Pembroke Plants #2

Anki Deo’s second plant column sees her take a trip to the University Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden may be one of the most bucket-listed and least visited places in Cambridge. This plant columnist wants that to change! Ignore the Wildcats’ pleas to stick to the status quo and move your planned visit forwards from spring to autumn. In keeping with that old adage, “variety is the spice of life”, there is a glorious array of spices on display for you at this time of year: turmeric, smoked paprika, cinnamon and saffron-coloured leaves spread out in every direction. Grab a chai latte from Hot Numbers and head down to the end nearest the train station to season your senses with autumn.

The autumn garden within the gardens is specially planted to flourish around this time with a firework display of colour. The three Japanese acer trees, Palmatum acer ‘Osakazuki’, are currently in varying degrees of separation with chlorophyll. This has led to the most incredible variety of leaf colours all on the same tree, sometimes even transitioning from burgundy to yellow on the same leaf. Aubergine, chilli, banana, salmon, cherry: not foods I would like to eat together, but as colours make up the perfect ingredients list for a feast for the eyes. Don’t forget that the floor can be just as beautiful as the upper branches - though your feet may be freezing on these cold days, here they will, at least, be surrounded with warm colours.

Away from the autumn garden, there is still so much to see and appreciate if you are looking in the right places. Of course, the plants in the greenhouses are perennial and always worth looking at, but so are the array of pine trees outside in the new pinetum. You may think you know the humble pine tree, but in the run up to Christmas, stretch and challenge yourself with a visit to these newer varieties! As you make your way over, look out for trees decorated with googly-eyes and the grafted beech tree, beneath which, on a dry day, the crunching leaves underfoot and the dapples of sunlight invite unadulterated joy.

When it comes to the flower beds, you may be tempted to feel disappointed; in the absence of colour, texture is key. Botanical gardens are like a museum of plants, with no disappointed guards to sternly tell you not to touch the glass or use the flash. Touch things tenderly (never damaging the plant or taking things away) and connect the senses of sight and touch - there are often surprises to be found in such synesthesia. Velvety lambs’ ears, ticklish pampas grass, and plump snow berries are just some of the tactile highlights currently on display. Admire the thoughtfulness in planting with regards to the height of different plants and the depth provided by rugs of different grasses.

Making the most of your visit in these colder months means timing it carefully. A soggy, miserable day will never do this place justice, so make sure you choose a fresh day when your breath smokes - and bring mittens! The afternoon is a wonderful time to go, as this is when the light quality is at its softest and most diffused. It’s not known as the Golden Hour of photography for nothing – taking photographs is important, but make sure amongst all your snapping you take time to appreciate the small things. The real beauty of a place like the Botanical Gardens is that amongst the broad brushstrokes of an autumn palette, there are tiny, exquisite details to be found in the most unexpected places.