By Julie Kilpatrick
Walking towards Eden from one of its many car parks, I felt a certain sense of anticipation. Was I really going to experience a tropical rainforest, right here in Cornwall? Ever since before the Eden Project was even built, I had been looking forward to visiting.
Built on the site of an old china clay pit, Eden's aim is to create a showcase for the major elements of the world's flora and to show the relationships between people and plants. It is also heavy on the environmental message, as well it should be.
The shop in the visitor's centre is awash with trendy environmentally friendly products you can take home as souvenirs of Eden and to remind you just how fragile our earth really is. Recycle bins abound, there are recycled cups in the cafe and the food is all flapjacks and fair trade coffee. Our dependency on plants is represented by a mechanical puppet show depicting an average household and how it might look if there were no plants. It certainly makes you stop and think.
As you emerge from the visitors centre, you can see virtually all of Eden below and, of course, you can't help but notice the huge biomes that are so synonymous with Eden.
The humid tropics biome, the largest conservatory in the world, was what I had come to Eden for. At 240m long, 110m wide and 50m high, it certainly is an impressive structure. Inside, I didn't quite feel like I was really in the tropics. Granted, it certainly is warm and humid but you know you're in a greenhouse. Despite being surrounded by all manner of impressive plants, there is something clinical about the place. More science than rainforest, but science is after all what Eden is about.
Planting in the humid tropics biome, is, like all the biomes in Eden, related to people. Here you can see all manner of tropical plants and read about their uses. There are bamboos, bananas, rubber plants, sugar cane and spices. They even have the world's largest seed but it's going to be a while before it germinates! A word of warning if you go to Eden in the winter, make sure you wear a T-shirt or light clothing under your winter woollies - you will need it for the glass-covered biomes. Thoughtfully, Eden has a cloakroom where you can leave your winter clothes before entering.
Eden's other glass-covered area is the warm temperate biome. This represents the landscapes of the Mediterranean, California and South Africa. Here, there are grape vines, prairie flowers, olives and peppers. The planting in the warm temperate biome is more easily recognisable to UK gardeners with many of our garden perennials and annuals represented.
Tobacco is there too and, interestingly, despite this plant's bad press, Eden also informs us that tobacco has other potential uses including the development of a vaccine against tooth decay and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Eden is full of interesting facts like this and, a visit there will always be an education.
Despite my main purpose in coming to Eden, I actually preferred the outside biome. That is, all the planting which represents the temperate regions of the world, including the UK and Europe. Like all the planting at Eden, it's little too new to be really impressive yet but the structure is there and you just know it will look great in a few years. A pleached walkway is in place and growing well but it takes a little patience to produce the look they're aiming for.
The planting on the slopes below the visitor's centre works really well with a mixture of grasses and bright coloured flowers all crammed together to create a mat of roots to fix the slope and choke out potential weeds. Eden used coir matting with plant seed and plant nutrient sprayed onto it to create this stunning effect.
Though Eden wasn't quite what I had expected, it was well worth the visit and it surprised me how much I learned. What's good about Eden is that, if you go now, you get the chance to see it while it is relatively young and you know that when you make a return visit it will only have got better. I suspect, too, that Eden has more up its sleeve and that they'll keep on adding to their collection.
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