Not all gardens are for the pleasure of a home owner or part of a public park. Some are simply there to exhibit the wonderful world of plant life and remind us of the delicate balance between the needs of humans and nature. Botanical gardens can be found up and down the country, the most famous being Kew Gardens. For the letter E the obvious choice is the Eden Project on the coast of Cornwall. Two enormous biomes were constructed in a disused China Clay Pit to showcase two distinctive environments: tropical rainforest and the dry Mediterranean wildlife.
The idea was the brainchild of Sir Tim Smit, who also helped recover the Lost Garden of Heligan (the subject of a later post). He wanted to display the world’s most important fauna and needed a lot of space. The clay pit had reached the end of its life, so what seemed better than giving it new life and help regenerate the area. Back in 1996, the first designs were drawn on a napkin in a pub and involved bubbles. Giant bubbles. The domes are made from plastic not glass, since glass is heavy and dangerous if it collapses.
Rain is a big problem. It collected in the pit, which is below the water table, so it had to be pumped out. Then came the scaffolding used to create the domes – 230 miles of it, setting a World Record.
The first plants arrived in 2000 to populate the tropical dome. The dome is taller than the Tower of London. Nurseries are used to grow plants from seeds, then transplanted into the dome. Other plants come from research centres and other botanic gardens. 83,000 tonnes of soil was made using minerals from local mine waste while composted bark provides the organic matter.
Eden opened in 2001. It perhaps looked a little sparse still, but plants grow to fill the space around them, and there were plenty of ongoing projects that needed time to develop.
The rainforest biome has over a 1000 plants and is the largest indoor rainforest in the world. Inside it, the visitor can experience four different types of rainforest: South American, Southeast Asia, West Africa and Tropical Islands. A canopy walkway means you can walk among the top of the trees. It’s not just a showcase for plants, Eden is an education. The important part is about the sustainability of palm oil, wild rubber, coffee beans and cocoa, used for chocolate production. There is artwork, totems and exhibits, plenty to see.
Over in the drier and smaller Mediterranean dome, you’ll meet the plant life of California, South Africa, Western Australian, as well as the Mediterranean. The air is scented with flowers and giant citrus fruits. There are vines, aloe, olive trees, chilli peppers and sugarbushes. It makes you hungry!
Outside of the domes, there are miles of paths, ornamental flowers, secret gardens about folklore and a giant ship setting sail in a sea of tea leaves.
The Eden Project is nothing like the formal gardens of palaces, the open spaces of public parks or the quintessential English cottage garden. The scale is epic, and so is the ambition to educate and celebrate life. I think it also inspires. Around the world Eden projects are in development in China, New Zealand, Australia and California. We might not be able to build a biome in our back gardens or on our window sills, but whatever we can plant in a little bit of soil makes a difference to our habitats. It certainly puts a smile of my face.
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