me at least it was like visiting the Holy Grail, these scruffy, insignificant plants surrounded by their bread crates, so simple and plain yet so pivotally important to botany as a science! Its Amborella that is helping phylogenists to solve Darwin’s ‘Abominable mystery’ where did flowering plants evolve from?
Penny spent some time talking to us about the complexities of growing this plant we talked about its need for shade and humidity at the same time as having good air flow and high temperatures. It is the unique set of requirements that it gets in the understory of its New Caledonian rainforest home that has led to the bread crate structure that surrounds these plants now!
Of course I asked if I could have one and of course they said ‘NO!’ (It was worth a try!) And just as an aside I have to let you in on the fact that whenever Ben and I discuss Amborella we inevitably end up singing the song by Rihanna ‘Amborella ella ella ay ay ay……….’
Also, amongst the cycads and orchids of the botanic garden’s glass houses we found whisk ferns (Psilotaceae) growing out of many of the pots. These amazing plants are also an evolutionary anomaly being closely allied to Ophioglossoid ferns they very much resemble a group of extinct plants (the rhyniophytes) that where around during the Devonian period (about 400mya) and have probably been around since the very first ferns evolved.
We are so impressed by the work that we saw going on at Bristol that we joined the Friends of Bristol Botanic Gardens and certainly intend to be back there at the earliest given opportunity.
As an aside from the awesome evolutionary plants at Bristol there were two other groups of plants that interested me. The first being the plants that had been supplied by Crug Farm plants and it was interesting to see how they were getting on at botanic garden. Certainly they are thriving!
The second group where the members of Proteaceae (in particular Proteas and Banksias) that they are growing outside. At the previous home of the garden this group did very well outside yet at the current site I am afraid that they are not doing so well. A few, Banksia marginata being one, are doing well but most of the others are not. The garden has suffered many losses over the winter.
Not fazed by these losses the garden is going to be developing an area in its walled garden to grow some of the plants from the Mediterranean climate of the south east and west of Australia and are helping educate local children about the evolution of the flora of South Africa.
On our way home from Bristol we stopped by the great rare plants nursery Pan Global Plants. The owner, Nick Macer, was there to greet us and happily tell us that he had all but one of the plants on our list!
So after 3 hours of hard shopping and chatting we left with a car stacked full of plants including Liriodendron chinense, Lagrostrobos franklinii (a podocarp), Cunninghamia lanceolata (an evolutionary step between the Araucariaceae and Cupressaceae) and Illicium henryi. Although the plant we came away with that we are most impressed with is a fern, Woodwardia unigemmata, a fern whose fronds grow to impressive proportions and are flushed scarlet when new! Thank you Nick for that one!!!!
We drove home slowly with our boot full of plants making time to stop on the way at another hardy tropical garden centre. Akamba, just outside Birmingham, is an immersion event. You step out of your car into a little piece of Africa in the midlands.
Greeted by guinea fowl and life size metal sculptures of African animals you step into a tropical jungle surrounded by palms and ferns. On this occasion the plants were not the reason for our visit. It was the delicious meal of Jerk chicken in their amazing African and Caribbean restaurant, a welcome stop on the journey.
Akamba doesn’t just serve great food and sell incredible exotic plants it also ploughs money back into projects in Kenya where it sources much of its art, tea and coffee from. In particular, the Brainhouse academy, a school for the children of one of the most poverty stricken slums of Nairobi. So if you happen to be in south east Birmingham at any point pleas pop in and see Akamba it really is worth the visit!
So all in all it was a very successful trip to Bristol and certainly worth the effort of driving down there from North Wales.