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Cambridge Botanic Glasshouses

I’m really quite obsessed with glasshouses. It’s the coming together of two things I love - plants & architecture - and the idea of designing a space purely for the care and appreciation of plants. That ticks a lot of boxes for me.

After living in Singapore for five years - where I collected a fairly ridiculous amount of tropical plants, I now dream of building my very own glasshouse so that I can recreate my collection, safe from a British winter.

Until then you will find me visiting glasshouses and tropical conservatories whenever and wherever I can.

The Glasshouse Range at Cambridge University Botanic Garden is a real favourite of mine. There is something truly special about the space, as soon as I walk into the entrance it makes me feel calm and puts a smile on my face. Oh the power of plants! If I lived in Cambridge they would struggle to get me out.

I’ve been looking back through my photographs taken over several visits and it turns out I have almost five hundred photographs and videos so I am doing my best to edit and share them.

I’ve only been to the Cambridge Botanic Gardens during Autumn and Winter, but they have been bright sunny days, it gets pretty hot and steamy in the tropical glasshouses so I can only imagine how warm it is in Summer.

The Glasshouse Range is a series of glasshouses each with a different climate to suit each of the plant collections which are connected by a walkway. The glasshouses were part of the original plan in 1931 but were rebuilt in the 1930’s using Burmese teak. The buildings underwent a major refurbishment in 2005 but most of the original teak is thankfully still intact.

I’m quite obsessed with the patina of ageing wood and the combination of this against the vast  shades of green and variety of leaf shapes, the play of the light, shapes and shadows appeals massively to my personal aesthetic.

The mechanics of the window openings are beautiful and the straight lines of the architecture against the creeping curves of the plants creates the most incredible space to walk through.

I don’t doubt there is a huge amount of work by Cambridge University in the upkeep of the gardens and glasshouses,  but it has a sense of nature being left to its own devices, nothing is too manicured or perfect. This feels so right, particularly for a tropical collection. You cannot control it, nature always wins. Just as it should be!

My favourite glasshouses are the Tropical Rainforest and Tropical Wetlands, the heat and humidity hit you as you walk through the door, much like living in Singapore. And the huge Alocasia Giant Taros which remind of walking in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. I love that I can still get my fix of these incredible plants here.

I also really love the Arid Lands full of cacti and succulents, theres something about the absurdity of a cactus that I love, I am particularly fascinated with what happens when they hit the glass. My most recent visit was November 2023 and some were very, very close - I urgently need a visit back to see what happens next!

During my first visit to Cambridge Botanic Garden I saw the incredible Spiral Aloe. I was very taken with it and excited to then discover the seeds on Chiltern Seeds. I sowed my seeds, under very precise instructions, in May 22 and I now have two still rather small plants. One hopefully keeping warm and dry in the greenhouse, another on a window sill indoors over winter. I'm hedging my bets. They don’t actually start to spiral until they get to 40cm in diameter, so I have some waiting to do. But it will be worth it once they do!

I was also intrigued to discover the gardens has a ‘Bateson Walk’ yes it is seems to be missing a T, named after William Bateson a biologist and ‘father of genetics’. Perhaps he is a long lost relation and I have some kind of claim to the gardens! Now let me double check that family tree…

There is so much inspiration here for my own tropical glasshouse, a space I’m imagining double, triple height to allow for the vast growth of my collection. Perhaps with upper walkways like the Tropical Rainforest here and the Temperate House at Kew.

I can already imagine myself curled up under a towering palm with a good book, throwing cocktails parties amongst the foliage. The dream is real!

But for now I will continue my tour with visits to as many beautiful examples as I can.

Next stop is the Barbican Conservatory, which has been on my list for a while along with an architectural tour of the Barbican Estate. The juxtaposition of the brutalist architecture against the huge selection of lush tropical plants looks absolutely incredible. 

There goes another thousand photographs!

Let me know if you have any favourites, big or small that are worth a visit?

Chloé X


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