In our world today, we have a tendency to underestimate our reliance on plants. We forget the fundamental roles they play in curing diseases and in providing the food and the oxygen we need to survive. There is even a name for this modern oversight – plant blindness.
Botanic gardens are wonderful places to learn about the importance of plants in our lives: from the way they can tell the time, to the wood wide web and the effects of pollution, botanic gardens take us behind the science and reveal the fascinating world of plants.
This weekend, we visited Cambridge Botanic Garden with friends. Our ten-year-old son enjoyed exploring the different habitats and their flora – from the limestone rock garden showcasing high altitude plants from around the world to the forty-year-old winter garden, still looking beautiful in mid-spring.
My six-year-old daughter and her friend made up their own challenges – to find plants with:
· the nicest smell
· the most unusual bark
· the brightest colours
· the most interesting shape
In the scented garden, we sampled the perfume of the lilacs (Syringa ssp.), wallflowers (Erysimum ssp.) and lavender (Lavendula ssp.). Wallflowers were declared to have the sweetest aroma and a little later, in the bog garden, the imperial fritillaries (Fritillaria imperialis) were awarded the prize for the smelliest plant.
In the tropical rainforest glasshouse, we were transported to another world by the heat and the smell of damp foliage. The children were fascinated by the flowers of the hanging Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), winner of the brightest colour in the garden, and the cacti in the arid lands glasshouse won the award for most interesting shapes, especially the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), common in collections all over the world, but in danger of becoming extinct in wild populations in Mexico.
Back outside, we turned our attention to the trees. In the winter garden, the Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) and the red barked birch tree (Betula utilis ssp. albosinensis) vied for the most unusual and beautiful bark, while the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was the tallest tree and Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani ), the widest.
The new ‘Rising Path’ was popular – we enjoyed following the winding walkway up to the viewing platform over the systematic beds where members of plant families are grouped together. The walkway floor lays out the evolution of plants and below in the interpretation hub there are multi-generational activities including a seed abacus, information on common plant families and artwork including Charles Darwin’s pressed plant material from the voyage of the HMS Beagle, now kept in the university herbarium.
Equally important was the excellent café where we refuelled in the morning and a picnic area surrounded by wildflower planting, where we had our lunch. Whilst eating, we saw several butterflies including the first orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) and holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) of the year, proving the value of leaving areas of grass to grow long and host wild flowers. In fact, the gardens are holding a bioblitz this spring to record as many species as possible in 24 hours, highlighting the importance of plants in supporting populations of wildlife across the country.
Golden Barrel Cactus
If you haven’t already visited your local botanic garden, late spring is a great time to take your family and friends along. With nearly 70 botanic gardens spanning the length and breadth of the UK, there’s sure to be a garden not too far away. As well as offering a fun day out for all ages, botanic gardens are an important reminder of the value of plants, not only in the past but in our present and future too.
If you'd like to learn more about the Cambridge Botanical Garden, download the free audio tour here to guide you around the garden's history and plants.