Not paradise, but it’s not supposed to be: Eden Project

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On this side of Atlantic, we tend to avoid conservatories in August. There’s no need to seek out a conservatory to get even hotter and sweatier. February is a much better time. But in England, August weather (low 60s, pouring rain) provides a perfect opportunity to visit the biggest conservatory in the world: the Eden Project.

Located a few miles outside St. Austell, in Cornwall, this former clay pit was transformed by entrepreneur Tim Smit (now Sir Tim Smit), who had previously overseen the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Smit started Eden in 1995, built the two big biomes, which total over 32 acres, opened it in 2000, yada yada yada, surpassed 10 million visitors in 2010; along the way there are concerts, weddings, visits by the Queen, giant robots, huge seeds, Chelsea awards, and much, much more, yada yada. Eden’s soil was made using, in part, composted mine and domestic wastes, and water conservation is an overarching priority. You can read more about all this on the website. Here’s my takeaway from Eden:

There is a lot of art; this bug is popular.

I have always loved conservatories, including our modest Lord & Burnham glasshouse in Buffalo. After a few years, however, there is mild ennui when confronted with the usual palms and waterfalls, colocasia and koi, orchids and cacti, corpse flowers and light shows. As the director of our botanical gardens stated recently, it’s a heavier lift to attract visitors when cheap cruises abound and the glories of the Caribbean are only a few hundred bucks away. The world has grown smaller and it takes more to justify the term exotic.

That is not in any way a problem when it comes to Eden Project. Its hugeness helps. Unlike any other conservatory I’ve seen, visitors can ascend the Rainforest biome to near-ceiling height along a circular path, punctuated by a fun rope bridge. If you’re up for it, you can climb even higher and look down from 164 feet in the air. The exotic becomes real. You learn how a rainforest works, how the different plants fit in, who uses them, and why (if this was not already apparent) its conservation is so important.

In the Australian habitat

I actually enjoyed the Mediterranean biome even more, as it included habitats (Australia, South Africa) with which I less familiar—and simply gorgeous plants, including kangaroo paw, banksia, and grass tree, just to name a few. In both biomes, children were everywhere, not just gaping but participating—playing instruments, listening to stories, singing, shouting. (It’s kind of a loud place.)

Happy visitor

We love the mysterious and strange and Eden gives us that. We love the spectacular and, boy, does it ever give us that. But then it turns around and unpacks all these things for us, removing the mystery and revealing the real-world importance.

It would take many more visits to thoroughly appreciate and absorb all that Eden has to offer. But I can say that, on that gray, damp day, we were transported to a world full of joy, plants, and revelatory glimpses into how the planet works.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

5 COMMENTS

  1. So interesting to read a review from the other side of the pond! I first visited the Eden Project in its first few weeks: the vision was clear even if the planting was sparse and the queuing innovative! Two years later and it was a triumph – as you say participation, not just by children, is amazing. I have continued to visit – it always surprises and always has something new – and excellent cafes! (But I do have to challenge your temperature range – August is rarely less than 70degF and miraculously we are anticipating a heatwave for this August Bank Holiday of 86deg! Bring it on – but won’t forget to water the tomatoes…..)

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