A visit from 71st Beavers

One of 71st Reading Beavers looking at Water hyacinth.

Ben, one of 71st Reading Cubs looking at Water hyacinth.

Monday afternoon was grey, cold and wet but the Reading 71st Beavers and their helpers braved the weather to walk to our tropical glasshouse.  Thick coats were soon shed and the children had a chance to look around and interact with the tropical plants.  The group arrived just after 5pm to make use of the remaining daylight and luckily their walk across campus coincided with a break in the heavy rain.

The keen band of children were ready to explore the tropical ‘jungle’ and discover more about the fascinating world of plants.

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Dendrochilum filiforme Lindl.

The plant of Dendrochilum filiforme in the tropical glasshouse.

The plant of Dendrochilum filiforme in the tropical glasshouse.

This diminutive orchid is commonly known as the Golden Chain Orchid, a name it shares with a few close relatives.  The plant in our glasshouse was donated by a keen plantsman who grows a range of exotic species and is now flowering for the first time.

The small plant arrived  in late summer 2013 and was potted in a mix of equal parts Seramis: Orchid Bark: Sphagnum in a clay pot, and stood on capillary matting watered with rainwater.  Glasshouse temperatures range from as little as 8C on winter nights to highs of 30C on Summer days.  The plant is said to be an easy orchid species to grow and it has certainly survived well with us so far.

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More on bananas

We grow two types of banana in the tropical glasshouse, the pink, seed containing, Musa dasycarpa, and the much larger edible banana with small yellow seedless fruit for which we do not know the cultivar.

Our yellow fruited banana cultivar on show at MERL Villagae Fete

Our yellow fruited banana cultivar on show at MERL Village Fete

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Welcome Richard Higgins, our latest BSc researcher in Tropical Biodiversity

Richard getting to know the plants in the glasshouse

Richard getting to know the plants in the glasshouse

A new round of BSc research projects have just started for 2014/15 academic year.  Richard Higgins will be working with Paul Hatcher and Alastair Culham on the monitoring and management of Mealy bug in the tropical glasshouse.  Continue reading

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Horse tales: all about Equisetum myriochaetum

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What’s named after a horse, older than a horse and can keep you warm in winter? So-called because of their bristly appearance, the horsetails are an intriguing group of early plants that have existed since the Devonian period [1]. Fossil … Continue reading

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MERL Village Fete

The Museum of English Rural Life held its annual Village Fete  on Saturday 31st May.

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The Herbarium was represented in the form of a tropical food plants display showing some of the plants we grow in our tropical glasshouse. The first challenge was to cram a whole plant stand into a small van.  Things seemed pretty quiet at 7am when I arrived to set up.

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The roll of honour included one of our edible bananas in full fruit, the pink banana, sugar cane, pineapple in fruit, four varieties of sweet potato, scotch bonnet peppers, turmeric, arrowroot, taro, and Grains of Paradise.  Each had an interpretive card to explain the use of the plant and provide some basic facts.  Once the fete opened we soon built up a curious audience.

 

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Highwood Primary School discovers roots, stems and leaves

Hioghwood School meet the tropical flora to study Roots, stems and leaves

Highwood School pupils meet the tropical flora to study roots, stems and leaves

Standing amongst the dense foliage of  large exotic plants with the smells of damp earth and fragrant leaves around me, the sun cooking the air, I tried to explain to a group of pupils from Highwood Primary School why plants are exciting, why we cannot live without them and how the basic parts of ‘roots, stems and leaves’ function and fit together to form living organisms.

The visit started with an email: “We are learning about the functions of the different parts of plants (stem/roots /leaves) and the conditions plants needed to survive.” – can you help?

The large leaf of a banana tears in the wind but does not break.

The large leaf of a banana tears in the wind but does not break.

The request came in from Highwood Primary School, just down the road in Woodley.  The class was dealing with that part of the National Curriculum for Science in England that deals explicitly with plants (although many other areas of science can use plant-based experiments) at  Key stage 1 & 2. The basic requirements are that “pupils should be taught to: identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants, including deciduous and evergreen trees,  and identify and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including trees.”

The sinister carnivorous leaves of the butterwort (Pinguicula) and pitcher plant (Nepenthes)

The sinister carnivorous leaves of the butterwort (Pinguicula) and pitcher plant (Nepenthes)

While it you might think that a tropical glasshouse is not the ideal place to see ‘a variety of common flowering plants’ you would be very wrong.  Tropical plants include rice, sugar (cane), sweet potato, pineapple, bananas, black pepper and a range of other things we meet every week in the supermarket.  Access to such a wide variety of plants that form part of our everyday diet opens many opportunities to engage children with new information through exploration of familiar things (food) in an unfamiliar (exotic) surrounding (the tropical growing environment).

Highwood School look at the pond and it's floating plants while adapting to the warmth of the glasshouse.

Highwood School look at the pond and it’s floating plants while adapting to the warmth of the glasshouse.

Walking in from a warm early summer day on our green campus to the close heat in which these plants grow so well, the Highwood pupils realised that conditions comfortable to tropical plant growth are not necessarily comfortable for most people.  Some had visited Asia or Africa and were excited to see plants from local markets, others were looking around to find a point of reference and picked up on the pineapple growing in its prickly rosette and the young green bananas towering above us all.

The dense tropical displays give a very immersive feel to our glasshouse visits.  Standing around the pond in the middle of the glasshouse one is surrounded by large exotic leaves, some from familiar plants and others from plants grown nowhere else in the UK.

Roots, stems and leaves…

The underground stem of Turmeric gives curries their yellow colour - but take care, fresh Turmeric also stains your skin yellow!

The underground stem of Turmeric gives curries their yellow colour – but take care, fresh Turmeric also stains your skin yellow!

The most obvious stem-like stem was that of our sugar cane plant which forms a dense clump reaching from the ground to hit the roof 5 metres above our heads.  Sugar cane is a solid grass stem, the central pith cells are very sugar rich, and very tasty in sunny weather.  However not all stems are so obvious, sprouting from the ground at the base of the sugar cane is our Ginger plant.  The stems of that are all underground with only leaves showing above.  A quick grub around soon turned up some fresh ‘root’ ginger which is the underground storage stems of the plant.  Turmeric shows the same growth form and has spectacular orange rhizomes.  A more conventional stem is that of the banana which has tough fibres giving it great flexibility.

The fibres in the banana stem give it great resilience and flexibility.

The fibres in the banana stem give it great resilience and flexibility.

We then moved on to study leaves and shared the excitement of chopping down a bana plant that had finished fruiting so that we could all see that the stem like structure was actually made of leaves wrapped around each other.  The largest leaves in the greenhouse (banana) measure over 4m long while some of the smallest include tiny orchids with leaves only 4mm long. Other leaves show great variety including the water resistant waxy leaves of cocoyam and the insect eating leaves of sundews, butterworts and pitcher plants.  As well as different textures leaves show a range of different smells from the rather wet smelling taro leaf to the highly fragrant Grains of Paradise.

The long roots of water lettuce are admired by curious Highwood pupils

The long roots of water lettuce are admired by curious Highwood pupils

Roots were illustrated with the sweet potato plants, some epiphytic orchids (that have fleshy green roots) and the very long underwater roots of the water lettuce and water hyacinth.

Many pupils took home small samples of sugar cane, banana stem, and  Grains of Paradise leaves.  There was a huge and intelligent range of questions asked and it was clear that the pupils had prepared well for their visit.

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