Our journey this week took us beyond the classroom again, this time into the gardens and glasshouses of the RBGE’s amazing living collections.
We started with an introduction to the ecology of woodlands; native ones in particular, to gain an understanding of the alliance of minerals, soil and light in creating habitats for native, introduced, alien and endemic species. Our native plants and their habitats form a relatively young ecosystem, born out of the devastation wrecked by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. The plants that have re-established a presence in Britain have done so through a variety of methods from slow and steady inch-by-inch expansion to re-possession by stealth (via birds and humans). In fact up until 1500 AD we had only 1200 species in Britain – now we have 6,000-10,000 - thanks to human introduction.
A terrain, whether acid or alkaline, creates a microcosm of interdependency and community among its residents. The peat bogs exist in tandem with the Scots pine forests – each as acidic as the other – and nurture a plethora of like-minded plants, and we assume animals. Sunlight lingering on the tree tops, delivers bright lightwaves of read and blue, absorbed transformed into photosynthesis, whilst at the bottom of the forest floor, subterfuge is used to grab the remaining green light, as plants twist and twine a channel to the top or cling to another's height to gain light and life.
We finished our morning with a stroll through the gardens, to explore micro-environments of Scottish natives and to revel in the outburst of colour and scent released by the nearby Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginia). Sneakily taking a few small flowers we returned to our lab to create our first spirit specimens.
Our afternoon took us deep in the glass palaces that house the flora of continents, islands and kings. The fight for light continues with palms racing for the heights and creeping tendrils weaving up pillars and posts. Pink begonias blaze with colour in the January gloom, bewildered because surely it is summer in South Africa… and North American immigrants, the clever cactii maintain their spiky defenses to ward off invasive insects, heat and Rosewell aliens.
In the great forests of the largest glasshouse are the equatorial bananas and gingers conducting a simpler wars of brilliant colour, purple fruits and enormous leaves. Gentle breezes they find no more, but the misting wands of the nations gardeners keep them happy through the winter days.