Two million plants. Enough to provide a life’s work for Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh combined. One million visitors per year. Impressive stats for Cornwall’s leading attraction. Some achievement for a chasm of a former clay-pit a few miles north of St Austell on the south coast.
Visitors arriving at The Eden Project think they know what to expect from the 30 acres site. Biomes stretching across the landscape like soapsuds. The world’s largest indoor rainforest, a sort of tropics garden centre where you can look but not buy. And where touching leaves from distant alien environments really isn’t recommended.
And yet The Eden Project still surprises. A giant bee. A 3.3 tonne sculpture of a junkman. An expanding playground for kids. Lionel Richie and The Pet Shop Boys performing live on the Eden Project’s stage. For music aficionados visiting in summer, it is worth checking the website to combine a visit with a gig. It is also worth booking admission tickets online to get a discount.
Music, gardens, and preserving past, present, and future are all part of founder Sir Tim Smit’s heritage. Trained as an archaeologist, Smit went into the music industry working with Alvin Stardust and Barry Manilow amongst others. Moving to Cornwall, this inspirational mover and shaker found the overgrown Lost Gardens of Heligan.
When that massive project was complete, Sir Tim, looked for his next project. Inspired by Conan Doyle’s Lost World he had a vision of creating an exuberant, flourishing rainforest in Cornwall.
Walking down the curving pathway towards the bioemes, a timeline of the Earth’s history suggests that the Eden Project’s mission has changed since it first opened in 2005. That timeline is punctuated by five Great Extinctions. Visitors cannot help but wonder if there will be a Sixth Great Extinction.
Over the years, The Eden Project has increasingly aimed to warn, to educate, to show the world what can be achieved. “Eden is a shop window of hope”, says Sir Tim.
The Rainforest Bioeme presents a vast variety of environments, a whirlwind tour of the humid regions of the world. Tropical Islands where ancient peoples transplanted what came to be known as canoe plants, by sea, from one island to the next.
A steadily ascending walkway, where the humidity ranges from 60% to 90% and where temperatures can rise as high as 35 centigrade, drops by West Africa and Southeast Asia.
It is a walk-through terrains that are more than Gardener’s World on Growmore steroids, more than the stunning visual aesthetics of a Chelsea Flower Show. This journey poses questions, as spiky as the sharpest cactus, about mankind’s increasingly take-take relationship with nature.
It is a walk that shows the importance of plants as lifeblood to the local communities. Plants provide building materials, dyes for our clothing, food, fuel, materials for our clothing and medicine too. Plants can help clean our air and water too. The ultimate expression of flower power. But also of knowledge disappearing as indigenous tribes join the 21st century club and walk away from millennia of knowledge.
Every plant has a story to tell and displays explain how plants function. Some rainforest plants have evolved with purple backs to their leaves so that precious sunlight can be reflected to be captured by other leafs on the same structure. Humans have come to value many a plant. In 2018 the price per kilo of scarce Madagascan vanilla pods was higher than that of kilo of silver. Ultimately, visitors have the option to ascend to look down on the rainforest canopy. Though these rainforests which store 46% of Earth’s carbon are increasingly threatened.
After the rainforest, there is a chance to cool down with the Mediterranean bioeme which can begins with an introduction to how we use plants to create perfumes, including patchouli, the aroma of the hippy Sixties and Seventies. This bioeme also features flora from the temperate zones of the Americas, Australia and South Africa.
Less well known is The Core. Its art, displays and light boxes reveal unknown worlds. It focuses on the invisible worlds which are too fast, too slow, or too far away in space and time for our senses to reveal. And yet the way that we interconnect with these organisms can either facilitate or threaten our survival as individuals or as a species.
Beyond the watering, beyond the weeding, beyond possessing the world’s greatest green house, the Eden Project is more than merely thought-provoking. It asks huge questions, difficult questions, where the answers may not be known for generations.
Ultimately, the Eden Project is far more than the world’s greatest greenhouse. It is an experience that challenges, educates, frightens, and gives glimmers of hope for the future of the planet.
Eden Project fact file
Visit Eden Project for information on events and admission.
Where to find the Eden Project.
If you enjoyed Eden Project: The ultimate expression of flower power blooms, read Michael’s exploration of another Cornish treasure, the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Images: Hufton & Crow; Matt Jessop; Steve Tanner.Tags: eden project Last modified: August 7, 2023