Take A Preview Tour of the Eden Project in Cornwall

Nathan Mansbridge

Photo: Eden Project

Nathan: The whole idea for Eden was born out The Lost Gardens of Heligan, one of Tim Smith’s earlier projects. And, whilst doing The Lost Gardens of Heligan, obviously there are horticultural links. But, one of the big insights was that people weren’t just interested in the plants. It was the stories behind the plants, and of the gardeners that grew them originally but then didn’t come back following the first World War. And, that gave them the idea of why don’t we tell the story of all the plants that we depend upon for our life, but because of the way we live today we are separated from.

We chose as the location a former China clay pit, an open mine or quarry. It was an area of biological desolation, and these types of sites often end up as an industrial scar on the landscape or a landfill, with very little biodiversity. This site was selected to prove what was possible when people work together with nature. It’s probably a symbol of hope that we have the power to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Meg: That’s a very much-needed message right now.

Nathan: You walk through the evolution of plants and it’s like starting without flowers, mosses and ferns, horsetails kind of thing and then slowly going into life after insects. It’s a massive impact on the plant world. There are huge amounts to see in our outdoor gardens. Eden can be divided up really into about four areas. You’ve got the indoor biomes, the rainforest biome and the Mediterranean biome. You’ve got the outdoor gardens, which we’re now in which are massive.

Meg: Tell me about the bee.

Nathan: The bee, as it is now well-publicized, dependence upon pollinators, particularly bees. They tend to be the kind of poster bug, if I could use the phrase, of the pollination story, have been massively suffering, huge declines in numbers of not just of species but numbers within those species. This is a great example of us teaming up with cutting-edge science, what’s really happening, getting the figures and the facts and then working with an artist to bring that story to life, creating, intriguing people to find out more about it. Eden tries to connect with people, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and getting us to feel something about subjects that sometimes don’t really come up in conversation that often. But, if you put a working-grade bee there, people say, “Why is that bee there?” All the plants around it around it are only pollinated by insects. And so, not only do you get the beauty, but you also get the science in the story, which is explained in some of our messaging.

We’ve arrived in the rainforest biome, which is what Eden is probably best known for. You can fit the Tower of London inside of this building with room to spare. So, about 220 meters long, 55 meters high at its highest point from the base outside and about 100 meters wide, and it’s huge. We call it the biggest rainforest in captivity [Laughter] which is a kind of poetic way of describing it.

Botanic gardens are wonderful at highlighting individual plants, and if you want to learn about an individual plant by itself is perfect. But, what Eden tries to do is to connect habitats and involving the people in it as well.The reason we built this here was not just because it’s a beautiful experience, but to connect people with these incredibly important habitats.

We are now about just over 3,000 miles north of where rainforests would normally grow. Even though we’re so far away, most of us every day use products from the rainforest: coffee, chocolate, sugar to name three biggies. Even though this is a whole enterprise built by humans, we try to be as authentic as possible, and to show people that we are connected to rainforests, wherever you live on the planet, not just by the effects they have on the climate but by the products they give us.

There’s about 1500 different varieties of plants in here. Typically, you think of rainforests, you think of the big trees. And, quite rightly so, they are super impressive and very important. But, often, it’s the smaller plants that equally have just as much impact on the world. Like this one here, the Madagascan Periwinkle. Up until about 50 or 60 years ago, before this plant was known to Western medicine, if you had childhood leukemia or various types of cancer, your chances of survival were very limited. After the discovery of the Madagascan Periwinkle,, survival rates childhood leukemia went from one in ten to eight in ten.
But, less than two percent of the species of a rainforest have been studied in any depth for medicinal benefit, less than two percent. While the medicinal benefits have been huge, this plant is an ornamental in many people’s gardens throughout the tropics or anywhere you can get away with growing it. It’s very attractive. It stays in flower a long time.

For most of us, if we think of tropical islands, it’s a dream holiday destination, relaxation, paradise. From a plant’s perspective, an incredibly harsh environment. The combination of very poor, porous, low nutrition soils and high winds make it a very tough place to be. So, hence the evolution of palm trees, incredibly flexible, elasticated fibrous trunks that allow them to bend and flex in the wind, low resistant, wind resistant leaves and roots that can hold on to very poor soils. Sometimes that’s for having multiple roots like we see with the grove here and the banyan there. Other times, that’s just having roots that split into lots of little fingers. And, when you are used to plants, trees from this part of the world, big, thick roots going down all the way. It’s completely opposite in the tropics.

We tell the story here of the mangrove story which is often overlooked in terms of the tropics, in terms of conservation, but massively targeted because everyone wants to build around the coast either for tourism or for shrimp farms. But when you remove the mangrove, you remove the nursery for huge numbers of marine species, invertebrate and vertebrae. There is a greater understanding of that and actually putting, reinstating man grove, giving a small amount of space, at least some nursery ground for the little fish or the smaller species until they’re big enough to survive out in the harsh world of the open sea somewhere.

Meg: Now, when you design these gardens that are representative of different localities, do you engage a scientist or a botanist from that environment?

Nathan: Very much so. It will involve both the locals and people working in that field, in that geographical location, as well as numerous field trips and, quite often, bringing those teams over to help when we’re doing the planting itself.

When we went to southeast Asia, we brought a team of Bornean builders to create the long house. And, another example of things that have developed here, the surfboards you see there, we grew Balsa trees in the early days and Balsa grows incredibly quickly. It’s the reason it’s so buoyant. It’s full of air and grows very quickly. They quickly became too tall and needed to be taken out or would have fallen down. But, rather than just ferrying the wood away or doing whatever with it, we decided to make them into surfboards. We grew our surfboards.

The moving water here is all treated. Otherwise, we’d have a big problem with Legionnaire’s Disease which you don’t want. It’s not just an aesthetically pleasing thing which undoubtedly it is, and everyone loves being next to water. But, the most important thing I think it gives us is the sound in here. It helps reinforce the illusion that you’re outside, because the sounds of running water bouncing over the rocks creates an ambiance and it’s a multi-sensory kind of experience being in here. You’ve got the heat, the humidity, the sound, the smell. It’s pretty much everything except the taste.

This is our Malaysian longhouse, and this one was built by a team from Borneo. For this one, the team went out to Kebun, an area surrounding the Danum Valley which is one of the last bits of sort of virgin rainforest in Borneo and it’s really pristine. Huge numbers of scientists use that area and the surrounding areas where there are small, low impact agricultural areas.

This is a Malaysian cottage garden, a mixture of the beautiful and the useful, often both. This is like gardening for yourself rather than commercially. You’ve got things like sweet potato. You’ve got konjac, bitter gourds, noodle beans and we’ve got bok choy and chia.

The longhouse shows that people live in rainforests, that it’s not just about the plants and the creatures. It’s about the people that live there, and to try and give it almost a personality, to make it look like people are living here.

Meg: Is that approach used throughout the Eden Project, incorporating the lifestyle of the local people?

Nathan: We try to do it as much as possible to show kind of the ethnobotanical side of things. How do people use these plants? What is the impact on people and what is people’s impact on the habitat, then? We try to present the whole story.

A little rice paddy here we’ve just harvested about a week ago, and so we manage about two crops a year here. Rice takes about six months or so, this particular variety, from germination to harvest. We harvested the rice last week, so it’s like this tall golden brown just like wheat would in a field that we would maybe be more used to seeing. As it’s come out, the very next day you would plant in the same spot rice that’s been germinated and is maybe two to three months old that was germinated in a nursery bed. This is almost like a finishing school for rice. And this allows you to squeeze almost two years, or sometimes even three years, of growing time into twelve months which means a lot more rice, a lot more yield.

But, it’s massively labor intensive. And so, with the migration of workers from rural areas to urban, there were less able-bodied people because it tends to be either the very young or the very old left behind to harvest the rice. Modern, newer plant rice production tends to be done just like we grow wheat in vast fields, not where there’s roots in water. Different varieties have been bred that thrive without having their roots submerged. And, because they can be sown and harvested by machine, you can’t get a tractor over a paddy field. It’s people.

Now, we’re wandering away from southeast Asia and before you know it, we’ll be in West Africa. This is an absolute beauty. This shows you how a beautiful flower doesn’t always have a beautiful name. Let me introduce you to globber.
This timber is called African Greenheart, and it’s commonly used around the world in marine projects. And, this very timber came from Falmouth docks, in and out of the water for 70 years, 70 or 80 years or so. But, before that, it came from virgin rainforest from West Africa. To make it as authentic as we could, we got a West African artist, a Nigerian sculptor called El Anatsui to create this piece for us and it represents the ancestors of the rainforest, not just the people but all the different species. And, to make the story complete, we planted a living African Greenheart right next to it. So, you’ve got today’s generation and the ancestors with some kind of a second chapter in between just here.

Meg: I noticed it seemed that there was a little shift in temperature when we turned the corner here.

Nathan: One of the vents would have opened. Can you see just above us there? This creates a little bit of micro-climate change and creates a little bit of air movement in here. We try to maintain the temperature in here between about 18 and 35.

Meg: Are systems continually monitoring the temperature in different areas of the dome?

Nathan: Very much so. Because we have one of the few rainforests in the world that has a roof, we are massively affected by direct sunlight, and the temperature can vary ten degrees Centigrade from the floor to the apex of the building. We measure in three different levels giving us the average temperature. Then we can do several things. We can open up the vents at the top. We can open up vents at the side. We can blow cold air in or hot air during the cold winter months, should we need it. Our heating bill is kept to a minimum because of the massive amount of thermal sort of bank that’s here. It’s all this granite that made up the original mine, absorbed to the south, faces down this way, warms up throughout the warmest part of the year and releases its heat slowly as we go around.

When we turned that corner and came up, we left West Africa and enter the Amazon. These are African oil palms, one, two, three, these big trees here. These have been here since day one of the Eden Project in Cornwall. About six or seven years ago, we were approached by the University of West England asking if their PhD students could use the biome as a laboratory to test out experiments before going out to Borneo and doing it for real. And, what they were studying were these plants, Birds’ Nest Ferns, Asplenium Nidus if you’d prefer, and they will grow in the ground. But, they’re just as happy growing on the side of a tree, and you can see right up here where they put them. They’re called epiphytes. Epi- means surface, -phyte, plant. They grow on the surface of another plant without taking any nutrition, and long story short, because they have no access to soil because they’re growing 20, 30 meters up a tree, they make their own. They’re an aerial compost heap. I want to show you on this one. They have a basic funnel shape, so they capture anything that falls on them. So, dead leaves, dead bugs, poo, pollen, that kind of stuff. It then breaks down here and they’ve evolved, really. Feel these roots. They’re really spongy. They have evolved roots that, something just dropped. It’s for miles down there. I’ll have to get that. I don’t want to get in trouble. I’ll be right back.

It’s typical, isn’t it? [Laughter] I just showed you the roots, got miles. So, it’s evolved these very special roots that hold on. After going to the trouble of making your own soil 20 meters up the tree, you don’t want to lose it. So, it’s evolved roots that hold on to the soil, but also huge amounts of moisture and air. And, that combination keeps the roots cool and fed, but also provides a brilliant habitat for loads of other species. So, just like a compost heap in your garden if you have one, this is a brilliant habitat for lots of species, hundreds, if not thousands of different species. And, it’s a compost heap, so it’s full of nutrition. So, it drops nutrients on to the roots of the oil palm.

Meg: So, it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Nathan: Welcome to the Mediterranean, a very different environment. We brought in these enormous olive trees that you see here. The one over there, that, we think it’s somewhere between 1200 and 1500 years old, and some younger ones here. This one’s 600. That one there’s about 1000 years old. We got two from Spain, and one from Portugal. This is now their retirement home.

Obviously a very different climate, a very different sort of feeling as you come in, and when Eden – – so here we’re focusing on perfume, Moorish inspired, Arabian sort of style garden planting and everything used for perfume as you would imagine. This is our sort of abandoned olive grove. Look, hence, all the sort of herbs and things growing up in between. It’s nicely kind of manicured wild.

Meg: [Laughter] Right, but still pretty authentic looking.

Nathan: But to keep it that way, we’re 18, 19 years old now, it takes a lot of work. It takes a huge amount of work. We’re walking through one of our – – it’s called the Dionysus exhibit, a really great exhibit featuring sculptures that will go all the way up this side by a guy called Tim Shaw, an Irish sculptor of international renown telling the story of Dionysus in the Med. So, using Greek myth, but to tell a very contemporary story as well. We’re looking here, we have a piece of coastal Mediterranean, a very rare habitat around the Med normally, some loungers you would find on the beach, not all grasses and flowers but coming next this has gone in – – this is about six months old, and we will soon have a turtle who will soon be here because most people have no idea there’s three species of turtle in the Mediterranean Sea.

Meg: Before you go on with that, do you get the sand from the Mediterranean? Does it need to be, in order for the plants to – –

Nathan:I don’t think so, not with this one. But, with the perfume garden that you saw down there, if it’s an artifact, if there’s questions about getting the sand like kind of – –

Meg: Stealing?

Nathan: Stealing, basically, from the habitat. But if it’s an artifact, called a tiling there, is 100 percent from that area. The tiles on the roof of the Mediterranean restaurant down there, they’ve come from the Med. So, if it’s an artifact we will get it. If it’s taken from the environment, probably not, unless it’s seed or a cutting. So, walking through here, we’ve got a citrus grove. The guy sitting down there telling the stories, when I’m not doing this, I do that. So, I do a lot of kind of Once Upon a Time story time just down there. One other member of our team, she’s one of my colleagues, and as an engagement, to get away from the – – excuse me, can I talk to you about this tree, which British people or most people don’t really – – they have an aversion to that sort of thing. She will – – she’s often to be found where the lady is punching her partner. [Laughter] She’s often sat down at a table up there making. So, she will use craft as a way of people coming up and going, “What are you doing?”

Meg: Right, of course.

Nathan: And so, she does a lot of fabric work and dye work. And so, she’s made this over a period of many weeks which gives us a method of messaging.

Meg: Engaging people, yeah.

Nathan:  Yeah, for sure, but it’s incredibly important to the Western cape. When the rains come, the rains fall really heavy and fast and quickly flow into the rivers. But with the snow on the mountains, because it melts very slowly, it permeates into the ground and goes into the water table rather than into the river. And so, it doesn’t go straight out to sea and it’s one of the big challenges of climate change is this, the loss of ice and snow on mountains over the winter. If you have less, it’s less than – – it’s the type of melt and the type of how the water goes into the ground. And so, it’s a lot. The rainfall may stay high because they’re getting a lot more heavier downpours. But, unless it can get into the ground, it’s gonna quickly be – –

Meg: Runoff.

Nathan:  Runoff. So, here we’re particularly looking at the [Flamboss 1:36:22]. [Flamboss] is endemic to the western cape of South Africa, and things like the Protea, King Protea, the national flower of South Africa, horsetails like this, heathers, bulbs and all influenced by Shire as well. It’s why you don’t get many big trees. The bit we are walking through there, Afromontane, only found on the mountains and tends to be in the valleys, little cloofs, we call them. And so, they are little ravines protected from fire by the moisture and elevation.

Meg: And is the fire just spontaneous combustion because of the heat?

Nathan: Sure, yeah, lightning strikes, but also one of the earliest human populations in that part of – – many people think that’s where it’s started. And, they would have also used burning as well to increase grass.

Meg; Right, for cultivation purposes.

Nathan: Well, to make, to retract game and grazing animals and then they could hunt. That’s a fire use as well.

Meg: Early man, okay.

Nathan: As we walk through here, so this is really – – now I’ve been out there. This is really authentic, too. So yeah, and lots – – this is why you don’t find many big trees. You’ll find plants that either are dependent upon fire for their reproductive process. A lot of them won’t. Their seeds won’t germinate or they won’t drop seeds until fire has come through and it means there’s less competition because they’re not going to be in the shade. There’s nutrition that goes into the soil. It’s in the form of pot ash, and it’s some of them actually, due to their sort of volatile oils that are in the leaves, actually encourage fire and eucalyptus is one of those.

Meg: When you say encourage fire, what do you mean by that? They are – –

Nathan: The availability of dry, combustible material that also contains a volatile oil. So, it’s not just tinder. It’s tinder that’s been soaked in flammable materials.

Meg: So, they’re flammable?

Nathan: Yeah. The grass trees which is this big, these iconic kind of shapes you see here that are quite human-like in their form, and incredibly old trees, resistant that can survive fire, and we’re talking bush fires, not forest fires. Bush fire tends to move quickly. There’s no great, big, thick trees to buy them for a lot of time. So, it’s like a fire, yeah, maybe it’s twigs. So, you get – – once the fire moves, it doesn’t really penetrate into the ground because it’s not sustained in one place. It’s quite low temperatures, but fast moving. And so, the roots under the ground then get cooked. So, lots of these plants then, once there’s nothing above ground or very little, they can quickly re-germinate and sprout. They have roots that are used to dealing with fire or have evolved to deal with fire, or plants like the grass trees, often you’ll see them burnt with dark sort of trunks. And, they, these ones here, you can tell how long it was since the bush fire because as they age, so they get more of a skirt. You see these ones here, hanging down? Trees like this, some of these will grow maybe like one centimeter a year. And so, you’re looking at a tree that’s probably 150 years old and the heat can’t penetrate. I’ll show you. This is one that didn’t quite survive the journey. But this is where the living material is.

Meg: Oh. That’s a shell?

Nathan:  This is basically like an insulation. Old stalks, the basis of leaf stalks, and the heat can’t penetrate into here. And again, this fast-moving, low-temperature fire, still a bush fire, we wouldn’t like it. But the tree, the living material in here, it’s unharmed. And so, it will quickly regenerate after the fire. And anything that does that, like any other sort of human culture, the aboriginal people always saw this as a great sign of kind of rebirth.

Meg: Right, well that actually leads to my next question which is, is there a unit of the Eden Project that deals with storytelling in terms of the – – maybe spiritual isn’t the right word, but the lessons from nature such as this? Maybe that’s part of what you do, but.

Nathan: Yeah. That’s part of what we do. It’s part of what we do in terms of – – Jo Ellworthy would certainly be talking about that as well. I think it goes through the Eden Project, to be honest with you. We’re not – – despite having been called the Eden Project, we’re not really religious. We are sort of a sites and discovery center. But we’re also involving the arts and human culture and you can’t involve human culture without talking about beliefs. And so, yeah, it infuses everything we do, I would say.

Another example of us working with contemporary artists is we wanted to acknowledge the Aboriginal, indigenous people of Australia. And so, what we did, we got – – this represents Western Australia and the particular ethnic Aborigines from the area called the Noongar. There are lots of different tribes around in the Noongar, the people of what we’re representing here. And so, we got in touch with them, with kind of their community, and one of the contemporary Noongar artists, I think he’s called Richard Worley, I think, created these designs.

Meg: Fantastic. I love them.

Nathan: For us, almost incomprehensible. But, all this symbology, this is, for someone that knows how to read them. A lot of their designs are seen from above, and each one of them represents different seasons. And, in Noongar, in Aboriginal culture, they have six seasons that have to do with the dry season and the time for harvest and the time for fire and the time for [inaudible].

These are our cork trees just here. So, we’ve never harvested our cork. It’s alive, but I wouldn’t say it’s thriving. Cork doesn’t really like our type of – – it likes free draining, sandy, low, very low nutritional soils and it’s a big tree, and big trees don’t like being moved with big roots.

Do you know the story of cork? You can harvest the cork without killing the tree and the first harvest is very rough, no value, so it’s normally chopped up into granules and reformed. As you move into subsequent harvests, by the time of your third harvest, now you’re getting into good quality cork and the tree is probably 50 years old by this time, 45 or 50 years old. And when you get to this sort of quality, then you can start cutting solid corks which have a high value. There’s still value in the leftover byproduct.

Environmentalists love cork trees. It is one the most sustainable method of arboreal, kind of pastoral agriculture, the mixture of trees, livestock and great for wildlife. It’s partly, to do with the way the roots go into the ground. The roots are very deep on a cork tree. They can access groundwater, not just surface water, and they allow the tree, the soil around the base of the tree to hold on to moisture whilst lots of other trees don’t. That means other plants will grow around the base of the tree, heathers and grasses typically. But you can grow anything you like around them. That means that there’s no bare soil around the trees, so that means there’s more biodiversity in terms of plants which increases the biodiversity of creatures, the rough bark that you can see down here, lots of different hiding holes for different size insects which attracts lots of different birds, lizards, mammals. And when the rains come, the rain falls on leaves, not bare soil, and so it retains it better, and we don’t lose topsoil. So, these cork trees are a fabulous kind of bark against desertification whilst having a great economic value that doesn’t cut down the tree. Wwith every harvest of cork, you’re locking up carbon that doesn’t degrade quickly at all because of the unique composition of the bark. It’s got a high content of something called suberin which is waterproof and impermeable. 40 million little cells per cubic centimeter is a ridiculously high number, and so this will be around.

Meg: Wow, that’s cool.

Nathan: And so, all of that carbon’s locked up here and not going up into the atmosphere. And so, with every cork you pull out of a bottle of wine, you are pulling – – you’re helping carbon come out of the atmosphere and into the ground whereas any other closure, screw cap, plastic, whatever, causes carbon to be put out into the ground. And so, it’s my favorite way of helping the future of all of the earthlings is to make sure your wine has got proper corking.

Here we see the problem with the Dionysus, the grape exhibit. So, we’ve got modern grape production that you can see just here, and this is more wild, where wild vines would be growing. And, this exhibit has been at Eden since the start. It’s the life of Dionysus, and firstly, we’re open 360 days of the year. Plants aren’t always active 360 days of the year. And so, we wanted something. It’s a big space, and so we needed something to engage people.

Meg: To engage people.

Nathan: And hopefully I’m pleasing throughout the year, and so sculpture works for us really well, particularly the scale of it in the human form and mixed with the mythology. It’s quite arresting, and this, the bow, the standing bow figure represents Dionysus in one of his many forms and the human forms around it.

These are the Maenads, a female cult that worshipped Dionysus, and long story short, Dionysus was supposed to have discovered how to turn grapes into wine. So, therefore, he became quite a popular God, and particularly worshipped by the oppressed. And so, slaves, and also lots of tribes of women, hence the Maenads being a female cult, and I’m squeezing a lot into a short thing here. But basically, to begin with, it was in moderation. As much as some Christians would take Communion, so just a small amount in honor of Dionysus, this then over the years morphed into more of your Bacchanalian orgy and Bacchus is the Roman form of the Greek Dionysus, and so, yeah, everything that would go with that. So, he is the God of not just nature but of fertility, of some would say frivolity as well. He became the God of theater as well in the end, but what we tell is why we chose this, not just the grape connection, but it also shows and tells the story of balance. And, what started off as the imbibing of wine as a liberating, freeing them from the daily grind or the harsh lifestyles and by excess became a destructive thing. So, first of all, it was liberating and creative, became a destructive thing. They were seeing themselves as Gods with the ability to destroy, and it gets a bit more graphic over the way the Maenads went over to sacrifice anything they came across, including other people. So, it became like the darker side of it. But, so we’re looking at sort of excess and moderation and also the balance of stuff like – – the balance of our need for crops, but also our need for wilderness, the balance of rights with responsibilities. So, it talks of all those things in a way that is artistic.