Giddiness and Fernweh
I’ve always had a bit of a thing for botanic gardens, and in particular glasshouses, with their lush worlds behind glass. There is a sense of discovery and fantasy in these botanical collections, where disparate groups of plants are combined into credible climate-based landscapes. Although the glasshouses seem peaceful and calm, there is a palpable energy in the air, as if the structures are under threat from concerted efforts by the vegetation to expand and break free.
As well as filling me with a little giddiness, the environments also trigger memories of travel, and even Fernweh – a kind of longing for faraway and unknown places. Their theatricality creates a feeling of anticipation; each visit is a journey of discovery.
Journey through Imagined Worlds
Each time I arrive the glasshouses at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, I make my way along the narrow main corridor, which leads to the various wings of planting. Stepping through each of the side doors is like entering a series of miniature worlds.
The first entrance takes me into Arid Lands where it is hot and dry. The rocks and tall cacti arranged alongside a curvy path somehow create illusions of perspective and scale.
Further along, there is the Tropical Wetland. It is humid and warm and there are a rice paddy and a pond with some of those huge waterlily pads that can carry a small child.
Opening the door to the next room, I am hit with the hot and humid air of the Tropical Rainforest, thick with the sweet and sickly smells of blossoms and mustiness. The air is so pregnant with moisture it feels tangible, the plants are dense and vying for attention with their colours and shapes – tendrils are touching me as I follow the meandering path.
The next space offers a stark contrast – it is cool and dry, a fan provides a light breeze. Breathing is easier in the healthy climate of the Mountains. There is a central rocky display with small tree-like shrubs dotted around, giving it the appearance of a miniature alpine landscape. But my favourite bit is a small area at the back, where there is a grassy patch labelled ‘Alpine Meadow’ and another, mossy one, declares itself a ‘Mountain Top’.
Learning and Ideas
As I pass through the different spaces and let my mind wander, I find myself reminded of films I’ve seen; the dusty road in Thelma and Louise, the sticky heat of Apocalypse Now, the claustrophobic rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, and even the alpine vistas in The Sound of Music.
Whilst enjoying my numerous visits and letting my imagination loose among the various landscapes, I have also become increasingly aware of the labelling of the plants. Curious about the names and numbers on the labels, I have found a detailed description on the Botanic Garden’s website, explaining accession numbers, plant family, names (Latin and other), distribution and provenance. Reading that the labels are easily damaged and lost, I also learn that they are vulnerable to theft, if not by people then from the local wildlife! The page cites a lovely little snippet from an article in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History from 1833, describing the habit of jackdaws stealing labels from the original Cambridge city-centre Botanic Garden to make their nests, often in the chimneys of nearby buildings: “from the chimney shaft, Dr Kerrick’s man-servant got out on one occasion eighteen dozen labels”.
From my repeated visits to the glasshouses, eventually an idea for a project has started to form; it will combine my personal emotive responses to the plant collections with the garden’s scientific system for labelling plants. I am currently undertaking the research for this project and am grateful to the Botanic Garden’s Education and Horticulture teams for allowing me to produce a site-specific installation in the glasshouses in Spring of 2017.