Hothouse flowers

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Carnivorous plants, edible fruits and a lizard that walkson water are partof the spectacularlure of a rainforestin Berkshire, Carolyn O'Grady reports.

It might be cold outside but under the quartet of greenhouses which is the Wyld Court Rainforest, it is hot, humid and misty. The air is filled with high-pitched squawking and chattering. All around is tropical vegetation: fern fronds drip with moisture, Swiss cheese plants, Monstera deliciosa (also known as Mexican breadfruit), with edible fruits that taste like a mixture of pineapple and banana, spread their huge leaves overhead. But we are not in Mexico or some other tropical region. This is Berkshire.

Near a pond, a group of Year 8 students from Tudor Grange school, a technology college in Solihull, Birmingham, are admiring the deep-throated flowers of the Brazilian birthwort Aristolochia gigantia. These look and smell like rotting meat in order to attract flies. Insects are briefly trapped in the balloon-like bag at the bottom of the flowers as part of its pollination process.

Elsewhere, another group confronts the dumb cane, whose sap, if eaten, can render an individual speechless and infertile. There is, however, plenty of edible flora: yams, cocoa, mango, banana and sugar cane.

In large cages, you can see some of the creatures that live on them, such as the arboreal Jesus Christ lizard, or basilisk, so called because its huge feet with lobed toes enable it to walk on water. It is a lesson in the infinite ingenuity of living creatures to adapt to their natural habitats.

Wyld Court is run by the World Land Trust, a charity which buys areas of tropical rainforest when they come on the market to save them from destruction. This conservation and education centre, designed as a window on the trust's work, provides 45-minute guided tours for schools, together with an education pack, video and activity sheets. Schools usually follow up the tour with activities of their own.

Sally Feasey, geography teacher at Tudor Grange, has given out worksheets which set her group tasks, such as finding out which plants are used in medicine. Back at school the children will produce their own guide to Wyld Court Rainforest.

This was the fourth time the school had visited as part of a module on rainforests. "It's the nearest we can get without actually going there," says Ms Feasey.

Maintaining this exraordinary collection of flora and fauna is not easy: it entails keeping the temperature at a steady 21C (70F) and creating humidity with mist from a special piping system.This is so successful that it is a constant battle to keep the jungle under control. Judith Cox-Roger, the education officer,says: "Some of the trees haveto be cut down regularly orelse they would go through the glass roof.

"We don't use chemicals, which means that staff have to clean the leaves and we use mites to control thrips, or thunder flies."

In this lovingly-maintained hothouse, the jungle and its inhabitants, often endangered in the wild, flourish. Goeldi monkeys, which are under threat in their native Amazonian forest, are breeding well. Rare South American red-billed toucans are thriving. Wyld Court is also the only place in the country which has been able to propagate successfully the endangered Philippine jade vine.

The centre attracts around 30,000 schoolchildren a year - mostly eight to 12-year-olds - but is now trying to extend its appeal to older children, up to sixth form. It has already received a pound;108,000 National Lotterygrant to cater for children with special needs.

A small group of autistic children, from a special needs unit at St Andrew's CE primary school in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, is winding its way through the forest. The children stare at the creatures and flora for ages, fascinated by the odd shapes. Theirs was a very different experience to that of the Tudor Grange group, but no less satisfying and educational.

"They need as many different experiences as they can possibly get," says a parent accompanying the group, "and this is a veryvivid one."

Wyld Court Rainforest Hampstead Norreys, near Newbury, Berkshire RG18 0TN. Tel: 01635 202444 or 01635 200221 for recorded information. Open daily (apart from Christmas and Boxing Day) from 10am - 5.15pm, last admission 4.30pm. Costs are around pound;40 per guided party; maximum of 20. Adults pound;4.50, students, OAPs pound;3; children 5-14 pound;2.50, unders 5s free. There are concessionary rates for groups and special needs. Wyld Court offers two trails: one concentrating on plant and animal adaptations; the other on the variety of food that comes from the rainforests. Trails can be adapted for special needs groups. Wyld Court welcomes wheelchair users, offerssensory trails and special-needstrained volunteers.

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