A garden of Eden?

In my previous post, I talked about the Lost Gardens of Heligan, a historical garden located in a large rural estate, in the heart of Cornwall. This post will deal with a diametrically opposed garden, the world famous Eden Project.

No big historical features here, the Eden Project is an entirely man-made project, located in an almost man-made environment (an old china clay pit). Initiated in 1995 and opened in 2001, it features two large bubble-shaped glasshouses which have been designed two recreate the Mediterranean and the Rainforest biomes.


According to the very serious IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), a biome is a “major portion of the living environment of a particular region characterized by its distinctive vegetation and maintained largely by local climatic conditions.”
Horticulturalists have gone to great lengths to recreate both the vegetation and the climate of the humid tropics (“Rainforest”) and of the warm temperate (Mediterranean) region. This is the result in the Rainforest biome : a great diversity of plants, an average temperature of 28°C and a humidity level which can reach 90%…


The Rainforest Biome is cleverly divided into four geographical areas : Oceanic Islands, Malaysia, West Africa and South America, and the visitor smoothly moves from one zone to the other by following a circuit. To make the experience even more complete, traditional features of the four regions have been added, such as a Gambian kitchen, or a large Malaysian hut with its vegetable plot :


This was not my first visit to the Eden Project, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover one of the newest attractions, the Aerial Walkway, and particularly the Rainforest Lookout, a metallic platform perched 50 meters above ground. If you can cope with vertigo, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view over the canopy…this is probably the closest experience you will get to a rainforest expedition!
Note : the white bubble on the picture is a helium-filled balloon used by horticulturalists to prune and study the trees. Not for the faint-hearted! :p


None of the plants at the Eden Project are particularly rare. As the garden was built from scratch, plant material came from nurseries, universities and botanic gardens all over the world. In this biome, it’s easy to spot pretty rainforest blooms such as gingers, fragrant milkwoods or the striking turquoise-flowered Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys). But there are also more discrete plants to discover, such as this Psychotria, a coffee relative :


Wondering what the black spots under the leaves are? A disease?
Wrong…they are bacterial nodules. Some Psychotria species have developed a symbiosis with Burkholderia bacteria : the plant provides nutrients which serve as a carbon source, while the bacteria produces hormones which enhance plant growth. Weird (and it was also the subject of my bachelor’s thesis :D)!

A fifth zone of the Rainforest Biome is dedicated to tropical crops and provides a lot of educational information about coffee, bananas, sugar cane, Jatropha curcas (or, err…Purging Nut – a source of biofuels), pineapples, various spices… you even get a display of the manufactured products, and if you’re lucky, a bit of tasting (we tried a very refreshing baobab smoothie).


The second, smaller glasshouse hosts the Mediterranean Biome, which is much cooler and much drier. The gingers, tropical vines and palms have been replaced by citrus, olive trees and deliciously scented herbs :


As in the Rainforest Biome, the plants are displaying according to their geographical range : Mediterranean Europe, South Africa and California. This, for example, is a planting scheme similar to the valleys of Namaqualand, an arid and barren region of South Africa which gets covered in flowers for a few weeks each year – the orange blooms are Namaqualand Daisies (Dimorphotheca sinuata):


Mediterranean crops are well represented in this greenhouse, with Quercus suber (the oak tree which gives cork), citrus, olives, aloes, but also cereals (we ended up listening to a talk about beer – no tasting this time sadly!). Spotted in the vineyard are these Bacchanalian sculptures (Bacchanalia were strange Roman festivities devoted to the cult of Bacchus, god of wine…yes, they actually had a god of wine) :


Finally there is the “Outdoor Biome” (which shouldn’t really be called one – ecologist’s opinion). It’s divided into a multitude of little themed areas, which, although quite nice on their own, don’t really add up in my opinion. There are ponds, herbs, fruit trees, colourful flower beds (bulbs in spring, dahlias in summer):


But the best thing is probably the “Global Gardeners” allotment, with plants from around the world…


…an interesting manual to seed bombing (a strange planting method invented in the 1970s where small balls of compressed soil containing seeds are thrown or dropped – very popular with modern urban “Guerilla Gardeners“). We also enjoyed a tasting session of the first British-grown wasabi (Wasabia japonica) roots…spicy!


The Eden Project was never designed as a botanical garden, but as a “living theatre” (in the words of its creator). This can make the visit frustrating for plant geeks, as only a few “key plants” are highlighted (I have to admit, I found myself crawling under branches and digging around roots in a desperate search for labels). You have to cope with dozens of screaming children and large buggies, which is not necessarily the nicest thing in a closed glasshouse…

The Eden Project has been having some serious financial problems over the years, and it feels like they’re trying to get money through different ways with little link to plants, transforming the place into a green-oriented theme park. For example, they have opened a big zip wire over the pit, and a restaurant in the Mediterranean Biome (pizza smell? Ugh, give me back Pelargonium scent!).

It’s a real shame, because the Eden Project is doing and participating in a lot of research projects, whether it is about education, ethnobotany, engineering, plant biology or conservation. Let’s hope they can get over all their troubles and find some sort of unity that would make the whole site so much more interesting…


    1. Well, that’s the problem with the concept – especially as they designed it as a more or less circular walk. You don’t have anywhere quiet to sit down, relax and enjoy the atmosphere…and once you’ve toured the biome twice, there isn’t much more to discover (unless you start looking for hidden vines and herbs!).

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