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Monday, 22 December 2014

Branching out on your choice of Christmas tree

By Helen Roberts

Nothing quite captures the Christmas mood more than seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Whether you choose to adorn one yourself or not, the Christmas tree is decorated and celebrated in many different countries and different nations have their own favourite species. 

The foliage of the Balsam Fir.
Photo by Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS 
I am particularly picky about the species of tree our family have and the overall shape of the tree. This fussiness stems from spending time living in Canada; high standards were set when our first Christmas tree was a wonderfully large and fragrant Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), with its dark green, long lasting foliage. This tree is a very popular species used in North America for Christmas, and on our return to England I tried to find a nursery to buy a Balsam Fir for Christmas without luck. I did some research and eventually found a similar species, but also found out some interesting information about our celebrated Christmas tree.

Where does the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?


A Christmas tree. Photo by Malene Thyssen.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 
Most people know that in 1840 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought a Christmas tree over from Germany and put it in Windsor Castle. The decorated tree, surrounded by the royal family, appeared in newspaper illustrations and from then on the tradition of the Christmas tree began in Great Britain. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys, gifts, candles, sweets and cakes hung by ribbons.

Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III in 1800, however, introduced decorated trees to Great Britain even earlier. She decided to use a Christmas tree (a potted up yew tree) instead of a yew bough to be adorned with baubles, fruit, candles and presents. The tree was, therefore, not an unknown tradition in 1840, but became a common practice among the general public after the media publicity with Queen Victoria.  By 1860 the custom was firmly grounded in England.

The history of the Christmas tree goes back much further. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews used evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands in ceremony as they believed evergreens symbolised eternal life. European pagans celebrated the use of evergreens to ward off the devil, celebrate the winter solstice and provide a tree for birds during Christmas time. This tradition survived Christianity and in Germany the Yule tree was placed at the entrance to a building or in the house during the midwinter holidays.

A Christmas pyramid from approximately
1830. Picture by Klaaschwotzer,
via Wikimedia Commons.
The modern Christmas tree originated in Germany where the tree was decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden on December 24th (the religious feast day of Adam and Eve). It was also decorated with wafers (to symbolise the host) but later became cookies and candles, to represent Christ. The Christmas pyramid, a structure made from pieces of wood and decorated with figurines, evergreens and candles was also used in addition to the Christmas tree. It was the merging of these two structures in the 16th century that lead to the tradition of the modern Christmas tree.

It is rumoured that the religious reformer Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. Apparently, one night in 1536 he was walking through a pine forest and was amazed by the beauty of the stars amongst the branches of the pine trees. It inspired him to set up lights on his Christmas tree to remind his children of the starry skies. The custom was widespread within German Lutheran communities by the 18th century and was a well-established tradition by the next century.

What are the most common species of Christmas tree in the UK?


The names fir and spruce are liberally applied to anything that looks vaguely like a Christmas tree. Those of us that are botanically minded are aware that the name “fir” is applied to members of the genus Abies (spruces are Picea).

I do not generally pick the common species of Christmas tree. For a while, my husband and I used to bring in a potted up Korean Fir (Abies koreana). It was small, but perfect in shape and form, and at a young age produces very pretty cones that are violet purple in colour and stand upright on the branches. However, we moved overseas and gave our tree a new home in my parent’s garden where it promptly withered and died after being contained in a pot for about 5 years!

Over the years we decided to go bigger as our decorations got more numerous after having children. We now settle on Abies fraseri (the Fraser Fir), a north American species very similar to Abies balsamea in its form and fragrance. These species are popular in North America (the firs are firm favourites) and in England the popular fir species is the Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana). This tree is originally from Russia and is known for its ability to retain its soft, dark green needles. Its conical shape and gaps between the branches allow optimal decoration hanging. The other popular fir in this country is the Noble Fir (Abies nobilis or Abies procera), which is glaucous green in colour with an upswept open conical shape.

Blue spruce foliage.
Photo by Nickolas Titkov from Moscow, Russian Federation
It is the Norway Spruce (Picea abies), however, that most people in England consider to be the traditional Christmas tree (it is the one I always relate with my childhood Christmases’). It has a lovely forest smell, though it loses its needles more readily than the firs. Other common spruce species include Blue Spruce (Picea pungens glauca), with its vibrant blue tinge and strong citrus scent (although it is very prickly), and the Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika), which is very popular in central Europe. It has a graceful conical shape with dark green colouring, soft needles and a pleasant fragrance.

For my family, the Fraser Fir reminds us of our time living in Canada and evokes fond memories of past Christmases’ with our children. In a few years, we will probably opt for a pot grown tree, which we can then plant out – hopefully with more success than the Korean Fir!



Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Botanic gardens: places of research, education and beauty

By Nicola Temple

There are an estimated 3,400 botanic gardens around the world, many of which are associated with universities or other research institutions. This association with research institutions can give the impression that these gardens, Bristol’s own Botanic Garden included, are primarily research oriented and not particularly appealing to the public – nothing could be further from the truth.

In the last two years that I've been blogging for the Botanic Garden, I have taken myself to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly, El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in Mexico and the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanic Garden. I've been keen to see how they differ from my local Botanic Garden that I've come to love. These gardens have been different in their sizes and plant collections and clearly differ in their annual budgets, but they have all been united in their commitment to educate and they have all been beautiful places to spend a day (or two).

The history of botanic gardens
One of the many spectacular species of orchid on display
at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Botanic gardens seem to first make an appearance in the 16th century. They were set up largely as medicinal gardens where research and experimentation could be carried out on medicinal plants. They were often associated with medical schools and universities of the time.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the focus of research changed as global exploration started to bring back new exotic species of plants. Some of these plants were medicinal in nature and were of interest for that reason. Some, such as spices, were of interest because of their economic value. Some were simply of interest due to their exotic beauty and many of the wealthiest families wanted specimens for their own collections. In the 18th century glasshouses and heated conservatories were built in some of the botanic gardens in order to keep some of the species alive that were being brought back from tropical habitats.

A corridor through the Agapanthus at
Tresco Abbey Gardens. The species was
introduced to the Isles of Scilly by the
proprietor of the gardens in 1856.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.
The research focus of botanic gardens has continued to evolve to meet the needs of society. Today conservation, climate change and sustainability are the greatest challenges we face and as a result, many botanic gardens around the world have active research programs in these areas.  The decades, and in some cases centuries, of information collected by these gardens is proving incredibly valuable in terms of how the climate is changing and how some species are responding.

Botanic gardens play a critical role in conservation

In 2010, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted an updated Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The University of Bristol Botanic Garden, along with botanic gardens around the world support this global strategy in every aspect of the work that they do.

The strategy recognises that without plants, life on this planet would cease to exist. The aim, therefore, is to halt the continuing loss of plant diversity. The five main objectives of the GSPC are:

  • Plant diversity is well understood, documented and recognised.
  • Plant diversity is urgently and effectively conserved.
  • Plant diversity is used in a sustainable and equitable manner.
  • Education and awareness about plant diversity, its role in sustainable livelihoods and importance to all life on Earth is promoted.
  • The capacities and public engagement necessary to implement the strategy have been developed.

The El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in San Miguel
d'Allende, Mexico had many parts that were less formal than
other botanic gardens. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.
The University of Bristol’s Botanic Garden developed the Local Flora and Rare Native Plant Collection in response to the GSPC. In the eight habitat themed displays associated with this collection – Carboniferous Limestone grassland, woodland and cliff face (found locally in the Avon Gorge & Durdham Downs, Mendip Hills and North Somerset cliffs and coastal islands), Coastal Communities, Deciduous Woodland, Aquatic and marginal areas, hedgerows and seasonally flooded sedge peat meadow associated with the Somerset Levels  – are many of the rare and threatened native plants to these regions. The Garden is therefore a global repository for this plant material in both these living collections as well as its seed banks. Over the coming months, Helen and I will blog about each of the Garden’s collections in more detail, so stay tuned!

A place for learning

Cactus in flower at the El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden.
Photo credit: Shelby Temple.
The plant collections at the Garden are used extensively by the University of Bristol for undergraduate teaching as well as in graduate student projects. Beyond this, however, it is a place to learn horticulture, art, photography, garden design, and numerous skills from willow weaving to wreath making.

Formal courses and training through the Royal Horticultural Society are also held at the University Botanic Garden - it’s an ideal setting.

The Garden also offers tours – whether it’s a special interest group, school group or a group of friends wanting to join one of the summer evening tours. Having joined on a school group tour in the past, I know the volunteers are very good at tailoring the tours to draw together information the children have been learning in class with the collections on display.

A place to be inspired

A pollinator drinking nectar from milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
flowers at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden
in Canada. Photo credit: Nicola Temple.
The collections, knowledge and expertise held at the Botanic Garden puts it in an ideal position to raise public awareness of the plants on display, our interdependency on plants more generally and critical issues facing many of these species, including changes as a result of global warming, habitat loss and invasive species. These are common threads in all of the communications put out by the garden.

More than this though, the Bristol Botanic Garden aims to foster an interest in plants and inspire people through its work. We can all feel somewhat paralysed by the plethora of environmental gloom and doom stories sometimes. Sometimes inspiration and awe about a species can spur people into action more easily than anger and frustration. The Garden’s annual Bee and Pollination Festival is an excellent example of this. Pollinators are having a tough go of it and a National Urban Pollinators Strategy is under development in the UK as I write this to try and improve the situation for this critical group of animals. All the important information is at the Festival, but overall this is a celebratory event – an opportunity to learn and get excited about how amazing pollinators are and how we are so deeply connected to them in so many aspects of our life.
A sunflower display at the Devonian Botanic Garden, Canada
was very popular with the butterflies. Photo credit: Shelby Temple.

The Garden can also be a quieter source of inspiration. I have now spent many hours sitting with camera in hand trying to get perfect flower shots or just simply watching bees move from flower to flower. Sometimes inspiration can be found in these quieter moments, surrounded by beauty, in a garden in a city.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

African keyhole gardens open the door for school gardening

By Helen Roberts

A keyhole garden in Rwanda. 
Photo courtesy of Send a Cow.
Back in June, my son’s primary school, located in a small village on the edge of the Mendip Hills, built something called a keyhole garden in their grounds. Having no idea what a keyhole garden was, I thought I would offer up my services as a parent volunteer for the garden day.

The idea of keyhole gardens originated in Africa out of necessity. They enable families to produce food on dry, exposed and rocky soils - essentially land that is infertile. The gardens are shaped like a keyhole and act like an organic recycling tank using food and garden waste as fuel to grow vegetables.

The garden day at my son’s school was organised and facilitated by a charity organisation called Send a Cow. This charity helps families and communities in Africa by providing farmers with the skills and tools they need to farm using sustainable and organic methods. Farmers on the programme are given the gift of livestock, seeds and other assets and every farmer makes a pledge to pass on the gift of training, seeds and livestock to another family in need. 

The facilitators from Send a Cow held a morning workshop with the children to discuss building the keyhole garden and the materials needed. Two sixth form pupils from another local school were there to help with the session and contributed enormously to the discussion, engaging with their younger peers and getting them interested in the activities. These two students are hoping to run Send a Cow African Garden Day workshops themselves. 

A tip tap hand washer in Uganda.
Photo courtesy of Send a Cow.
Some of the children also learned about tip tap hand washers. These are a simple water conserving/hygiene device used in African countries aimed at improving hygiene and preventing the spread of diseases. Send a Cow shows families how to make them.

Laying the foundation

I joined the children in the afternoon to help build the garden. My pre-schooler was eager to muck in too as he is an avid gardener and had already donned gloves with trowel in hand in eager anticipation of the job ahead! 

The keyhole garden was to be located along a major walk way, on a patch of grass that would be visible to the children walking to their various classes. This would enable them to see what was happening with the garden on a day-to-day basis and judge whether the garden needed weeding or watering. A group of children were assigned the task of building the stone base around the patch of bare soil that had had the turf removed the previous week. This turf was recycled back into the garden via the school compost bins. 

The foundation of the garden can be made from
whatever resources are available. This garden is in Lesotho.
Photo courtesy of Send a Cow.
The prepared ground was a typical keyhole shape, with a 1.4 metre radius circle and an entrance triangle starting from the circle centre to the edge of the circle. The entrance is north facing to allow more room for sun-loving plants. The children worked hard moving and placing stones in a double layer for the outer wall- a little taster of the backbreaking work done by people who build dry stone walls. 

For all key hole gardens, the simplicity of the design means materials can be sourced locally. In Africa, this includes many creative construction materials, such as plastic bottles filled with sand, instead of stones or bricks for the main structure of the key-hole garden base. We used Mendip limestone. 

After the stonework, a steady flow of soil mixed with manure was wheel-barrowed across the school grounds and excitedly transferred by spade into the garden. The children had previously made the composting basket, which is central to the keyhole garden, out of runner bean canes (or sticks), string and chicken wire. This was placed in the centre whilst the soil was piled around it. Composting material was then placed in the compost basket, along with straw.

Planting it up

The finished garden at the primary school.
Planting up the garden was the most exciting part for the children. The volunteers had a line of seedlings lined up for the students to plant carefully. Typically, the vegetables commonly grown in African keyhole gardens include spinach, amaranth, gourds, Tithonia (eg tree marigold), chillies, sweetcorn and climbing beans. Plants with deep roots that require lots of feeding are planted near the centre of the garden. Herbs are added near the rock walls to help bind the soil and compost. 

In the Mendip school garden, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbages, peas, sunflowers, cornflowers, nasturtium and calendula were planted out. Flowers were added to the vegetables to add colour and other benefits. Nasturtiums are useful companion plants because black aphids, black fly and cabbage white butterflies cannot resist them and feed on them rather than the crops. 

“It was a fantastic day and the children really enjoyed it and still talk about it avidly,” said Mrs Savage, the school reception teacher. 

The African Garden Day informed the children about positive ways people in Africa are feeding themselves sustainably, but it’s also a long-term teaching tool and resource to get children interested in plants. 

“All the summer sunshine has done wonders for the African Garden created by the children last term,” said Mrs Williams, the school’s Head Teacher over the summer. “It is looking amazing and we are very proud of our achievement!”

There are plans afoot to develop a second garden, but more in keeping with Somerset traditions using weaved willow to form the base wall and compost bin.

African Garden Days is one of many programmes run by Send a Cow. It is the UK’s largest global learning project with approximately 30,000 children taking part. African Garden Days offers primary schools the chance to experience a fantastic hands-on day, combining classroom sessions with an outdoor challenge to create a global kitchen garden within the school grounds. It is aimed at Key stage 2 and 3 children, but also involves the whole school in an assembly and class session. The cost of running the garden day goes directly back to Send a Cow.