The Rising Path is part of the Garden’s Understanding Plant Diversity Project, a three year project supported by The Monument Trust, which aims to revitalise the contemporary relevance of the Garden’s Systematic Beds for researchers, teachers and visitors by offering exciting new ways to explore how plant diversity is identified and organised – the science of plant taxonomy.
Professor Beverley Glover, CUBG Director says “We are thrilled to be opening the Rising Path to the public. This innovative structure is a key part of an ongoing project to re-examine, re-interpret and re-display our Systematic Beds which will help visitors, students and scientists to understand more about plants, how they are related, and why this is so important for science.”
About the Rising Path:
The aim of the Rising Path is to inspire curiosity about plants. Juliet Day, Project Manager of the Rising Path, says: “Observation is the cornerstone of all scientific enquiry and plants are full of shapes, patterns, numbers, colours, textures, symmetry, scents and tastes to discover. We have developed the Rising Path and created interpretation displays to encourage visitors of all ages to explore the Systematic Beds and enjoy looking more closely at plants.”
The Rising Path itself winds up to a viewing platform. From here visitors will be able to see for the first time the full extent and layout of the Systematic Beds from a three-metre high vantage point. In addition, accompanying interpretation at rest points placed along the path highlight the innovations that allowed plants to leave the water for life on land and to proliferate into the 400,000 species known today.
At ground level, an interpretation hub expands on the twin educational purpose of the Systematic Beds: how to look at plants, and how to organise those plants in order to provide a robust framework for effective research and communication. Traditional methods for looking at and organising plants are explored and encouraged, but also brought up-to-date with contemporary research case studies illustrating modern ways of looking, including under the microscope and at the molecular level. Beverley Glover explains: “For thousands of years, humans have grouped plants into families based on observation made using the naked eye. Today, scientists also study the DNA of plants to determine relationships. Changes in scientific understanding pose interesting challenges for a Garden that seeks to be both guardian of a historic landscape and relevant to contemporary research.”
The interpretation hub invites visitors to explore family resemblances by identifying shared physical features – the approach by which the Systematic Beds were laid out in 1846 and also to understand the plant family tree in today’s post-Darwin evolutionary context. A relief model of the Systematic Beds will highlight areas of convergence and divergence of both approaches, charting how scientific understanding has changed, demonstrating the differences and similarities between the two approaches to how plant families are grouped. The interpretation artwork draws widely from the collections of the University of Cambridge, including Charles Darwin’s pressed plant material from his voyage on HMS Beagle in the University Herbarium and Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botany in the University Library. In addition, simple interactive elements including relief rubbings, stem-shape sorters, a plant building activity, a seed abacus, a nature table and a crawl-through of underground root shapes, encourage an active approach to observing plants.
Out in the Systematic Beds themselves, interpretation units highlight 10 common plant families. Later this autumn, the units will also host the downloadable Ensonglopedia of Plants, a new commission from composer-performer, John Hinton, weaving science, story and song together in a unique take on the Systematic Beds.
The end result has a strong appeal to the multi-generational extended family and friends visits that characterise the Botanic Garden audience. Juliet continues: “We wanted this project to interest all ages, as well as both the botanically baffled and plant expert and to encourage and support sociable, enjoyable learning.”
About the Systematic Beds and Understanding Plant Diversity Project:
The Systematic Beds occupy nearly three acres of CUBG and are of global heritage significance. They were designed in 1845 by CUBG’s first Curator, Andrew Murray, and their design uniquely translates the leading botanic text book of the time by Augustin de Candolle into a display on the ground to represent and teach plant taxonomy – the science of identifying and classifying plant species.
In his design of the Systematic Beds, Murray used hedges as structural elements to express de Candolle’s way of organising flowering plants which are still integral to the Beds today. A central oval of hedging contains plants that germinate with one seed leaf (monocots), while the plants that germinate with two seed leaves (dicots), are arranged around the outside of the oval hedge. These dicots are then further divided by radial hedges into four sections to demonstrate de Candolle’s major groupings, determined by shared physical features seen by the naked eye. However, today’s post-Darwin, post-DNA understanding of how plants are related has changed substantially.
The Understanding Plant Diversity project, which includes the Rising Path, seeks to ensure the Systematic Beds remain a useful teaching tool in the modern world: incorporating contemporary understanding of the plant family tree is key. In reworking the Systematic Beds in the light of new understanding, the team at the Garden has sought to stay true to the Garden’s founder, Professor Henslow’s vision of a relevant teaching garden for all; to restore Curator Andrew Murray’s original design for an immersive, sensory experience; to update the plantings to ensure that his unique rule of only ever putting one plant family in a bed remains true today; and to reposition some family beds within their historic sections so that the most closely related families on the modern plant family tree are grown close together.
In practice, this updating has involved replanting three of the five sections of the Beds, with tweaks to the remaining two sections to follow. Work started in autumn 2016 and has comprised verification, propagation, wholesale rotavating, chafer grub treatments, and re-turfing. This was followed by cutting new beds to the revised design, improving the soil and replanting, returning the order beds to their recognisable and much-loved ‘gardenesque’ style that can be seen from the Rising Path today.
When renovation is complete in 2019, the Systematic Beds will represent 1,600 plant species belonging to about 78 families dispersed across 119 beds.