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The Tallgrass Prairie of the Midwest

Head of Horticulture, Wes Shaw, travelled to the US recently to learn more about prairies, following our Grasslands Garden opening in June.

Our new Grasslands Garden, which opened earlier this year, draws its inspiration from the grassland habitats of the North American Prairie and the South African Drakensburg mountain region.

It was designed by James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University, who specialises in studying wild herbaceous plant communities to create spectacular urban planting schemes.

  • Wes grasslands trip, C Churcher
    , C Churcher

In July, I travelled to the Midwest of the USA to experience the prairie first-hand. I flew in and out of Chicago and, with the help of Marcus de la fleur, a Chicago resident and expert on the prairie, I travelled more than 2,000 miles over two weeks, to see some of his recommended locations.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Wes Shaw
    Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, Wes Shaw

The prairie used to cover millions of square miles, from Texas all the way up into Canada.

Sadly, there is less than 1% of this amazing habitat left after early settlers began to plough the land for agriculture, using the nutrient-rich prairie soil. What little is left is now protected and managed by enthusiastic volunteers and conservation organisations, and survives in small pockets amongst corn fields and the suburbs.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Echinacea sp flowering amongst the prairie grass Big Blue Stem Andropogon gerardii, Wes Shaw
    Echinacea sp flowering amongst the prairie grass Big Blue Stem Andropogon gerardii, Wes Shaw

The types and variety of plants in a prairie depend on the geographical features and available water in each landscape, but prairie vegetation predominantly consists of a mixture of grasses and herbaceous plants. The area of the Midwest I travelled through is dominated by tallgrass prairie.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Wolf Road Prairie Reserve, Wes Shaw
    Wolf Road Prairie Reserve, Wes Shaw

I was advised by Marcus that the best locations to see a diversity of flowering plants are sites that were burned earlier in the year, as part of a management schedule.

Prescribed burning mimics natural wildfires that would have been started by lightning strikes, or by the indigenous people, as a method of herding buffalo to migrate and feed on the new growth of burnt land.

Burning is integral to the survival and health of the prairie, as it kills invasive woody plants, clears away dead vegetation, and returns nutrients to the soil.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Prairie-burning in action , M De La Fleur
    Prairie-burning in action , M De La Fleur

The prairie is an important habitat, because it provides an enormous food resource for birds, butterflies, insects and wildlife, ranging from prairie dogs to the mighty buffalo. The prairie was, and remains, very significant to the indigenous people who have a spiritual connection to the landscape, as it provided all the resources required for survival. 

  • Wes grasslands trip, Buffalo grazing in Blue Mounds State Park, Wes Shaw
    Buffalo grazing in Blue Mounds State Park, Wes Shaw

Visually, they are a truly beautiful sight. The prairie has stunning grasses and flowering perennials that bloom in succession from spring into the autumn months – compare that to our own native wildflowers that have all but finished flowering by mid-summer.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Marcus de la fleur enjoying Asclepia tuberosa in full flower, Wes Shaw
    Marcus de la fleur enjoying Asclepia tuberosa in full flower, Wes Shaw

The North American prairie has for some years been an influence on garden designers and horticulturists, with a new perennial movement starting in the 1990s that attempted to recreate the naturalistic look and qualities of the prairie.

Practitioners of this style of naturalistic planting include Piet Oudolf, James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, Tom Stuart-Smith, Dan Pearson, and Beth Chatto.

Many prairie plants have made their way across the pond, and are commonly seen on sale in garden centres and plant nurseries. They make really good garden plants because many flower into late summer and are good at putting up with hot dry conditions. They also look great!

Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Liatris spicata (Blazing Star) and Aster ericoides (Heath Aster) are all plants that you will see in gardens across the UK.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Blazing Star and Rattlesnake Master flowering , Wes Shaw
    Blazing Star and Rattlesnake Master flowering , Wes Shaw

The prairie locations for the connoisseur plant hunter, are the ones that are called 'remnant', meaning they have never been ploughed. These sites give the best indication of what natural prairie habitat would have looked like when most of the Midwest was grassland, and they usually have the best diversity of flowering plants… so more bang for your buck.

Of the surviving prairie, most is restored vegetation rather than remnant. These are the areas that are undergoing work to remove unwanted woody plants and trees in an attempt to recreate the look and diversity of remnant prairie, but this is a slow and difficult long-term endeavour.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Markham Prairie Nature Preserve, remnant, Wes Shaw
    Markham Prairie Nature Preserve, remnant, Wes Shaw

Exploring the prairie isn’t for the faint-hearted: it is a harsh environment full of mosquitos, ticks and chiggers (a type of mite) and is VERY hot and humid in the summer months.

Tallgrass prairie can be over 10ft in height, and can be difficult to navigate.

A prairie explorer needs to be well-equipped in the field. The following equipment is essential: bug spray; long socks to tuck trousers into (a tactic used to avoid ticks, but not a great fashion statement); water; hat; sunglasses; and sun lotion. Finally you need a good field guide so you can recognise the huge assortment of flowering plants and grasses.

  • Wes grasslands trip, Me demonstrating just how tall, tall grass prairie is
    Me demonstrating just how tall, tall grass prairie is

My two-week exploration of the prairie was an amazing experience, and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to appreciate first-hand such an amazing habitat. I was able to see many of the plants we are growing in the Grasslands Garden in their natural habitat, which for a horticulturist is priceless to understand how they grow and relate that to our own garden display.

I was very lucky to have Marcus as my prairie guide – he gave up a lot of his time which I am very grateful for.

I also have to thank the Royal Horticultural Society for funding my travels through their fantastic bursary scheme.

I hope this blog will encourage readers to come and visit the Grasslands Garden and perhaps, if they ever travel to the Midwest, to look out for those last remaining pockets of prairie.

Growing a Garden from Scratch

Damien from the Gardens team fills us in on the challenges of growing so many plants from other environments right here in Forest Hill.

With the help of Professor of Horticultural Ecology James Hitchmough, our Gardens Team has developed a new Grasslands Gardens and that has meant planting 5,000 perennials from North America and South Africa. 

It’s particularly satisfying for us to see so many plants emerge in our Grasslands Gardens because we produced most of them from seed or cuttings in the Horniman’s own nursery.

  • Grasslands Garden, The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher
    The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher

Roughly 95% of the North American and 40% of the South African species for the display were produced in-house.

Planning for production began in February 2017 when we sat down to look over the final plant list for the beds. Plant production in the Horniman nursery in the past had been mostly bulk crops of annuals – perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 plants per crop - for bedding out the Sunken Garden, so the numbers we saw on the list weren’t a worry for us.

  • Grasslands Garden, The planting plan, Damien Midgley
    The planting plan, Damien Midgley

The largest crops for this project were Echinacea paradoxa, Echinacea tennessensis and the prairie grass Sporobolus heterolepis. These were to be grown in crops of 300 plants each, with most crops under 100 plants.

The big difference with this project was that we weren’t producing quick-growing annuals: plants that complete their life cycle, germination to death, in a single season. These are slower, more demanding perennials for a permanent display. This meant adjusting the growing techniques that the nursery was used to, and getting to know some unfamiliar species, in a short space of time.

James Hitchmough guided us on suitable soil mixes and this, combined with our own research along with information provided by seed suppliers, guided us on timings and conditions for sowing specific crops.

Our sowing mix was equal-parts potting compost, coarse sand, and horticultural grit. For reasons of space, we chose to sow into seed trays rather than individual pots.

As a general rule perennials are better sown into deep individual pots (nine centimetre pots are ideal) for quick, undisturbed root development but this takes up a lot of bench space. Other demands on the greenhouses in April meant space was at a premium, and sowing in trays bought us some time until plants for other projects left the nursery.

  • Grasslands Garden, Seeds and seedlings starting to grow, Damien Midgley
    Seeds and seedlings starting to grow, Damien Midgley

By mid-May, the nursery was starting to empty as plants for other displays went out into the Gardens. We finally had some bench space to work with, and some well-developed seedlings ready to be transferred to nine centimetre pots.

At this stage, our soil mix changed to four parts potting compost, three parts sand, and three parts grit. The higher proportion of potting compost reflecting the plants’ increasing nutrient requirements as they developed, while the sand and grit kept the growing medium open, oxygen-rich, and free-draining.

The process of moving the seedlings from shared seed trays to individual pots, known to gardeners as pricking out, was a major job for us at a busy time of year. Over 2,500 litres of soil mix had to be made up, thousands of pots filled and put into carry trays, hundreds of labels written, and of course, those thousands of seedlings carefully lifted from their trays and potted up one by one.

Once they were potted up the plants spent another fortnight in the greenhouse, recovering from their root disturbance in sheltered conditions. During the second of these two weeks, all the greenhouse vents and doors were left open 24 hours a day, gradually acclimatising the plants to outdoor conditions.

  • Grasslands Garden, Progress of the seedlings over time, Damien Midgley
    Progress of the seedlings over time, Damien Midgley

Finally, at the start of June, they were moved to the outdoor standing ground in the Horniman nursery to grow on to planting size under the watchful eye of the Gardens Team – aphids, snails, and slugs are a constant nuisance.

It was a long process but now that the beds are bursting into life for the public to enjoy we have no doubt it was well worth it.

We hope you’ll come by to visit this beautiful and constantly evolving new display garden.

  • Grasslands Garden, The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher
    The Grasslands Garden beginning to bloom, Connie Churcher

Bird watching in London

David Darrell-Lambert has been working with the Horniman for years, leading the Dawn Chorus Walks. He has just published a new book about Bird Watching in London, so we caught up with him to find out more about his spots around the capital and how he got started.

When did you start bird watching? 

I started in the early 1980’s, my junior school teacher Ms Anderson took us on a trip to Rye House RSPB up the Lea Valley. The warden there explained to us that Coots (a type of water bird, all black bar a white bill with a white shield above it) have webbing between each section of their toes. They can then dive under the water to evade predators.

  • Coot in Hyde Park, Coot in Hyde Park, David Darrell-Lambert
    Coot in Hyde Park, David Darrell-Lambert

Moorhens (another type of water bird, black with white stripe down the side and a yellow and red bill, very smart) have long thin toes which they can use to pull themselves under the water and only leave their bill above the water, so they can breathe but the predator can’t get them. Well this just ignited my passion.

I dashed home from school and ask my dad to take me out every possible day to go birdwatching.  So by bus, tube and train we went off birdwatching across the capital and the UK.

What is your favourite spot to see birds in South London?

Oh, hard to choose there are so many. Clearly I have a massive fondness for the Gardens at Horniman. A lovely variety of trees, the big open slope and a great view north, I’ve seen so many lovely birds here and twice located Great Spotted Woodpeckers nest!

Crystal Palace Park is great too: lakes for ducks and gulls, mature trees for breeding birds, plus a massive vantage point to watch migrating birds flying over the capital. A bigger version than the Gardens at Horniman.  

What is your most unusual London bird spot?​ 

So many odd places to go!

Beddington Farmlands: it used to be a sewage farm for many years and then they started using it as rubbish tip and now unfortunately as an incinerator. Not happy about that!

It gets some amazing migrant birds there from a Citrine wagtails from Eastern Europe, to a Glaucous-winged Gull from the west coast of America. This year they had a Hoopoe which is European bird turn up in the spring.

  • Citrine wagtail, Citrine wagtail, David_Raju (Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0)
    Citrine wagtail, David_Raju (Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0)

It is used to hold the only Tree sparrow population left in the capital with fifty plus pairs but due to their habitat being destroyed they are down to a few pairs.  

What do you hope to see in the capital?

There is so much to see in the capital from Little or Tawny owls present in many parks and woods, to rare breeding birds such as Peregrines which are now doing very well in the capital.

Or even the specialised Black redstart, a small Robin like bird which the males are mostly black all over with a bright red tail which they shimmer! Most of the time I am happy to see almost anything in London, from discovering a new population of House sparrows somewhere, to listening to a Wren nesting next to bus stop or the fruity song of a Blackbird singing in the evening on a TV aerial.

  • Black redstart, A Black redstart, David Darrell-Lambert
    A Black redstart, David Darrell-Lambert

I really like finding a migrant bird, so in October I love to heard sharp thin zeep calls of Redwings migrating at night, which pile out of northern Europe and cross the capital heading south to escape to freezing northern winters.

What are ways we can help the capital’s bird population? 

Firstly, make your garden as wildlife friendly as you can or willing too.

Plant native species such as hawthorn which are great for insects and then a great good source for our birds.  Put up feeders for birds, whether many or just a few, and remember to keep them full throughout the year and vary what you put in there. In my garden the House sparrows love the mixed seed whilst the Greenfinch and Goldfinch love the sunflower hearts.

  • Birds at a bird feeder, Birds at a bird feeder, Phil Burrows via Pixabay
    Birds at a bird feeder, Phil Burrows via Pixabay

Put out some water. You don’t have to build a pond, you can just put a bowl out or hanging bird bath which will used to wash in and drink from.  I have the last two and the other day a young Magpie sat right in the middle of the bowl for a wash!

If you want to do more then offer your free time to a local wildlife charity. You can join a working party to create or manage habitat, do some fundraising, help with their admin or just become a member. This means they will get more money, and the more money they get then the more work they can do.

What should we should stop doing?

Rubbish and plastic! Recycle as much as possible so we don’t have as much rubbish that gets buried or burnt, neither of which are good for the environment. Try to use less plastic - the less we use, the less will end up in our rubbish regardless if it is recycled or not.

Oh yes, and never feed birds bread. It is no good for them and can pollute the water too if throw in to a pond or a lake.

How would you recommend someone gets started with bird watching in London? 

There are so many ways possible but I would say these two options.

Firstly, join a guided walk, whether it is via somewhere like the Horniman, where I have lead many early morning walks, listening to the explosive dawn chorus. Or your local wildlife group who will also do walks, such as the London Natural History Society. They run many across the capital throughout the year.

  • Birds in the Horniman Gardens, Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert
    Blackbird, David Darrell-Lambert

Secondly, go to one of our premier reserves in the capital such as the London Wetland Centre run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Rainham Marshes run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or Walthamstow Wetlands run by the London Wildlife Trust. They will be able to tell you where you can see birds on their sites and at some you can hire binoculars for the day too. Some places even have guides position around their site so you can ask them what is about or what you can see in that area.  

Remember always to just have fun and enjoy the day.

David Darrell-Lambert is a Ornithological Consultant and author. Find out more about Birdwatching London.

Stars of the Grasslands Garden

Our Grasslands Garden is now open to explore and our Gardener Damien has picked some of his favourite plants in the display. 

Regular visitors to the Gardens may have noticed that the central beds of our new Grasslands Gardens are bursting into life. 5,000 North American and South African perennials planted by the Gardens team last year are waking from their dormancy, and I thought I’d highlight a few of my favourites.

The earliest flowers have bloomed already but there is plenty more to come, with many of the species at their best in late summer. So do come along and visit.

Dodecatheon meadia, ‘shooting star’

I love Dodecatheons so my heart did a little somersault when I saw this on the list for the beds. Dodecatheon meadia is a spring-flowering, summer-dormant relative of the primrose from eastern North America. Its hanging purple flowers have strongly reflexed petals – so much so that they remind me of falling shuttlecocks. Its common name, more poetically, is 'shooting star'.

After germination Dodecatheon seedlings grow for a month or so before doing what, to the uninitiated, looks like dying. They’re actually entering dormancy, which is quite unusual for a plant at such an early stage of development. After spending summer and winter as tiny dormant buds in the soil, they then emerge again the next spring. The first flowers usually come in the third year from sowing.

Time to see in flower: April-May

  • Dodecatheon Meadia, C T Johansson (CC BY 3.0)
    , C T Johansson (CC BY 3.0)

Castilleja integra, ‘wholeleaf Indian paintbrush’

Another from North America, this time from the south-west. Also, a slight tease as it isn’t in the display just yet. The reason for this is it’s a hemiparasitic plant that draws most of its nutrition from the roots of other plants which is tricky to establish in cultivation.

We’re currently growing this in the nursery by allowing it to attach itself to pots of Canadian fleabane. The plan is to introduce some pots like this into the display this autumn. We would allow the roots time to make contact with other plants in the display, then remove the fleabane once the Castilleja has established on other host plants.

It usually parasitizes grasses in the wild, so we’re hoping this preference will help wean it off its current dependence on the fleabane once we plant out.

Time to see in flower: June-September

  • Catilleja integra, Wikicommons (in public domain)
    , Wikicommons (in public domain)

Echinacea pallida, ‘pale purple coneflower’

This is one of the real stars of the North American section of the display. Echinacea purpurea, along with its hybrids, is more familiar in UK gardens but Echinacea pallida is a wonderful, strong-growing plant with pale pink, drooping petals. Slugs and snails are a problem with Echinaceas while they’re young so checking the sides and bottoms of pots was a regular job when we were growing these. As you can imagine, a few thousand pots squeezed together provided plenty of hiding places for hungry critters.

Time to see in flower: June-July

  • Purple Coneflower, SEWilco (CC BY 3.0)
    , SEWilco (CC BY 3.0)

Cotyledon orbiculata var dactylopsis, 'pig's ear'

This fleshy-leafed succulent from South Africa was one of the few plants we propagated from cuttings rather than seed. A few people have mistaken this for an Aloe in the display, presumably because of the long, tapering, fleshy leaf. Cotyledon orbiculata’s usual leaf form is actually ovate like its close relative, the popular houseplant Crassula ovata, the Jade plant. They are quite different though and we have a breed with cylindrical leaves, hence its variety name: dactylopsis meaning ‘looking like a finger’.

Time to see in flower: July-September

  •  Pig's Ear, Noodle snacks (CC BY-SA 2.5)
    , Noodle snacks (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Bulbinellaeburniflora, 'Bleekkatstert'

This beautiful, fleshy-rooted plant with striking white flower spikes occurs in the Renosterveld and Fynbos plant communities in South Africa. It is listed as vulnerable in the wild, where its habitat is threatened by agriculture and livestock grazing.

We produced ours from seed but got satisfactory germination only at the second attempt. It germinates naturally as temperatures cool after the summer heat. Our initial summer sowing produced very little but an early autumn sowing a few months later, with warmth during the day but cooler nights, brought a good number of seedlings.

As well as Bulbinella eburniflora we are growing plants of its relatives Bulbinella latifolia and Bulbinella nutans. All are currently growing on the nursery standing ground and should be introduced to the display in autumn or spring, another incentive to keep coming back to see this dynamic, changing display.

Time to see in flower: July-August

  • 800px-Bulbinella_latifolia_var._doleritica_0zz, David Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0-
    , David Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0-

The Colour Wheel

Inspired by Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, horticulturist Nick Gadd has devised a planting scheme to recreate a colour wheel using bedding plants in our Sunken Garden. We caught up with him to find out how.

With nature offering so many colourful plants, how did you choose which ones to include?

We had to choose plants to match particular tones of the colour wheel – the challenge is to achieve the right shade of yellow, not just any yellow for instance. We’ve also chosen plants with a long flowering season, or those that flower repeatedly.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (9), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

How did you cope with green? Are there green flowers?

For the green and yellow-green segments we’re using two plants chosen for the colour of the foliage rather than their flowers – Carex comans ‘Phoenix Green’ and Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Wizard Golden’.

How many individual plants make up each slice?

Because we’ve applied the colour wheel design on to a rectangular area the segments vary in size. The larger corner segments will take about 590 plants each, while we’ll only need around 340 plants in the smaller segments. It’s about 30 plants per square metre.

How many of them were grown on site?

We’ve had to grow the plants for the two green segments on site as they aren’t conventional bedding plants which means they’re not easily available commercially in the size and quantity we need.

Will all the colours flower at the same time? When will the garden be at its best?

There’ll be a good period when all the flowers will bloom simultaneously – roughly from the end of June once it has had a chance to establish itself and then throughout the summer. Some will flower sooner, so we’ll keep deadheading them to encourage more flowers while we wait for the other plants to ‘catch up’.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (4), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

Thank you to The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association for funding this display.

Get the Horniman look

Has the sun got you in the gardening mood? Want to see your garden burst into life with a dazzling array of colours?

Choose from some of our favourite plants from around the Gardens to get that Horniman look in your own backyard. Or if you've not got the green thumb simply visit our Gardens and see what we've got blooming.

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna)

The spring gentian may not be the biggest flower but it makes up for its unassuming stature with an incredible, vivid, blue colour. The spring gentian ranges from Ireland to Russia, but is currently only found in Teesdale in the wild in this country.

The gentian is known to attract butterflies and bees for pollination so is a great addition to any garden.

  • Spring Gentian, Spring gentian (Gentiana verna), Benjamin Cook
    Spring gentian (Gentiana verna), Benjamin Cook

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

The purple coneflower is a native of North America and a relative of the sunflower. You can find it in our pollinator bed. As its name suggests it produces purple flower heads which are a hit with pollinators.

The flower has long been used by Native Americans to treat various illnesses and the flower is still cultivated today for pharmaceutical use as it is believed to stimulate the immune system.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Andrea Benson
    Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Andrea Benson

Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)

Given that its epithet references an ancient Turkish town, it is commonly known as the Maltese cross or the Flower of Constantinople, and that it originates from the steppes of Eurasia – it may surprise you to know that the Lychnis chalcedonica is also the county flower of Bristol.

As well as being a great conversation piece, the Maltese cross adds a spice of red to any display and a unique pattern too.

  • Planting for pollinators: help save the bees and butterflies, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)
    Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)

Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

If you’ve got the space for lilacs at home we’re very jealous. Lilacs bloom in early summer and produce flowers that can range from lilac to mauve to white. They also have a habit of produce more flowers in alternate years.

Lilacs originate from the Balkans but are now found across Europe and North America having been first introduced to European gardens due to trade with the Ottoman Empire.

  • Lilacs, Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), Benjamin Cook
    Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), Benjamin Cook


Camellias can grow as tall as sixty-six feet so be sure you’ve got plenty of space before you go planting these, but the large flowers they produce are well worth it.

Camellias originate from East Asia and have been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries. Camellias are also of huge importance to the world as the source of tea and tea oil.

  • Camellia, A blooming camellia, Benjamin Cook
    A blooming camellia, Benjamin Cook

How to be a curious entomologist

Our volunteer, Helen, tells us how an afternoon with the nationally renowned Richard Jones helped her catch the entomology bug. 

The Devonshire Road Nature Reserve tucked away in the middle of residential Honor Oak is a real gem of South East London and only a stone’s throw away from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On 22 July, Richard Jones, the nationally acclaimed entomologist, led a group of excited wannabee entomologists into the meadows of the reserve armed with nets, magnifying glasses, collecting pots and test tubes to boot.  

Richard explained the right technique for using the nets, sweeping across the flora and grasses casting our nets far and wide to ensure a good catch to put in our test tubes.  We were advised to let go of species that had already been identified, particularly Bumble Bees and Butterflies and take back to the lab those insects useful for education and research that could be identified and ultimately added to the national database.  We were already feeling like debutante entomologists.

We were shown how to humanely kill our specimens with a form of ether, ethyl acetate, and to prepare and focus our microscopes so we could do the curatorial bit of mounting and labeling our bugs.

Picking up the array of micro pins with tweezers, a vital bit of kit used for spiking the smallest of insects required a great deal of care, patience, and a steady hand when working with the microscope.  For the flatter specimens, mounting them on card with a gum glue was the preferred method before adding data labels to our specimens. We had now become real citizen scientists.

As I left the nature reserve, with a spring in my step and renewed interest in plant bugs, leaf bugs, tortoise bugs, green shield bugs, the soldier beetle, picture-wing flies, and hoverflies – their facts and figures buzzing inside my head, I couldn’t help but feel that life just got a whole lot more curious!


13 Facts About the Horniman Gardens

The Horniman Gardens have been awarded their 13th consecutive Green Flag Award – one of a record-breaking 1,797 UK parks and green spaces in 2017 to receive the prestigious award, the mark of a quality park or green space. To celebrate, we’ve gathered together our 13 favourite facts about the Gardens…

1. Frederick Horniman first opened his garden to the public in 1895, and when he gave his new museum to the people in 1901, the gift included the ‘pleasure gardens’, intended as ‘a pleasant retreat for the visitors after an inspection of the collections themselves’.

2. There have been many changes since then. Over the years there’s been a wishing chair, tennis courts, a water garden, a putting green, and of course the boating lake, the base of which remains at the bottom of Meadow Field.

3. The Horniman’s Nature Trail is the oldest in London. It runs on the site of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway which closed in 1954. The area was left untended until 1972, becoming a wild woodland. Now carefully managed, the Nature Trail has just received its ninth Green Flag Community Award.

4. Two trees were planted in the Gardens in 1937 to commemorate King George VI’s coronation, as noted in the Royal Record of Tree Planting from the time (page 247). See if you can spot the Purple Beech and Double White Flowering Cherry next time you visit.

5. Our current tree-planting programme includes rare and endangered trees. The Wollemi Pine in the Prehistoric Garden and a recently planted Sapphire Dragon Tree are both Critically Endangered species.

6. The Gardens are also home to other declining or protected species of plants and wildlife – look up and see if you can spot some mistletoe, or down to keep an eye out for stag beetles (be sure to record any sightings).

7. An ecological survey of the Library building’s green roof recorded 52 insect species living there, including a rare type of ant and other unusual species. We also have a living roof on our Pavilion. And, no, we don’t mow them!

8. 97% of our Gardens’ waste is turned into compost on site, and reused for soil improving and mulching. Food waste from the Horniman Café is also composted and used in the Gardens as a liquid fertilizer. Yum.

9. 16 acres can take a lot of watering in hot weather – but 187,000 litres of waste water from the Aquarium’s water filters are reused in the Gardens each year. It has too many impurities for sensitive fish and corals but is perfect for plants.

10. The formal planting in the Sunken Gardens is changed twice a year, for spring and summer. The current design, by Apprentice Gardener Ian, features more than 5,000 salvias, marigolds, cinerarias, and cannas, and took the Gardens team seven days to prepare and plant out.

11. The Tea Clipper Rose was created by David Austin for the Horniman in 2006 to mark the centenary of founder Frederick Horniman's death. Named for his tea-trading heritage, you can see these apricot-coloured blooms beside the sundial overlooking the Sunken Garden.

12. One of the newest areas of the Gardens is the Butterfly House, which opened this summer. More than 500 plants create this tropical environment providing habitat, food for caterpillars and nectar for hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

13. Over the summer we’ve been growing 20 varieties of pumpkins and squash in the Display Gardens. They’ve just been harvested – and some of them are whoppers. Watch out for them in a seasonal display, coming soon.

New Ornamental Grass Border for Horniman Gardens

Award-winning plantsman Neil Lucas has designed a new ornamental grass border now on display in the Horniman Gardens.

Over the past few weeks, the Gardens team has been hard at work planting a new border of ornamental grasses in the Horniman Gardens.

Grasses from around the world will feature in a new design by specialist plantsman Neil Lucas, a recognised authority on ornamental grasses and owner of Dorset's Knoll Gardens

  • , New ornamental grass borders on display in the Horniman Gardens.
    New ornamental grass borders on display in the Horniman Gardens.

Neil – holder of 10 consecutive Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medals – has created a bespoke design for the Horniman that highlights 20 different varieties of grasses planted in regular-shaped blocks, for a bold visual effect.

Currently surrounding the Horniman’s seasonal pumpkin patch, the border will, in time, frame a more naturalistic central display garden, which will be linked to the opening of our World Gallery in 2018.

About the Art: Wind Organ

We spoke to Ali Miharbi to learn all about his new 'Wind Organ' installation which can be found in the Horniman Gardens.

  • Ali_Miharbi_Wind_Organ_Horniman_300dpi (002), Delfina Foundation− © Delfina Foundation
    , Delfina Foundation

What the materials are that the pipes are made of?

They are made of stainless steel pipes.

How tall they are and their maximum width?

Each of them is 3 meters tall, but there is an additional 75 cm part that is underground to hold them in place. The maximum diameter of the pipes that they’re made of is 7 cm. There are also 2cm and 4cm sections and the poles that support them are also 4cm.

How are the different vowel sounds created by the pipes?

When the wind flows through the slots, the pipes are played by the wind, like a side-blown flute is played. Different combinations of pipe diameters act as filters and change the characteristics of the sounds. Each pole carries three separate flutes welded on top of each other. They face different directions so that they can capture a wider range of wind directions.

How long did each pipe take to make?

Altogether the production took less than a month, but the preparation was longer. There was a period of a few months for testing different materials and techniques by building prototypes. Also, the idea was a result of much earlier projects that used air compressors instead of wind

What inspired this installation?

The Wind Organ is a continuation of my ongoing interest in the materiality of sound, information, and its relationship with space. My solo exhibition at Pilot Gallery in Istanbul in April 2017 was entitled "Pneuma" and revolved around the subjects of wind, voice, breath, the routines as well as the unexpected of everyday life for which weather was not only a metaphor but also a component that sometimes literally flowed through the work. Getting out of the gallery space and experimenting with the wind directly was something I had been thinking for a while and I had been doing research about aeolian harps (there is one in the Horniman Museum collection that I saw during my residency at Delfina foundation in Winter 2017) and other instruments played by the wind, and as an extension of my previous work, I had the idea to connect the voice-like sounds I have been experimenting with, with an instrument played by the wind. Not only the musical instrument collection and the gardens, but also other collections of the museum such as the natural history department all resonated with these ideas.

How did you go about creating it? What different iterations did you go through with this piece?

First came the rough idea where there were many different options for the technique, some of them unknown at the beginning. Then came research. At the end, practical tests gained speed, but they were always informed by what people have done and found out earlier in many other fields such as experimental music instrument building, the acoustics of speech, and aeolian instruments - both contemporary and traditional.

Was the result what you expected?

More and less, but when everything was finished, the final feeling of watching and listening to it had an unpredictable and unexpected aspect which is is a nice thing to have.

What would you like people to think of or consider when they experience the sound or see the installation?

I think this is one of those pieces that speaks for itself, as long as there is some breeze giving it a voice. Even if people would watch and listen to it without knowing that the shapes they see were designed after vowel resonators, they still wouldn’t miss much.

This installation is in our Gardens. How important are nature and the outdoors to your work?

Since this is an instrument played by the wind, it is crucial that the piece is outdoors and directly influenced by the wind. But this is the first time I am making such an outdoor installation. A lot of my previous works consisted of indoor installation and many of them required electricity to function.

Be sure to visit the 'Wind Organ' before 26 November 2017.


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