As the whole country has become a nation of gardeners, tidying up window boxes and discovering old packets of weird vegetable seeds that they never quite got round to sowing, it feels like our need for connections with the natural world has never been stronger. We know how important seeing plants and animals are for our mental health, and how important exercise is for our bones, muscles and immune systems, but whilst we now have to think very carefully about where and when we go outside, there are still lots of ways that we can get the fix we need.
Gardening is one way of doing this, whether it is in a front garden or roof garden, and it is one of life’s deepest joys to see the rhythms of the plant world through the season. As much as we enjoy growing lilies and parsnips, a favourite way to get a nature fix is to look at plants growing wild, interacting with each other and exploiting the ground they manage to get their roots into rather than the soil we prepare for them. It might sound counter-intuitive for a botanic garden to say this! But there is something magical about watching plants grow wild that is very hard to replicate in a garden setting.
Botanic gardens tend to celebrate plant hunters like Ernest Wilson or Reginald Farrer but doing this can make the world of botany seem like it belongs in the 1920s and is impossibly difficult for anyone else to bother with. Worse, the plants that botanic gardens talk about the most all have long Latin names and are found in the mountains of Japan or the rainforests of Brazil! As much fun as it is to explore these regions and study these plants, there is a huge range of plants within 100m of your front door. Once you get your eye in, you can see a whole world of ecological interactions and evolutionary struggles in a driveway – we often forget that whilst Darwin sailed the world on the Beagle, it was his study of the flowers in his garden in Kent that allowed him to develop the theories that emerged from his travels to the Galapagos islands.
One of the biggest lightbulb moments is when you learn about the way that plants cross the borders that we make for ourselves. Think of our native birch, the Silver Birch (Betula pendula)– we have lots of them along our streets, in our hedges and on the borders of lochs and we’re pretty familiar with it. We know that it looks quite similar to Japanese white birch (Betula platyphylla), and that this same tree is found growing wild in Siberia, Korea and China but it was a revelation to me to discover that botanists have been arguing amongst themselves for years as to how closely these two birches were related- it seems like nothing is settled in the botanical world.
Or take the oak, Quercus robur, which the English call English Oak and everyone else calls Common Oak or Pedunculate Oak: the English have built a national identity on this tree but little do they talk about how the oaks that grow in England are the same species that grow in France, Austria, Romania, Algeria and Iran! In fact, oaks are spread all over the northern hemisphere: we have two species in the British Isles but there are four species native to central Europe, and the greatest diversity of oaks are actually found in Mexico, where there are 160 different oak species. To get a sense of just how varied Common oak, is you can look at it in two ways – either in terms of where in the world it is found (like in the world map), or in terms of the climate zones it grows in (like in the graph).
This graph is very useful to us as botanists because it shows us what the world looks like from an oak’s perspective: the oak doesn’t see mountains and political borders, what it sees is light, heat energy and water, and that’s what this graph shows us. On the bottom axis, it shows us how much warmth and light there is in a growing season, and on the side, it shows us how much rain there is – and on this graph, every blue dot is somewhere that Common Oak has been found to grow wild. We can use this graph to understand where the Common Oak grows the best and where it struggles, and this perspective is going to be very useful as we try to understand what’s going to happen to our native plants under climate change and north western Europe becomes warmer.
During Spring and Summer 2020, the Garden is building a picture of the plants growing in Fife so that we can predict how they’re going to respond to climate change and we are encouraging everyone in Fife to take photographs of the plants they see growing wild (ie, plants that haven’t been planted by someone) during their daily exercise. This could be on your driveway, on the edge of a pavement, in a hedge or by the beach- if you could take a photograph of a flowering plant and send it to us through facebook, twitter or by writing to email@example.com, we will record it and make you a personalised map and description of that plant. Then, when the Garden re-opens we’ll collect all these maps and pictures and make an exhibition of all the plants that we’ve seen and studied- and also learn more about which plants are going to thrive under climate change and how we can develop the gardens as a result.