Dipping into nature

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Yolanda Brooks joins pupils on a tour of a botanical garden but just misses a plant that flowers once every 100 years

A brilliant end to a long life was observed at Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses last month when a century plant bloomed for the first and only time. After a glorious display of yellow flowers, the plant (properly Agave americana) began to wither.

The plant grows in the centre's Arid Glasshouse and it was in May that staff realised something was up. From the tangle of six foot yellow-fringed leaves, a shoot, resembling a giant asparagus appeared. It grew quickly towards the 15 foot roof and staff had to remove a pane of glass for it. By late June it stood almost 10 feet above the glasshouse and in mid-August the branches began to bloom, providing a display that was worth of the 100-year wait.

It's now too late to get a glimpse of the flowering century plant, but the gardens on the edge of Birmingham city centre overflow with plants from the everyday to the exotic. In 15 acres, it has specialist areas that include the alpine yard, rhododendron garden, cottage museum, fern walk, woodland glade, the children's discovery garden, sculpture trail, aviary and adventure playground.

During a multi-sensory trail, pupils from a Reception class from Damson Wood Infant School, Solihull, are invited to create their own smelly cocktails in the herb garden. As they create their aromatic concoctions of rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint and petals, Year 9 pupils from Plantsbrook School, Sutton Coldfield, sit quietly at the edges sketching. On the "eye in the sky walk", the children from Damson Wood disappear down a secluded trail with mirrors to examine the canopy. While they look skywards, the Plantsbrook students peer into a hidden pond with nets at the ready.

Under the guidance of education officer Steve Hagues, they are soon distinguishing their water fleas from the water boatman.

The students' paths criss-cross as they seek out different sites in the garden, but there's one destination all schools visit - the glasshouses.

Step through the main entrance and you are taken on a horticultural world tour. There are younger, not yet flowering century plants sitting alongside cacti and succulents in the Arid House. The tang of citrus competes with blooming shades of fuchsia and coleus in the Mediterranean House; while the impersonations of the two mynah birds in the Subtropical House provide entertainment among the date palms, ferns, cycads, orchids, Venus flytraps and cinnamon trees. In the Tropical House, the heat and humidity sustain plants such as sugar cane, banana, rice, cotton and hibiscus. The glasshouses always create a buzz, says Damson Wood teacher Lisa Phillips:

"I love the awe and wonder when the children go in."

There's also the educational glasshouse which is attached to the study centre. Here students can take a closer look at a selection of non-native species including pineapple, cotton, coffee, ginger and avocado.

The gardens are owned by the Birmingham Botanical and Horticultural Society which is an educational charity, so school groups are well-catered for.

"We are very cross-curricular so we can offer a whole variety of different themed activities," says education officer Deborah Knott. "We get schools from Shropshire, Leicestershire and even Milton Keynes. They travel because we have a unique resource with the plants, the type of facilities, the range of activities and the special artefacts. You have to travel a long way to find somewhere like us."

For schools outside Birmingham LEA, admission is pound;3 a head

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