This weekend, wandering with a good mate through the spectacular labyrinth of foliage-filled corridors that are the glasshouses of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, we got to talking about a perpetual hypothetical conundrum of mine. If either of us – as tropical plant nuts – were to have unlimited funds, would we prefer to have a vast glasshouse in which to live out our horticultural fantasies or would it just make sense to get a garden in the tropics?
As someone who’s been obsessed since childhood with the mysterious, storybook atmosphere that rainforest species are uniquely able to create, my answer to this one has always been a surprise, even to myself. Despite all the limitations of glasshouses, from dramatically restricting the number and size of plants you can grow, to the limiting scope of features you can create inside them, I think I’d still settle for a glasshouse. That’s because, for me, part of the magic of tropical plants is precisely their rarity and exotic nature.
When you step through the door from a grey, lifeless British winter and are instantly hit by a wall of humidity and the warm, earthy scent of the rainforest floor, it transforms that doorway into a portal to another world. It’s that contrast that dramatises the wonder of glasshouses. Seeing plants crammed into smaller spaces than are ideal for them also creates another contrast between still, straight lines of human-made buildings and the chaotic, wild wonder of nature which, to me, boosts that feeling of exploration, as life invades a space.
Perhaps that’s because my obsession with tropicals didn’t start, as you might expect, in the rainforests of Singapore where I grew up, but on a trip to London’s Kew Gardens when I was a kid. The same plants that I thought of as polite “car park” planting of amenity horticulture just looked totally unrecognisable pressed up against steamy glass, or arching spectacularly over tunnel-like paths. It appears I am not alone in that feeling: even famous designers such as Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx, who revolutionised the world of tropical garden design in the mid-20th century, wrote that his wonder of tropicals was only sparked when he visited glasshouses in Germany as a student. Native Amazonian plants, ones he had taken for granted as roadside weeds, suddenly became the focus of his designs, jumping to the front and centre of a new school of city planning, and changing how half the world gardens.
I wonder, at the root of it, if this is what gardening is all about – trying to create an idealised escape from the rest of the world. We often talk about gardens as “natural”; however, they are anything but. They are stylised, dramatic stage sets of what we think nature “should” look like, almost all of which are only possible by huge amounts of human dedication and creativity to force it to fit our fantasies. And of all horticultural styles out there, this undoubtedly reaches its peak in glasshouses. So, when I win the lottery, I think it’s a Bond villain-like glasshouse for me, and the odd good mate to wander with.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek