Sunday, 26 June 2011

Eating botanic gardens

Last night, for the second time, I ate a botanic garden. Not all of it – that would be greedy, reckless and irresponsible – but scavenged weeds and stray plants on the verges of our carefully curated collection of plants.

Along with about 50 other adventurous eaters Lynda and I supped at the Orangery in the Kew Gardens, as the first Pop Up Restaurant held there. I won’t explain what a Pop Up Restaurant is because I don’t know, other than this dinner only became public 14 days before the event and that seems to be part of the definition.

But I will discuss the menu. Most of the ingredients were sourced from weedy corners and wild meadows in and around Kew Gardens. Some of the more traditional ingredients came from a small vegetable garden on site. This is how it all went…


Day lily (Hemerocallis fulva) flowers which we poked into a creamy dip [image at top] and then tried to fit delicately into our mouth - crunchy and quite pleasant. Crumbed elder (Sambucus nigra) flowers were on the trays, along with dried lamb. Now don’t have any sheep at Kew Gardens but we do run a flock at Wakehurst Place. I don’t think this lamb came from our collection.


Nettle (Urtica dioica) soup with nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) – green and a little grassy in taste.

Mock mushroom veloute – apparently made from one of the plantains (Plantago lanceolata) and a little like mushroom, I guess. But nice and distinctively flavoured.


Textures of lawn with smoked pigeon – various ephemerals scattered around the small boned bodies of a pigeon, and smoky and gamey. The pigeons weren’t from the botanic gardens.


Rabbit loin roll and herb crusted rack with sweet vernal grass sauce – nope, rabbits also not from the botanic gardens. All very nice and pastural.

It included nettle again. Here are a few among the deer, which weren't served, at Richmond Park this morning.


Alternately served and either hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium, and definitely not the Giant kind, Heracleum mantegazzianum, which is highly toxic!) or meadow sweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Mine was certainly sweet but who knows which herb.


Yellow cherry plum (Prunus ceracifera) sphere – as it sounds; pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) jelly and cream – sweet and gorgeously textured; milk skin with lavender (Lavandula) syrup – as it sounds; yarrow (Achillea millefolium) flower shortbread – very nice flavour and texture, going particularly well with the Calvados (Malus) served with this course.

As a final botanical treat, although just before the Calvados, we all got to taste some of Greg Redwood's home-made Beech Leaf Noyau, a gin flavoured with the young leaves of Fagus sylvatica 'Pendula' from Kew Gardens.

All up a fun experience. Great company on our table. Hearty discussion from food and restaurants, to social media and why the English are so proud of their sporting almost-winners. We didn’t meet the chefs, Nigel Smith and Australian born Simon Duff, but Oliver Peyton (from Peyton and Byrne; Byrne, owner and organiser of the event) joined us at the very end, clearly happy with the occasion and the chance to work with the plants of the botanic garden. Miles Irving, key forager, and helper Greg Redwood, Head of the Great Glasshouses and Training at Kew Gardens, were on hand to talk about their collecting exploits on the fringes of the garden. All in all, a lovely night and only a short walk home…

Oh, and the other time I ate a botanic garden was in Korea, at the Hantaek Botanical Garden just out of Seoul. A beautiful garden and a lunch of flowers and other bits and pieces grown in the botanic gardens. This is a picture from that dining experience. And for more on eating flowers, see my earlier post.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Botanical battle over acacia moves to Melbourne

Just before the 18th International Botanic Congress in Melbourne next month, a hundred or so plant namers will gather together to accept decisions made six years ago in Vienna. These are decisons about how we name plants and resolutions for a few thorny disputes in botanical nomenclature.

It all centres around the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, a surprisingly robust system of rules and precedents that guide scientists when they have to name a newly discovered plant.

But this time something shocking may happen. For the first time since 1905, one of the decisions made in Vienna may be rejected by the plant namers. That decision was to change the plant specimen on which the genus name Acacia was attached meaning that if Acacia is split into a few different genera, which we all support from a scientific perspective, most Australian wattles remain Acacia but African acacias, in particular, require new names.

Broadly speaking this made Australians happy because their 900 or so different wattles didn't have to get new names. It made Africans unhappy because their 150 or so acacias get one of two new genus names - Senegalia or Vachellia. Before the decision it would have been the Australians that were unhappy because the name Acacia was 'attached' to a specimen from Africa and this meant Africans kept this iconic name.

The decision was made in the cause of plant name stability and so that less people who use plant names had their lives disrupted.

All very well but it turns out there was a procedural matter in Vienna that might have made the decision invalid. To rectify this the matter is likely to get yet more attention in Melbourne.

I'm not going to go into all the gory details, but there are two big decisions to make. Firstly whether to accept all the decisions from Vienna, including the Acacia one. If yes, the life moves on and the same people remain happy and unhappy but at least there should be procedural fairness...

If the Vienna decisions are rejected, or perhaps just the one about Acacia, there is a second decision to make. Will the plant naming community accept a compromise? Three are on offer so far but more may be raised from the floor.

The first option is to reject the science and put everything back into Acacia. Or more accurately, to agree to not use the names to reflect what we know about the relationships between species previously lumped into Acacia. This goes counter to what most plant namers want to do with names.

The second option is set up a special committee to come up with 'unusual solutions'. This will delay a final decision further and doesn't take advantage of the experts already gathered in Melbourne.

Finally, a set of new names can be created so that everyone suffers equally. This is an interesting and creative solution. It does mean that users of plant names in all countries may be irritated, but one option they have is to continue to use Acacia.

Some 1400 new names will have be created but they can be fast tracked to some degree due to some subtle changes to priority rules for the new names.

There are  few other extreme ideas floating around, such as rejecting the name Acacia entirely. This is a bit like an extreme version of the third option.

Whatever the solution agreed in Melbourne, it does highlight the passion around what we call plants, at least among a few scientists! But behind all this there are important concepts like creating names that carry information, minimising the changes to names when we can, and trying to get the best outcome for as many people as we can. All this gets mixed up with nationalistic pride and inequity in representation at key meetings such as the 18th International Botanical Congress in Melbourne...

As someone today, users will decide if we can't. But will the name they chose be the best one?

Images: a selection of wattles from Australia, all except the last one currently called Acacia.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Salvia salvo and salve

It is salvia time here in London. For us botanically minded folk, early summer is about sipping G n Ts (a solution of junipers, quinine, and other plant materials) in the late evening twilight while strolling along a border of flowering salvias.

There are almost 1000 different species of Salvia, from the Common Sage, through to garishly coloured species from the Americas, Asia and back through to the Mediterranean.

Here in Kew Gardens we grow a lot. Which ones? Take a look at this factsheet. All of them have the distinctive hooded flower that forces the pollinating insect into a position where its back is dusted with pollen. This one has a nice broad lip to land on.

Kew not only has a pretty impressive collection of Salvia growing against the wall running along the Alpine Rockery (near the Princess of Wales Conservatory), it does some fancy research on this, the biggest genus in the mint family Lamiaceae.

In fact the two are intertwined and the ‘living collection’ has been used to support research into the evolution and classification of Salvia, as well as its chemistry and what we call biological activity. DNA has been extracted from more than 150 individuals as part of this work.

According to our website many species of Salvia are already known to have medicinal properties. Scientists at Kew are comparing the medicinal uses of Salvia from Europe and the New World, with those from Asia and looking for links between their chemistry and uses, as well as their position and relationship in the family tree.

Already there are leads in the in the areas of Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and modulation of insect feeding behaviour. This builds on previous work as diverse as Salvia in cosmetics and as a replacement for bear bile in traditional Chinese Medicine.

Images: These are few pictures of the Salvia border from my Blackberry, taken early this morning. It’s much prettier that these images suggest...

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Top botanic garden in the UK

From the Mediterranean - the (pseudo) location of my last post - to as far north as I've been in the UK here are a few pictures from the top* (in a North-centric cartographic sense) botanic garden in the UK.

Of course I'm in Scotland and this is Benmore Botanic Garden, a wee way west of Glasgow. There are 11,000 plants from all over the world - particulary Asia and the Americas - including an impressive collection of more than 300 species of Rhododendron. (For no other reason than I like this picture, I'm showing a close of up a Magnolia, of which there are a few...)

The giant redwood entry avenue is an impressive start but the local topography is the star. Well that and the rainfall. This botanic gardens gets more than three times the rainfall in Edinburgh, where a pretty impressive botanic garden is situated (certainly one of the top half dozen in the world). An average of 2,500 mm (100 inches in UK money) rain falls in each year, helping maintain these luscious moss cushions - consisting of a Polytrichium-like moss over the top of Sphagnum.

The wet mountains date back 500 or so million years, and glint with metallic flecks of mica. But mostly they are carpeted by plants, planted or otherwise. One lovely intervention is the Victorian fernery, sitting up on the hillside like some ancient monastry, recently restored and reopened. Very nice.

While in the west we (Lynda and I) also visited a woodland garden called Ardkinglas. This is a private garden, also enjoying/enduring 2.5 metres of rain a year. It's claim to fame is a goodly number of 'Champion Trees'. These are the tallest or broadest examples of a particular species in the British Isles, as measured and approved by TROBI, the Tree Register of the British Isles (just published is Owen Johnson's Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland).

By the way, Kew Gardens has plenty of them - I think it is only second to Sir Harold Hillier Garden in having the most Champion Trees in the whole of the UK. Tony Kirkham, our head of arboriculture, is a Trustee of TROBI and can tell an enthralling story (or two) about every one of the TROBI trees, and more. As for Benmore, I'm afraid I don't know - but Peter Baxter, the Curator there would!

The Ardkinglas trees of repute include a European Silver Fir (Abies alba) descrbed in 1905 as 'undeniably the mightiest conifer in Europe if not the biggest bole of any living kind'. A Grand Fir (Abies grandis) was the first tree in the British Isles to pass 200 feet (60 meteres) in height. It reached 208 feet a few decades ago and for ten years it was deemed the talles of any species in Britain, or so the brochure says that I picked up at the garden.

And finally, what is it about the Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia). Every botanic garden worth its name has at least a half dozen. Benmore did...

And just to whet the appetite of all phycologists in my readership (yes you) and those who look down, rather than up at the trees, a river looking like it should be full of algae but wasn't.

[*Late addition: it seems my geography has let me down. In my rush to claim the northernmost (top) UK botanic garden title for Benmore Botanic Garden, I just used my road map and pointed it vaguely northward. My internet research indicates that while Benmore is 56 degrees and 1 minute north, Edinburgh just pips it at 55 degrees and 57 minutes. My apologies to everyone in Edinburgh for this slight. What's four minutes between friends?]

Monday, 6 June 2011

No longer pining for Mediterranean

One of the most evocative trees in Kew Gardens, to my eyes, is the Stone Pine. It cuts a striking profile against stormy and blue skys, it reeks of the Mediterranean and you can eat it (at least bits of it). Oh, and I like the course textured, reddish bark.

For me personally it also evokes the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne with its wonderful collection of conifers thanks to its early Director, Ferdinand Mueller. I remember wandering around with Roger Spencer or John Beetham in my early 20s, and at the time being mildly bored by the various pine species planted in the late nineteenth century.

Now, older and wiser, I like pines. In fact I became converted during preparation of the Flora of Victoria - in my later 20s - when I excitedly counted and measured pine needles. Truly.

The oldest Stone Pine, Pinus pinea, at Kew grows near to my present office and it's about as old as the Mueller plantings. Planted by Sir William Hooker, father of Joseph and the first person to carry the Director title, it is now propped up and doesn't have the usual umbrella shape of the species.

The tree began to stoop after a branch fell in 1926. It joins a growing band of trees at Kew with various supports and wires to keep them intact and safe.

There are some more robust trees dotted around the gardens including a couple in the Alpine Rockery, scattered among a few other pine species. The ones I've photographed at the top of the posting are in a new Mediterranean Garden built around King William's Temple in 2007. The garden was conceived as a way to enourage the growing of drought-tolerant plants in English gardens, particularly given the warmer, drier colimage expected to result from climate change and certainly a reality this year.

As for eating it, I'd only recommend the nuts ('pine nuts') but can't recommend them highly enough. My favourite use is in spinach and pumpkin salad, or pesto.

Accordingly to Kew's website (I find that everything I now blog on has been covered to some extent in this trove of botanical information), a stone pine cone takes seven years to mature and can then release up to 100 seeds - on a hot summer day (of which there may be more in England as the climate changes) or after fire (which there may also be more of).

With the shifts in climate predicted, Stone Pines may find their comfort zone moving northward towards Hooker's tree and its many compatriots.