Colour and Contrast in November

Carol Walthew is our latest Heritage Lottery Fund, Skills for the Future, Museums and Botanic Garden Education and Outreach Officer Trainee. She started on Monday, 4th November and was asked to share her first impressions of the garden to find out what’s looking good at the moment…

“During my eighteen-month traineeship I get to work within three of the Oxford University Museums and Collections education departments. So far I’ve been at The Museum of the History of Science and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Now I have a new and exciting challenge of working outdoors with a living collection. So in order to get more familiar with the Botanic Garden I’ve been exploring every corner.

When walking anywhere it’s always worth looking back over your shoulder occasionally to see the view behind you. If you do this as you walk through the splendid Headington stone archway you’ll see the claret-red Vitis Vinifera ‘purpurea’ crawling its way up the 392 year old walls. The preferred common name is teinturier grape, although I didn’t spot any fruit on this tendril-climber at the moment.

Standing proud among the Botanical Family Borders, in the Walled Garden, is the Sorbus Sargentiana tree, with its clusters of bright red berries providing a contrast of colour against the green leaves. Although the Sorbus looks good from a distance do take a peek in amongst its branches to see the seasonal parasitic plant, mistletoe. Mistletoe is semi-parasitic, living off the nutrients and water from the Sorbus (host tree), but also photosynthesising with green leaves so, thankfully, it won’t kill the tree.

Not far from the Sorbus tree, in the North Fern Border, is the Clerodendrum Trichotomum (var. Fargesii) deciduous shrub that hides a colourful surprise. Enclosed inside the small cocoons of red sepals are bright metallic-blue berries – that’s if the birds have left any.

On the other side of this wall is the Nerine Bowdenii plant, described to me by a member of staff at the Garden as “the Barbie™ pink plant near the Alpine House.” I realised how apt this colour descriptor was when I first saw it (that’s Pantone® 219C for any interested designers!) Native to South Africa it came as a surprise to me that it is flowering now, just as the first frosts of winter seem only a few days away.

Stepping inside the Lily House you’ll spot the pink/purple blooms of the Cattleya Bowringiana, in the family Orchidaceae. John Lindley (1799-1865), one of Britain’s foremost botanists, named the genus Cattleya after his employer at the time, William Cattley (1787-1835), an avid collector of rare plants. Each flowering spike has numerous flowers adding to the visual impact of this sought-after orchid. The wreath that is laid at the Cenotaph, London by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Remembrance Sunday contains this ‘chocolate box’ orchid.

While you are inside the Lily House, protected from the wintery elements, also look out for the dash of colour, above your head, from the sansai blue orchid. Many orchids, like this one, are epiphytes – plants that grow upon another plant or objects, but unlike the mistletoe this relationship is non-parasitic. Here, in the glasshouse, it is growing in a hanging basket but in the wild you will see it growing directly on tropical rainforests trees.

Back outside, walk to the Lower Garden where you will see an old fruit-ladened Mespilus Germanica tree. The medlar tree was one of the plants planted by the Garden’s first Curator, Jacob Bobart, so it seems fitting that it overlooks the new Orchard of apple, pear and quince. Unlike the fruits of these newly planted trees, the medlar fruit is eaten when it has ‘bletted’; that is, when the flesh turns soft and brown, but not fully rotten - even then, so I’ve been told, it is still an acquired taste.” If this hasn’t whetted your appetite for the medlar fruit then maybe D. H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Medlars and Sord-apples’ might - which can be read here

 I have highlighted just a few of the visual delights that I discovered in my first week at the Garden. I haven’t mentioned watching the birds flitting around the Merton Border, or finding a cocoa pod in the Palm House, or seeing the Malus, ‘Ormiston Roy’ tree with a generous load of orange crabapple fruit with a wonderful reddish blush. I hope you enjoy finding these living treasures as much as you enjoy finding your own favourites.

Carol Walthew, HLF, Skills for the Future, Museums and Botanic Garden Education and Outreach Officer Trainee