15 Aug 2018

The Big Secret

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

The biggest secret in my industry has to be that gardening is not natural!

Horticulturists like nothing more than taking plants from all over the world and putting them next door to each other. We pride ourselves on crossing and hybridising, creating what nature never has in order to have bigger, better and more impressive displays.

My name is James and when I am not out exploring the Welsh countryside I am here at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. There are 5 of us students in the Horticultural department, each one with different knowledge and passions but all brought together by the outstanding collection of plants here Carmarthenshire.  Being a student gives me a licence to make mistakes and get in the way but also permission to ask questions, explore and discover. Every three months we rotate between the 4 different teams within ‘horti’, leaving behind what we knew and heading for a new adventure.

I have just finished my time working in the Great Glasshouse, which houses the most amazing collection of plants. Callistemon, Banksia and Grevillia intrigue anyone who walks past through the sliding glass doors, while the landscaping and architecture can only be described as breath-taking. For all its outstanding features the Great Glasshouse is also the place where the unnatural side of horticulture is most easily spotted. Within a few steps you can go from South Africa to Chile via the Mediterranean or walk down a nearby path with Californian Plants on one side and Western Australian on the other. There is nothing natural about this un-natural form of horticulture… and yet it is the most special type

Last week I received a text from the science department which simply read ‘come to the office’.

It had been a hard morning and I was looking forward to my break, out of politeness I replied ‘ok’ and wandered up the hill to find out what surprise the team had in store for me. Upon arrival, I was promptly told to sit down and shown a computer screen filled with hundreds of little boxes each one containing the letter T, G, A or C – what I was looking at was the DNA sequence, the building blocks if you like of an unidentified plant some 7000 miles away in Borneo. This coding forms part of the Garden’s conservation commitment and will help with the effort to restore a forest back to how it was before being logged.  It amazes me to think that from a small office in wet Wales we are able to break a plant down into its rawest of forms and examine the secrets within, in the form of 4 simple letters.

Horticulture is not just about making a space look amazing, it is also about education, conservation and research.

In a world where tomorrow is less predictable than today, where anything could happen and where possibilities are endless the work and refuge provided by botanic gardens all over the world is more important than ever.  I often wonder why my colleagues and I put so much effort into caring for some of the plants we do, many of which seem determined to die, but the answer is quite simple – anything could happen. You don’t know what you are missing till you don’t have it, and that is the same with the plants in the Great Glasshouse. Who’s to say that the cure for cancer or Aids won’t come out of one of the plants held in the collection or from the DNA barcoding done by the team?

So you see what we do may not be natural, but it definitely is right and I would rather look after a plant in the hope that one day It may change the world, then loose it forever and go wanting.