These are two of the most fantastic garden in the UK, probably the world. I visited Eden in 2004 or thereabouts, and Heligan a little earlier, and was keen to see how they have evolved.
The Eden project, for those who don’t know, was created out of an open cast china clay pit at the end of the last century. It was designed to show that the damage we do to the earth can be (and should be) repaired. I’m not sure whether this message has got through yet! I think we visited in spring last time and this time it was autumn. These pictures show the increase in tree growth in that time.
Although the bio-domes are the most striking feature of the site, on this visit I found the outside areas just as fascinating. I don’t know whether they had the forest garden area (on the lead in between the carparks and the ticket hall) last time we came, my interests have evolved slightly since then. This was a nice little plot, mainly of ornamental edibles. It was interesting to see the buffalo berry (shepherdia argentea), a plant which I am considering growing this year. This has edible black fruit, but is also nitrogen fixing, so can do well on poorer soils. I was impressed by how tall it was growing.
There were lots of flowers even in late September, and the autumn leaves were also giving a good show. Most plants were quite well labelled, but there were some interesting ones we could not find labels for, including a plant that looked rather like solomons seal, but had black berries (‘not everything in a forest garden is edible’….) (Edit: It well may have been solomons seal. Although the spring shoots alegedly make a good vegetable, the berries casue stomach upsets so are not recommended) Other interesting plants included tiny fuchsia and pomegranite plants and a hardy aloe: Aloe striatula which is hardy to -10, so I could grow it outside on Skye.
I found the allotment areas most interesting. They had set them up to reflect the diversity of cultures of people that grow plants in the UK. So there were chinese, african, caribbean and indian themed allotments, with plants reflecting the cuisine of these areas, as well as more traditional british vegetable plants and flowers. There were several malabar gourd plants, (making bids to take over the crater!) vegetable spaghetti, which I remember has similar but smaller noodley fruit, fantastic displays of outdoor tomatoes and chilli, soya beans and chick peas, sweet potato (as well as the normal kinds). There were lovely plants of yacon, mashua, oca, achocha, physalis, quinoa and amaranth. Some I’ll have to look up to see what their growing requirements are: japanese ginger, dasheen, lemongrass, turmeric, and vietnamese coriander, which all could be interesting additions to the polytunnel, if not outside. I think I spotted new zealand spinach growing as a ground cover, but I could not find the identifying label for it.
They had obviously made an effort to consider the environmental consequences of the development itself. There were several bin areas for visitors to use, with separate bins for different sorts of recyclable waste, including compostable waste too. I’m not sure where they compost the waste – that wasn’t on display and I would have found that interesting. There were water dispensing points to enable refills of water bottles, outside as well as water fountains inside the tropical biome.
The tropical biome was just as good as I remembered. It is difficult to believe that they used it as the ice palace in “Die another day”. Still a fantastic bit of engineering, let alone the plants! The jungle really feels established and doesn’t have too manicured a look to it. There are ant colonies and little lizards as well as birds. Less useful as a source of planting inspiration for me though!
We didn’t have time for the warm temperate biome, and were getting a bit tired, but had a quick look through the microscopic world display area, which had been under construction last time I came. The use of artworks to illustrate different aspects of microbes was fun, including beautiful hand cut paper and life size figure embroidery. There were interactive exhibits of various kinds including a huge one dedicated to the source of chloroplasts that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. A thirty foot metallic blue cyanobacterium billowed fragrant smoke rings to the delight of children (of all ages!). It was quite cute to watch the kiddies trying to catch the rings, but I shan’t even try to upload the video I took.
Opposite the car parks we eventually found the ‘wild chile’ area. This was mentioned on the site maps, but there were no signs to it or to explain what was going on, until we got to the far end of it, where there appears to be a second entrance. I have been interested in Chile since I discovered that much of that country’s interior shares a similar mild rain forest climate to the UK. The area has been set up as a living reserve for plants that are endangered in their native range.
There was an impressive array of young monkey puzzle trees, I judged them to be possibly 18 years old from counting their branches. Just another twenty years or so for the nuts then! There was also a lovely nothofagus forest. This is another tree I’m interested in. The southern beech, as it’s known, likes a mild damp climate and grows very quickly. It ought to be ideal for coppicing on Skye. There were n. nervosa, n. obliqua and n. x. leonii, all doing very well. I couldn’t get hold of these when I was planting my coppice wood, although I did manage to get hold of three n. alpina (which may be a synonym for n. nervosa) a couple of years ago, which are still very small trees (well, even ‘shrubs’ would be dignifying the plants at the moment, although they are still alive). Another interesting chilean edible we saw was luma apiculata, an ornamental shrub with small glossy dark green leaves. The black fruit are edible. I have a tiny one of these, just planted a couple of years ago and doing alright. I tried a couple of berries and they were nice raw, not too sweet, but not sharp either, just juicy. There were several plants, and they appeared to flower better in the sunnier spots. There were a number of huge fuchsias still flowering away. I didn’t spot any fruit, which have a quite sweet and spicy flavour when ripe. There was also an impressive gunnera plant, which we are asked not to plant in this part of Scotland, since it likes it too well! The leaf stalks are edible like rhubarb, although it’s not something I’ve tried. It would still be too windy for those enormous leaves here!
On the following day I was able to have another walk round the wild chile area whilst the car was on charge, as we stopped again on our way to Heligan. It looks like they have been recently planting a trials area for bamboos. Without information displays it is hard to say what they are trying to achieve this time. They were carefully planted and mulched, with a variety of bamboos judging by the attached labels.
Really the visit to Heligan was too short to do it justice. We had to leave again in good time to continue our journey. Part of the garden was closed as well unfortunately, so we couldn’t visit the hidden valley area. They had made the most impressive ‘insect hotel’ I have ever seen in a sunny spot on the woodland walk, and we were taken by some beautiful oaks, although did not find out what variety they were.
In the jungle they were putting the gunnera to bed for the winter by cutting the leaves off and putting them upside down as umbrellas. Gunnera are fairly tender, so even in milder areas of the UK can need a bit of protection. Massive tree ferns and palm trees are a feature of the jungle garden, and they have obviously been considering the future as well, with smaller monkey puzzles as well as the original garden’s 100 year plus specimens.
Bamboos and bananas also give a tropical feel to the garden. I’m sorry to have missed the hidden valley, since I remember that as one of the most atmospheric parts of the garden. They were obviously hard at work, since we could hear chainsaws going. I hope this is just planned maintenance, and they have not suffered losses in the hot, dry summer.
We wandered back through the huge ornamental vegetable gardens. These are bigger than I remember, with such beautiful displays of lettuce and rhubarb forcers! I couldn’t resist the reduced plants in the sales area, although AC luckily spotted that the camellia sinensis were c. Sinensis var. assamica, rather than c. sinensis var. sinensis, so I avoided those (too tender). I did pick up a little lady boothby climbing fuchsia which should be fun.
I would recommend a full day at Eden. We probably didn’t start going round till nearly 12 noon. You would certainly need more than the couple of hours we were able to spend at Heligan to make the most of the trip!