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The Winter Garden displays a diverse range of plants to dramatic visual and sensory effect.
The Winter Garden displays a diverse range of plants to dramatic visual and sensory effect.
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The Systematic Beds: keeping heritage, science and horticulture in balance

Work has begun this autumn to renovate the plantings on our unique Systematic Beds, part of the Understanding Plant Diversity project supported by The Monument Trust.
Scientific understanding of how plants are grouped into families has changed since the Systematic Beds were first laid out in the Garden to show this in 1846 by our first Curator, Andrew Murray. Now, modern scientific understanding has prompted us to have a major family sort out.

For thousands of years, humans have grouped plants into families based on observations using the naked eye. Today scientists also study the genetic composition of plants to determine relationships. These contemporary methods still largely support traditional groupings but sometimes discoveries at the molecular level have resulted in new families being formed, families being renamed and plant species changing families. To keep the Beds research-relevant, we have developed a planting renovation plan for the Systematic Beds that will to a great degree accommodate contemporary understanding of the evolution of plant diversity by re-locating some plant families.

To ensure we achieve this while respecting the heritage importance and protecting the unique beauty of the Beds, we have also been researching their history and foundation. Murray’s inspired design concept, which he presented at his 1845 job interview for the post of Curator, was to translate the leading text book of the time, written by Alphonse de Candolle, into a living display of plant diversity, delivered through a beautiful ‘gardenesque’ design of irregularly-sized island beds – you can literally ‘read’ the book through the Beds starting on page one with the buttercups (which is why we all studied the buttercup as the standard flower in biology, even though there’s nothing very ‘typical’ about a buttercup!). You can click on the YouTube link below to watch a page-by-page flyby through the Beds.

The independently commissioned research has found that the Systematic Beds are completely unique in their design and concept and intellectual foundation. The renovation plan will be guided by these core, unique design principles and we plan to reinstate key elements of Murray’s vision, including a closer alignment to the original bed layout which has been eroded over the years through partial upgrades, and also through creating larger beds, to make a more immersive and sensory experience.

Upgrading the plantings is the first stage of the three-year project, which will also see the development of an interpretation hub to open up the Systematic Beds to all for learning and enjoyment.

Three of the five sections of the Systematic Beds will need a thorough overhaul. We have begun this autumn with taking the beginning and end chapters of de Candolle’s text book— Thalamiflorae and Monochlamydeae.

The two sections have been closed off and plants have been propagated or lifted and removed to a custom-built behind-the-scenes facility. The turf has been stripped and the earth rotovated or hand dug where cultivation comes close to the root protection zones of our major trees. We will then bring our new stone burier into play to prepare the ground for re-turfing. The soil will be treated with a nematode, a biological pest control which we hope will see off the chafer grubs—the rooks, muntjac and badgers cause extensive grass damage in their search for these tasty morsels. New turf will be laid in the spring and allowed to settle and establish over the summer. We will then be able to cut the new beds in autumn 2017 and improve the soil. Then begins the process of re-uniting our dispersed species from their temporary homes into their family groupings and re-planting.

We will follow on with the third section —Corolliflorae on the east side of Systematics — in autumn 2017.

The challenge ahead will be to compose displays of plant diversity to intrigue and delight, that meet modern first class horticultural standards and that also observe the curatorial and taxonomic rigour that our heritage Systematic Beds require by definition. It will be a deft balancing act, which you can follow through these regular news update or by following @cubgsystematics on Instagram.
Publication Date
09/12/2016