Such a relief when someone says ‘fantastic doesn’t mean flawless’…. Thanks, Noel!
Anne Wareham, editor
Review of the Eden Project by Noel Kingsbury
The Eden Project, since its opening in 1999, has kept itself in the top 15 or so British tourist attractions. Brilliant, given that its subject matter, economic botany, was always the most boringly presented part of most traditional botanic gardens.
Eden is, quite simply fantastic.
But fantastic does not mean flawless.
Just because something is wonderful does not mean that we should all lie on our backs and kick our legs in the air. So, what I’d like to do here is critique it, looking at what it says on the tin (“We aim to inspire people about their world”) and at Eden as a garden (it also says on the website “creating stunning gardens” and at the place’s success in supporting bio-diversity.
Eden is a family-fun day-out place, and one very much in the tradition long established by London’s Science Museum, a place to pull levers and push buttons. Its an incredible learning place, with interpretation second to none, with the didactic very often taking the form of elaborate, colourful and whacky art installations. I learnt a lot on my visit, I really did. It’s truly wonderful that such an incredibly popular, and unashamedly populist, place should have as its centrepiece teaching us about our relationship with plants.
The interpretation is incredibly balanced. It is never corporate (there are no corporate sponsors as far as I know) but neither does it bleat the Prince Charles anti-technology, anti-Green Revolution line which worthy ‘green’ projects often do.
As a garden though, I am not so sure. It’s inconsistent. The original landscaping was done by a major company who I do not intend to embarrass by naming, as it was a while ago that they did it. People-flow works well (that’s the really important bit) but basically the overall landscape of the place is an incoherent mess. There seem to be a lot of strips, which is ok if it is agriculture which is being addressed, less so if it is natural environments. None of the strips cohere into any kind of pattern but have a random quality. Odd things appear, like a triumphal way of pleached limes which leads from nowhere to nowhere. Having said that the planting of bulbs, hellebores and other springy things underneath the limes was masterly (but that’s the Eden Hort team not the landscape designers).
Worst of all are some vast slabs of evergreen shrub planting, particularly of Quercus ilex. They form a dreary biodiversity desert in contrast to the bright natural covering formed by the wild gorse on the far reaches of the opencast mine Eden is situated in. There are more slabs of this supermarket style shrub planting in the outer zone of the project too. Since Cornwall seems to have some of the best wildflowers to be seen in Britain, I’m amazed by how little of the natural flora there is to be seen here.
Getting down to near the biome domes, things improve as this is where the Eden horticulture team take over. They have developed a quite unique style, which is very formal in a way, but totally unlike what we normally understand by this word. There are a lot of monocultural strips, but in bold stripes or curves, interspersed with areas of densely interplanted perennials and bulbs, often with bold colour combinations. A lot of it looks highly intensive, but bears no relationship to traditional bedding or municipal planting. You could say it was a contemporary version of a parks style, but it lacks any of the pretentiousness which so often accompanies the word ‘contemporary’. It really is very successful, and all the better for being very simple. It is also wonderfully colourful and flows around the often very sculptural exhibition material.
The dome-shaped biomes are what the Eden project is really famous for. There are two, a Mediterranean climate one, and a so-called Rainforest one (although Tropical would be a better title). The Mediterranean one integrates the natural environment with the human/plant relationship with little stone structures, a mock Spanish church tower and even a French Resistance Maquisard encampment. The natural planting is the most genuinely naturalistic I have ever seen in a botanic garden greenhouse, with a lot of plants intermingling just like they would in nature and a great deal of self-seeding of various Mediterranean annuals going on. I took quite a few pictures that could have been taken on the French Riviera/South African Cape/California. The sheer naturalness of it (which is probably highly supervised) really convinces. Its even better than the Mediterranean-climate great glasshouse in the Welsh National Botanic Garden, and that is saying something.
The Rainforest biome was a deep disappointment on my first visit years ago and remains so. Its sheer scale and basic success as a hot, sticky and green experience should not blind us to what a massive lost opportunity it is. Its interpretation, which is centred around tropical crops and the use of tropical plants is truly excellent, often involving lots of colourful props such as a lorry, the bows of a ship, straw huts etc. Kids must love it. The planting though is incredibly tedious. Apart from the crop plants (many of them trees) the planting is done with bog standard house-planty stuff, like Boston ferns, peace lilies and that horrible purpley ground-cover thing you used to buy in yogurt pots at church fetes.
The overall feel is of those tropical regions which have been thoroughly trashed in order to grow crops, and which have lost most of their original flora. There is no celebration of the natural biodiversity of the tropics. Epiphytes, for example, are virtually non-existent: about a dozen bromeliads and one (yes one) orchid. It really is a travesty, especially in comparison to the (much more modestly-sized) Mediterranean biome.
Eden deserves our support; it really is a wonderful place, but it could be even better.