The University of Bristol Botanic Garden hosts a plethora of flora from vast exotic environments, and are home to many night blooming, night fragrant and night active plants. But it takes certain individuals with knowledge, passion and a touch of creativity to ensure that the garden’s plant life remains healthy and well maintained – a job that must be done by day.
"There's a certain space that you get when working with plants, you aren't contained within an office, there's a sort of freedom and creativity. Although it's very practical – I do a lot of chopping and cutting back – it's also quite creative. And the propagation side is really rewarding; growing things from seed, taking cuttings and creating new plants." Penny Harms, University of Bristol Botanic Garden Glasshouse Coordinator.
Tucked away from the bustle of the city, the Bristol Botanic Garden hosts a serene sense of calm. On this early autumn morning, there's a cold snap to the air and the sun is long, giving everything a golden glow. After a prolonged moment of revelling in the peace and quiet, I head for the glasshouses to meet with the glasshouse co-ordinator, Penny Harms. A petite woman with tied back auburn hair emerges from the 'closed to the public' cool zone glasshouse. A little flustered by my early arrival, Penny, in a buoyant and bubbly manner, quickly says hello before scurrying off to attend to other business before returning – as co-ordinator she oversees all happenings within the glasshouses.
A Walk through the Glasshouses
Each zone reflects a climatic region, so as you meander through the glasshouses you are taken on a journey through a multitude of continents, biomes and altitudes. The 'climates' in the houses are controlled, and the interconnected spaces (zones) are sectioned off by a series of large sliding steel-framed glass doors. A gentle hum of the sensor for the temperature gauge can be heard, as well as the occasional groan of metal, similar to the sounds on a ship at sea, as the glasshouse windows automatically open and close to control the temperature.
The Warm Temperate Zone:
The first glasshouse, the warm temperate zone, all bar a few anomalies, is very much on one plane with not many plants exceeding the half metre mark. Benches line the glass walls, littered with a sea of terracotta pots all cradling cacti, xerophytes, succulents, aloes, and other similar exotics. On one side it is mostly arid looking flora, spiky and bulbous, blue-green, even grey, in colour. The opposite side feels leafier, its Mediterranean plant life sprouting rich purple and orange flowers. At the rear sits a bench solely occupied by carnivorous Venus flytraps, with motionless flies encased between their green claws.
The Cool Zone:
Closed to the public whilst they finalise the collection, the cool zone feels a little more like a gardener's greenhouse than a botanical display. Tucked in the corner is a tall spiky cactus that rests gently on the glass wall behind, as it struggles to hold up its own weight in the tiny terracotta pot. This night-blooming Cereus Peruvianus cactus (Peruvian apple cactus) flowers for one night only, when it will open to reveal a beautiful creamy coloured flower with pink to violet hues in the very exterior petals.
The Sub-tropical Zone:
Giant leafy ferns tower, contesting their enclosure with the glass roof. And in this prehistoric jungle, reminiscent of the set from Jurassic Park, it almost feels expected that some nimble-footed dinosaur will leap out from amongst the foliage. The air is thicker in here than in the previous zones, comfortable in temperature but more humid. Penny returns, no longer in her zip-up fleece and shorts but instead sporting a pair of chest-high black waders, ready to plunge into the tropical pool.
The Tropical Zone:
For those who live in cooler climates, you may be familiar with the sensation of exiting a plane when arriving at exotic destinations and being met by a wall of heat the moment you step over that no-longer-air-conditioned threshold, from the cabin to the outside. The very same sensation, that intense rush of heat and humidity, hits me when entering the tropical zone glasshouse and it takes a few minutes to acclimatise. If my skin wasn't clammy from the sub-tropical zone then it certainly is now, with the pages of my notebook quickly becoming damp and curling at the edges. In here, one of the initial things to notice is its distinct smell. It's earthy yet fragrant – a familiar scent that after a moment of rummaging the mental archives, I recall is akin to a smell I'd only ever experienced in the jungles of South East Asia.
The florae are luscious and bright green, with passion fruit plants, banana trees, yams, ginger, cocoa trees, and plethora of exotic plant life lining the perimeter with the tropical pool at the centre. The chirping of birds heard through the currently open roof windows and the beaming sun do well to replicate the paradise of the rainforest. In here everything is dripping wet; the dull patting sound as droplets fall from one leaf to the next creates a percussive rhythm. Penny explains that one of the most important jobs in glasshouses is the daily morning watering. It may sound like a relatively rudimentary task, however, there's a lot more to it than simply getting the hosepipe out and turning the water on. Penny explains that some of the environments that they are looking to mimic are complex:
“For example, some plants are used to growing in coastal sub-tropical environments, like plants from the southern cape of South Africa. There they've got mountains that come quite close to the coast so the plants may seem like they need coastal conditions but you need to consider that they'd be near a snowline for part of the year as well." She concludes, “replicating all these different factors can be a real challenge, but I like a challenge. When a plant is happy you know that you've managed to replicate its wild natural environment. And when you've done that, you feel like you've achieved something."
On the pool's surface there are tiny disturbances, only made noticeable by the minute flitters of changing light. I lean in closer and tiny guppy fish can be seen darting about. Penny explains that the guppy fish were introduced to the pool because they are self-sustaining surface feeders, eating insects, algae and other debris that falls on the water's surface, helping to keep a state of balance. The pool itself consists of rainwater, collected outdoors (in a rain water tank at the back of the glasshouse) from Bristol's plentiful precipitation – which they also use to water the plants.
Penny has worked at the Botanic Garden for sixteen years, the last eight of which she has been the glasshouse co-ordinator. Before working here Penny worked in commercial horticulture in London for about five years, working in a nursery that churned out bedding plants for high-end hotels and restaurant chains. The main difference for Penny is that when working for commercial horticulture companies it is all about speed and perfection, which she admits was quite exciting, however, it would be a few short months of growing the plants to then never see them again, knowing that they would quickly go to compost. Whereas working at the Botanic Garden she gets to nurture the plants and help them flourish. "Here, you are with them for life. Everything that you put into them you actually see over a period of time."
Penny grew up on the Isles of Scilly where "everyone's aware of the amazing flora", she says proudly. Warmly she goes on to describe the turquoise seas, white sand beaches, abundant wildlife, and, of course, the Tresco Abbey Garden. "It's like Kew with the roof off, and feels like the Italian Rivera but in the UK. It's a beautiful, beautiful garden, stunning garden."
As a child, she spent all her summers walking around Tresco Island with her mother. Penny's affinity to plants came at a young age, "my grandmother, her sister and their father were all artists; they were painters. They were always in the garden, and my mother as well. I think when you are young, if you are around people who are always outdoors, it tends to rub off on you." Her family may have not only influenced her love for the botanical world, but also the world of art – Penny had initially studied and worked as a fine artist before setting upon a career in horticulture.
Penny eases herself into the pool, gently stirring the otherwise very tranquil waters. Her small frame looks dwarfed by the giant water lily pads and the towering Chinese Lotus Flower stalks, yet she clearly feels comfortable and familiar within her surrounds. There seems to be fierce competition in the pool as the lily pads force themselves on top of one another, each barging the other out the way to lie on top. The Victoria Amazonica and the Victoria Cruziana, despite their boisterous attitude, sit rather regally on the water's surface. Thousands of miles from home, this exotic flora, in another life, would have been floating on the rivers of the Amazon. Their pads, strong enough to hold a small child, have a lip around the circumference – resembling an Indian thali plate – with an aggressively thorny underside, sharp enough to easily penetrate the skin (believe me, I know!). In the notoriously competitive world of the Amazonian jungle, these thorns are used to protect the plant against predators.
The Victoria Amazonica and the Victoria Cruziana are night-time flowerers; for two nights of the year the bud of a flower will open – the first night with brilliant white petals, and the second it will be a beautiful pink colour. After this final bloom it will close up and sink beneath the water. Today, last night's flower looks a little sorry for itself and, pink petalled, it has slipped beneath the waterline. Penny grabs it and with her secateurs severs it from the stem, remarking on its strange scent. The flower emits a smell similar to sweet melon or lychee, or as Penny describes it, "old fruit".
The Victorias are magnificent, but Penny must trim the dying pads and sunken flowers to keep the plant healthy. She is preparing the pool for the winter months in which the majority of the aqua-flora will die back. The pool is where Penny is happiest at work, "I must miss the sea", she giggles, referring back to the Isles of Scilly. She confesses that it is here that she hides out – whilst working, of course – when phone calls and emails become too much, as, sneakily, wet hands can't touch electronic devices.
Although this may be her place of tranquillity, her real pride and joy is a rare plant that she has nurtured from seed, the Amborella Trichopoda, which only a small handful of people across the globe have managed to do. The Amborella Trichopoda, Penny explains, is an ancient wind pollinated shrub from New Caledonia, and it is thought to be one of the earliest flowering plants to have evolved.
Simon Hiscock, Director of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, upon travelling to the South Pacific, acquired fresh seed that was in turn given to Penny to sow, in the hope that it would germinate. But without instructions, she could only do her best to try and get them to grow: "There was absolutely nothing for months. Five months, nothing. Six months, nothing. And it went on, to the point that we thought that they probably had rotted. Then almost 9 months to the day a little seedling emerged. Like a little baby."
Penny explains that they were the first to grow the plant from seed in the UK, possibly even Europe. They now have five plants and an astonishing three generations of the plant. Penny worked to hand pollinate and extract the seeds, to then sow and germinate more. "It's fully in flower and really exciting," she says ecstatically, "and that's three generations that we've got now!"
For a lot of the time it is just Penny and the plants in the glasshouses, excluding the visitors. There are many workers at the gardens, however, caring for the plants requires a specific knowledge, and a degree of kinship. "It can be quite solitary work so it's nice to feel that others enjoy the results as well. It's really nice when people come here and they experience something that they've never experienced before, and they become quite overwhelmed by it. You know that they've gone away thinking about plants in a new way; they've actually seen it for themselves, right in front of them and they learnt something, or they've been excited or enthused, or inspired in someway. I really like it when the children come, they respond completely differently to the adults, and that's really nice. You hope that they grow up remembering the day that they came to the botanical gardens."•
This feature includes four articles:
The Twilight Garden – Words by Kate O'Brien & illustration by Grace Helmer.
Day & Night – Words by Rachel Taylor & photography by Jody Daunton.
The Night Shift – Words by Louise Byng & illustration by Grace Helmer.
The Marvel of the Night – Words by Martin Wainwright & illustration by Grace Helmer.
The Night Garden is a feature from Volume Four. If you enjoyed this story then you may like Grass Routes – click here to continue to this story.