Who would have thought that the familiar annual, pot marigold, could change our approach to plant conservation and biodiversity? For Eddie Mole, Head of Horticulture at Bristol Zoo Gardens, it was the obvious plant around which to build the Bristol Community Plant Collection: a new and exciting project that has been running in Bristol for the last two years.
Eddie Mole’s plan was to set up a National Plant Collection with a difference. Rather than being grown in one place, seeds from the genus Calendula would be nurtured by schools and community groups around Bristol and then displayed in the Zoo Gardens. It would bring a new audience to the important conservation work of Botanic Gardens and to the joy of gardening.
Calendula was ideal for the job, as the small number of species within the genus would keep the Collection to a manageable size. It’s also easy to grow, and its many medicinal and domestic uses provide good learning opportunities for schools.
Early in 2012, Emma Moore, the project’s administrator embarked on a pilot study. Nine groups from around the city were offered training and given seeds and equipment. Emma says that the next few months ‘were an emotional rollercoaster’. One school garden was vandalised twice and a community group had to pull out of the project. Despite the problems, nine species of Calendula were grown successfully and the project continued.
The pilot study demonstrated to Emma that species of Calendula need the kind of attention that schools can’t always provide. Varieties are better able to cope with lack of attention at weekends and during half term. As a result, the four schools taking part in 2013 were given varieties to grow while the seven community groups concentrated on Calendula species.
As had been expected, the schools were full of enthusiasm from the start. Children were very excited to be growing plants for Bristol Zoo Gardens. However, no one had anticipated the effect the project would have on the quality of life of its older participants. Eddie Mole says that they ‘could see the benefits almost immediately’.
For one knowledgeable volunteer in her 80s, helping to run the pilot project at Robinson House Care Home made her feel ‘useful again’. Residents of Chard Court, a housing development for the over 50s not only started to communicate with each other but they also began to realise that conservation isn’t necessarily something ‘that other people do’.
Two years on, there’s nothing but good news. Bristol Zoo Gardens has been awarded Dispersed National Plant Collection status for its Calendula collection and the project is starting to attract attention from around the globe. It’s easy to see why. This enterprising endeavour is changing lives and offers so many possibilities for the future. It has shown that botanic gardens worldwide can expand their audience and engage with their local community. With the right training and supervision, schools and community groups can play an active and useful part in plant conservation.