Friday, 29 October 2010

Parisian Botany

Week 3

I missed week 3 at the RBGE to accompany Hugh to a golf match in Paris. Having looked forward to a few days of holiday, we flew off on the 13th Oct - into the face of a General Strike. Negotiating miles of CDG’s airport with conflicting advice on how to actually get to Paris, we finally found ourselves on platform 9¾ and the free train to Gare du Nord. Bonjour France!

Our little apt on Rue du Bac was beautifully located for some of the most wonderful, quirky shops and galleries of the Left Bank. Meandering through the side-streets the next day, we came across a fantastic gardening bookshop, La Maison Rustique – a veritable treasure trove of Gallic horticultural lore, replete with dictionaries of plants past and present, bio-dynamic tips and techniques, manuals on how to 'potager √† la lune' and numerous herbal preparations. Dredging my high school French from the recesses of time, I trawled through the pages of the books acquiring a new and evocative vocabulary for all things green.

(Hugh meanwhile secreted himself in another corner and found a modern-day cartoon-strip of gardening disasters and a charming DIY manual on how to fake gardening prowess: paint the lawn green.)

Further on through St Germain, we stumbled upon a tiny shop, Librarie Alain Brieux with windows displaying miscellany of an ancient Herbaria and related artefacts. In the centre of the cabinet was an exquisite 18th c Herbal journal.  8 or 9 inches thick, opened to show a yellowed page of a precious specimen, elegantly illustrated with detailed drawing of the Botanist being chased by a wild beast.

Sated for the day, we spent the next few exploring the Louvre and Right Bank, leaving a visit to the intriguing gardening shop, Dey Rolle, across the road for the last day.  

Cabinet de curiosit√© DeyrolleWhat a mistake!  Entering the shop, I had the impression of finding the French Smith & Hawken. Windows and display tables were covered with silver secateurs, fine leather gloves, terracotta pots of verbena candles, velvet and corduroy gardening aprons and seed packets of ‘tomates a l’ancien’ (£5). All bearing the crest of a lost Bourbon king or as it turns out, La Prince Jardiniere.   

Upstairs promised more of the same but upon ascending the wooden stairs, I was astonished to find myself facing a full-size polar bear – stuffed, of course – for sale (a snip at 46,000 Euros). Four rooms opened in succession beyond, filled with a Noah’s Ark of taxidermy. A baby giraffe and elephant, buffaloes, antelopes, tigers and crocodiles were followed by a room of domestic hens, geese, pigs, calves, a pony and wall of tiny songbirds. 

Mouth ajar, I stumbled on to the third room which seemed to harbour more normal activity. Children and grandparents eagerly gathered around great wooden work tables excitedly pointing and selecting their presents - beautiful iridescent butterflies and moths, neatly pinned by store attendants into attractive arrangements and secured under glass to take away.  All real, all new.

It was only the normalcy of the last room that made me linger longer than rational. A long table of books filled the space: great tomes on birds, beasts and natural history, with racks of posters on dissection and anatomy - of every living specie, vegetable and plant.  Quietly lying in the centre, I spied a oversized hardback Herbal.  Safely illustrated with pages of herbs and medicinal plants with complementary info on preparation, remedies and amusing historical anecdotes. 

But I should have known better. Just next to this was a similarly elegant herbal, but this one on deadly plants; tips on preparing and storing poisonsrecipes for violent death potions, with illustrations of Catherine de Medici dispatching her enemies.  Vive la France!

Elementary Botany

Week 2

Issued with my electronic door-opening dongle, I whisked through last week’s maze of doors in a blaze of confident navigation.  Arriving at LR2, I squeezed into the far seat of the back row and absorbed the growing sense of expectation from the gathered class. Catherine had arranged a lovely bank of flowers, seed heads, dried cones and specimens all along the front table – a glorious riot of autumn colours – soon to become items of scientific enquiry.

Greg Kinicer, RBGE Botanist, took us through our paces in elementary botany and nomenclature.  Linnaeus’ classifications laid bare, we learnt the difference between kingdoms, divisions, classes, subclasses, orders, family, genus, and species. Armed with slides and brandishing thorny spikes of artichoke we followed the division into families:
  • Cruciferae (Brassicaceae) – cabbage family
  • Composite ((Asteraceae) – daisy family
  • Graminaceae (Poaceae) – grass family
  • Guttiferae (Hypericaceae) – St John’s Wort family
  • Labiatae – (Lamiaceae) – mint family
  • Leguminosae (Fabaceae) – pea family
  • Palme (Arecaceae) – palm family
  • Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) - carrot family

Each family was further described by species within their genus, categorized by leaf structure and catalogued with proper use of italics. Cultivars were allowed a brief entry with mutants following.  

We then abandoned our Powerpoint presentation and whiteboard for the broad avenues and grassy slopes of the gardens. Gathering under the pointed bows of the great Monkey Puzzle tree we learned hat most plants were hermaphrodites who adapted their sexual habits to reproductive needs. Cones and flowers produced together, leaf structures that weren’t really leaves at all but parts of a flower, whether acuminated, truncated or obtuse and extraordinary measures taken to spread, grow and dominate.

The afternoon was much less dramatic. 

We were treated to a beautiful exposition on creating Herbaria specimens (homework to come) by Kate Eden in the lofty halls of the worldwide collections. (Darwin’s own handiwork is held within these hallowed halls.)  Employing tweezers, thread and needle, surgical tape and strong sacks of sand with great agility, Kate took us through the process of recreating nature’s artistry in 2D displays for posterity. 

Around the corner, three RBGE staff were migrating the contents of the renown Herbaria into digital format. Cross-referenced with images and data from around the globe, this will be the beginning of a new age in our understanding and documentation of plant life on earth.

Starting Off

Week 1

The day started with a great sense of anticipation and angst. Grey skies swept over the Edinburgh skyline, gusting around me as I wended my way from Waverley towards the Firth of Forth towards Inverleith. Trundling down through Broughton I stopped to extract a hot coffee and a scone from a Castro Street lookalike and pressed on to Canonmills. Taylors,the old bakery is gone, piano stores proliferate, Ethiopian cafes now span the curb, but Warriston Gardens and the temples of Inverleith Row remain the same. Crossing the Water of Leith and on up the hill, buses, biddies and pushchairs all joined in me as we progressed in a steady stream towards the magical silver gates of the RBGE.

What on earth was I doing here? Who else would be here? Was this pure and utter folly? I passed through gardens, into the administration buildings, nodded at front-desk security and along the corridors of hushed enquiry towards the classrooms. Office workers faded into gardeners, pot plants became specimens and blasts of hothouse air greeted my tentative arrival at Lecture Room 2

And there we all were – ready for a new day.

We are 6 in all, 1 man and 5 women from ages 19 – 50+ and our delightful tutor, Catherine Payne-Stewart. We completed forms, signed sheets, ordered secateurs and sweatshirt and heard the Health & Safety chat.  We chatted, drank fennel tea and checked out the room, the atmosphere, the ambiance and the characters to be part of our life over the next 29 weeks.