Ian Edwards

Mar 202017

As the After the Storm exhibition continues to attract a large and appreciative audience in the John Hope Gateway, this week we are launching the much anticipated After the Storm publication. This attractive hardback publication has been designed by Alex Simpkin in collaboration with the exhibition co-ordinator Jenny Salmean. The book features photographs of After the Storm furniture pieces by Pavel Tamm, shot in the Garden on a lovely frosty week in December in the place where the original tree stood.
The book includes essays by Robert Penn (author of The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees) on forest bathing, Jonathan Rose (chair of the Scottish Furniture Makers Association) on his tsunami cabinet and myself, Ian Edwards, on the importance of disturbance in driving change. A photo essay by Patricia Macdonald on regeneration includes an aerial view of the braided river at Glen Feshie that is currently on show in the John Hope Gateway and the National Portrait Gallery.
The book attempts to link the themes of storms, regeneration and resilience with current issues in health and the environment. It argues that cultural and biological diversity are not luxuries but essential elements for restoring systems damaged by trauma of all kinds.
The book concludes with ‘Foremost among the creative crafts that we must protect to future-proof our planet is working with wood … which has the unique ability to capture carbon in perpetuity and thus contribute to establishing a more stable environment to the benefit of all life.’
The After the Storm book is available from the John Hope Gateway or on the RBGE Shopify site (https://rbge-publications.myshopify.com/) price £10. The exhibition continues in the Gateway until the 28 May 2017 admission free.

Jan 312017

Storm Connor over the British Isle (Jan 2016)

Storm Connor blasted the North-East of Britain with 90 mph winds over the Christmas holidays, just days before the fifth anniversary of Cyclone Andrea. Over the same period the Arctic ice sheet was at its lowest ever winter extent since records began in 1978 and snow fell in the heart of the Sahara desert for the first time in 37 years.

Scientists predict that extreme weather will become more frequent and that in future we can expect wild fluctuations in the climate across the globe. Adapting to this unpredictable weather, and the resulting flooding, drought and fires, is likely to be the greatest challenge facing life on Earth.

The key to adaptability is diversity. We are unable to predict what landscapes, species or gene pools are going to be essential for rebuilding ecosystems affected by traumatic disturbance. Nor are we able to say what creativity or particular skill-sets may be needed to help society survive a climate-challenged future. Best to heed the words of Aldo Leopold who said ‘to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering’.

Foremost among the creative crafts that we must protect to future-proof our planet is working with wood, especially the making of enduring furniture which has the unique ability to capture carbon in perpetuity and thus contribute to establishing a more stable environment to the benefit of all life.

The After the Storm exhibition, currently showing in the John Hope Gateway until May, presents examples of work from Scotland’s finest furniture makers and designers. All of the pieces in the exhibition are made from storm damaged timber from the RBGE and all of them are destined to become heirloom pieces. Now take the price of each unique piece, next divide by the number of years it will continue to give enjoyment to generations of owners and then appreciate the value for money that bespoke, hand-crafted furniture represents!

Detail from Simon Whatley’s Span Table (2016)

Dec 212016

Images from Nacadia, a therapy garden at Horsholm Arboretum, Denmark


Gardening is good for you, and it is now official. The use gardening in the treatment of psychiatric patients goes back to the nineteenth century and Thrive and its Scottish Offshoot Trellis have been focusing on horticultural therapy for nearly 40 years. Now a recent commissioned study by the Kings Fund (www.kingsfund.org.uk) has considered all of the evidence for the benefit of gardens and gardening on health and have concluded that gardening has a positive impact on people suffering from various mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression. I am writing this blog in Denmark where colleagues at the University of Copenhagen are carrying out active research in this area. They have accumulated evidence to show that even the most serious cases of stress, former soldiers who have developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of active service in war zones, can benefit from time spent on a ‘green therapy’ programme based at the tranquil Nacadia arboretum at Holsholm.

Further work supported by the municipality of Kolding in Denmark has focused on a variety of groups including people on long-term sick leave in both the private and public sector and they are using various techniques, including mindfulness training, within the confines of a woodland area to help people get fit for work. HR departments as well as the health service can see the benefit of this approach to getting people back in employment and are supporting the initiative.

What is the mechanism through which gardens and gardening can improve mental health and wellbeing? The New Economics Foundation ‘five ways to wellbeing’ provides the answer. An active gardening programme, like the Edible Gardening Project supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery at the RBGE, allows participants to exercise all five ways to wellbeing and therefore help safeguard their mental health in the face of the knocks that life brings. They connect with others in the project, with the public and with their families through bringing home food to share. They are able to take notice of things around them, the seasonal changes and enjoy the anticipation of harvesting and eating the fruits of their labour. There are opportunities to learn from staff and volunteers, and to give to others through the sharing of knowledge and produce. In addition to the social benefits there are also the physical aspects, especially the opportunity to be active in all weathers, and get the exercise and healthy food a body needs.

The current exhibition in the John Hope Gateway, After the Storm, focuses on the positive legacy of storms, like the cyclone that hit Edinburgh and much of Scotland on 3 January 2012. We also want to use this project as a springboard for further work on helping people recover from personal trauma and use contact with green spaces to inspire positive ideas of regeneration, building resilience to face life’s inevitable storms. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, who have been a valuable partner during recent years, have provided some seed funding to develop our involvement in developing this important aspect of our community programme, and Edinburgh and Copenhagen universities have also expressed their interest in becoming involved.

Work-related stress, depression and mental health issues associated with ageing are all on the increase in Scotland. The RBGE on its own may not be able to stem this increase but in partnership with others we aim to contribute towards an understanding of the benefits of gardens and gardening on health and, ultimately, to managed our own precious green space as a sanctuary for those needing an opportunity to recover from personal storms that have disrupted their lives.

Nov 232016
Cyclonic Side Tables by Alasdair Wallace photographed in the RBGE by Pavel Tamm

Cyclonic Side Tables by Alasdair Wallace photographed in the RBGE by Pavel Tamm

I last wrote a blog about the After the Storm Project back in February this year and a lot has happened since then. The 12 Scottish furniture makers who were selected to take part in the exhibition have all been very busy in their workshops transforming the rough boards salvaged from the wind-damaged timber left after Cyclone Andrea into beautiful pieces of fine furniture. As you can probably imagine not all of the timber we planked and seasoned was suitable but in the end five trees yielded wood that meet the quality required for making furniture and fortunately this gave the craftsmen an interesting variety of colours, textures and patterns to work with. Further interest has been added to the wood by using different preparation and finishing techniques including smoking and charring the wood and applying different oils and waxes.

This week as all the pieces have finally been delivered and unwrapped it has felt like Christmas had come early. It has been exciting to see how 12 individual makers have interpreted our theme of storms, regeneration and resilience in so many intriguing and creative ways. The results have certainly exceeded my expectations in terms of quality and originality and are on a par with anything we have ever shown in the past. The Scottish Furniture Makers Association should be very proud of the talent they have nurtured in here in Scotland.

Still Water Side Table by Daniel Lacey (detail)

Still Water Side Table by Daniel Lacey (detail)

After the Storm follows in the wake of a number of highly successful furniture exhibitions at RBGE which began with Tim Stead’s Botanic Ash, presented in the Caledonian Hall in 1993; followed by onetree (2001), The Wych Elm Project (2009) and OneOak (2012) – working with a variety of partners. These previous exhibitions all focused on products from a single tree, a theme taken up again recently by Robert Penn in his excellent book The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees. After the Storm is the first time that a group of furniture makers have been invited to create something out of trees from a single event, and to celebrate the legacy from what at the time was universally regarded as a tragedy.

We are leaving another legacy of the storm in the form of a publication. Each of the pieces is being photographed in the Garden, as close as possible to the place where the original tree was uprooted, by master photographer Pavel Tamm. These images with their poignant juxtaposition between new life from old timber, and new growth emerging in an old Garden, will be published in the form of an ‘art book’ featuring essays on the theme of regeneration and resilience, including one by Robert Penn. This book should be available by Christmas and the exhibition After the Storm opens on 2 December in the John Hope Gateway and runs until May next year.

Oct 062016


Strings of Prayer Flags or Lung ta are a common sight on mountain passes across Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. The coloured flags are printed with prayers that are believed to be picked up by the wind and blown far and wide, spreading the messages of peace, goodwill and harmony far and wide. The colours of the flags are associated with the elements: blue symbolizes sky; white the air and wind; red fire; green water and yellow the earth.

The image on the right above shows a carved printing block in  wood from Bhutann featuring the wind horse symbol.
Strings of prayer flags that have appeared in the RBGE this week and the Autumn breezes will be helping to spread mantras of peace across our Garden and beyond. They coincide with our exhibition on the Flora of Nepal in the John Hope Gateway that celebrates 200 years of collaboration with Nepal through an exhibition of botanical paintings. The Lung ta have been sited near the new Nepalese plantings at the top of ‘stove brae’ near Inverleith House and will dramatically lit during Botanics Lights event to highlight our important association with botanical endeavour in the Himalayan region.
The spectacular Botanics Lights event Explore runs from 13 October to 6 November and you can find more information or book tickets on-line at www.botaniclights.co.uk

Feb 112016
Dalkeith oak

Dalkeith oak tree felled by Andrea in 2012

The After the Storm journey began on 3 January 2012 when Cyclone Andrea (described as a once in a lifetime event) swept across Scotland with winds reaching 100mph, blowing down thousands of trees in its wake. Some forests were left flattened and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh lost over 40 specimen trees. The vocabulary that was used to describe the aftermath of Andrea was taken directly from the language of war and few people anything positive to say about this traumatic event.

Then in 2014, at the preview of the annual Scottish Furniture Makers Association (SFMA) exhibition at the RBGE a conversation began on how the windblown trees from the storm might be used to make pieces for an exhibition which highlighted the beauty of Scottish-grown timber and the talent and craftsmanship among our Scottish furniture makers and designers. As plans for a joint RBGE/SFMA exhibition developed the focus shifted to other positive outcomes emerging from the great storm. Conversations with ecologists revealed how storms are essential for rejuvenating woodlands, creating gaps for regeneration and encouraging greater diversity of species and structure, building resilience and ultimately a healthier ecosystem.

With new partners the Forestry Commission and Edinburgh College of Art we began to explore ways of celebrating the role of storms which has led us, perhaps inevitably, to consider parallels with the human condition. People respond to traumatic changes in their life in the same was as woods: the pattern of devastation, recovery, regeneration and resilience is a familiar one. Our explorations have also considered the role diversity plays in post-traumatic recovery in both forests and people.

As these ideas evolved the partners, which now also included the Scottish Poetry Library, began to seek ways in which they could engage with artists and audiences to create positive and inspirational outcomes. The original proposal of an exhibition of furniture from storm-salvaged timbers has provided a starting point for creative ideas for community engagement which continue to grow and develop through the outreach of all the partners involved. One tangible outcome is a publication, providing a narrative on which to hang the project and documentation of explorations around the theme.

If you are interested in contributing in any way to this Project as it develops over the next 18 months please contact me at i.edwards@rbge.org.uk or follow me on twitter @idedwards  This is a good opportunity to get involved in something with a strong, inspirational message relevant to our time.

Dec 212015

Jamie TaggartJamie Taggart, who with his father Jim Taggart created the inspiring Linn Botanic Garden on the Rosneath peninsular, disappeared during a plant hunting expedition in North West Vietnam on 31 October 2013. This week sad news broke that Jamie’s body has been discovered two years and a month after he was last seen. There are no suspicious circumstances. It appears that Jamie, who was searching for high altitude plants, probably fell and was injured resulting in his death. Jamie Taggart was not the first plantsman to lose his life in pursuit of botany and his tragic death makes us all aware of the need to take all necessary precautions when working in remote and inaccessible places. Our sympathy is with Jamie’s family who have suffered so much in the past two years and especially his father Jim, who shared a passion for plants, and has lost not only his son but his creative partner in the vision of arcadia that they built between them.

I have written in a previous blog about the book Another Green World which is a remarkable collaboration between the artist Alison Turnbull and writer Philip Hoare that celebrates the charm and achievement of the Linn Botanic Garden. It is a wonderful intimate portrait of the Garden, and the father and son who have dedicated themselves to nurturing it. ‘For all their scientific rigour’ write’s Hoare ‘these two men – set a generation apart yet irrevocably linked by the botanic collection for which they bear collective responsibility – are as much artists as scientists. Linn is after all, a construction – perhaps even a romantic one. “People come here and say how natural it all is”, says Jamie. “No it’s not.”’

Gardens are not monuments and if we must classify them as heritage it is the kind of heritage that is perpetually changing. When I visited Linn earlier this year I felt it was in good heart but as Jamie noted a garden is hard work and when the effort slackens wild nature will inevitably return. No one knows what the long-term future of Linn Botanic Garden will be but I am sure that it will continue to be the inspiration to artists and scientists, as well as those want to escape into Another Green World, for years to come. Jim Taggart is a remarkable person and our hearts go out to him during these difficult times. I trust that he will find support he needs from the botanical and horticultural community that have benefited so much from the Taggarts and their Garden.

An exhibition by Alison Turnbull featuring images of Jim and Jamie Taggart and their Garden is in the John Hope Gateway until the end of January 2016. The Guardian review of Another Green World (Art Books, 2015) can be found on http://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2015/oct/15/linn-botanic-gardens-scottish-in-pictures-philip-hoare

Dec 152015

forestfamilies_60At this time of year parents are frantically trying to decide what to give their children for Christmas. Can I make a suggestion? As first proposed by pioneer conservationist Rachel Carson 60 years ago – give you child an experience they won’t forget, help them to discover the wonder in nature. Better known for her classic work on the threats of pesticides on the environment, Silent Spring, Carson also wrote an essay Help Your Child to Wonder for Woman’s Home Companion magazine in 1956. It was then republished as a book, a year after her death in 1965, under the title A Sense of Wonder and remains in print to this day.

IMG_0261Based on her experiences on the Maine Coast with her young nephew Roger, the message in this beautifully written piece, is quite simple and, remarkably, it is even more relevant today than when it was first written. Carson describes how young children are naturally curious but need an adult to encourage and support this basic need to explore, explain and wonder at nature. I have reread Carson’s words many times and find it as inspiring as ever, providing the ideal antidote to the commercialisation of childhood that the author could never have dreamed of.
A Sense of Wonder speaks to everyone, whether they are parents of small children or not, by reminding us that experiences are more valuable than things, and that close encounters with nature provide the most memorable and satisfying experiences that can be found in the most unexpected places. She promotes the idea that grown-ups should mentor the young, providing them with opportunities – a moon-lit walk along the shore or an adventure to the hidden depths of a forest – offering a rich, sensorial experience that will set the scene for a lifetime of discovering and enjoying nature.

‘If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,’

wrote Carson

‘ I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life’.

Carson was clearly able to hold on to that wonder herself into adult-hood and it expresses itself again and again in her prolific writings.

Her curiosity was kept alive by the companionship of the infant Roger and the acute senses of a young child aided her intimate explorations of the world. Our Nature Play project came to a similar conclusion. Young children don’t need to be taught how to explore nature, they just need to be led to a wild spot and they will play in their nature habitat.

To watch children discovering their sense of wonder in nature watch our short film from the Botanics Nature Play: Nature Conservation project


Nov 162015


One of the biggest changes to take place in botanic gardens in the 21st century has been the adoption of an expanded social role. Botanic gardens remain about plants and their conservation, but increasingly they have become about people as well. We understand that to tackle environmental challenges we need to first look at human behaviours. In my three decades of working in botanic gardens I have witnessed this positive trend from simply allowing access to our collections to embracing all sectors in the community and seeking to actively engage at all levels in our mission to understand and protect biodiversity.

This new enlightened approach within botanic gardens that recognises their role as agents of social change is the subject of a new review by Dr Bernadette Lynch entitled ‘How can Botanic Gardens grow their Social Role?’ Published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) it is both summary of the lessons learnt from the recent Communities in Nature programme and a call for action to the world’s 3000+ botanic gardens to develop their social role in tandem with their traditional work in plant conservation and display.

RBGE was pleased to be one of the botanic gardens participating in Communities in Nature study and to have its work highlighted in this important review. Our flagship Edible Gardening Project was established with support from the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery with the aim of supporting the growing, sharing and health benefits of home-grown food among a very broad range of people within the local North Edinburgh community. There have been many successes and a few disappointments along the way but through the Communities in Nature initiative we were able to feed these lessons directly into this review.

Dr Lynch explains how the CGF/BGCI project wanted to establish a ‘community of practice’ among botanic gardens and this network has provided us with a valuable forum for sharing ideas and experiences. At the beginning of the project some practitioners working on the front line of social inclusion felt that their efforts were not necessarily understood or appreciated at a more senior level. This has changed and now there is much more respect for community engagement and participation at the highest levels, including governing bodies and funders.

The review acknowledges that often in the past botanic gardens have been behind museums and galleries in developing their social role but it is also clear that some botanic gardens are catching up fast and the potential is huge. Botanic gardens practical places where hands-on skills remain in the forefront. This, perhaps, gives us an advantage when working with the community in areas of mutual concern like food, nutrition and health, in that we can and do engage in the most direct way through practical activities. Our experience in working with individuals and community groups is that direct contact with soil and plants is really valued in an age where so much experience is virtual.

There seems little doubt that as mental health problems overtake physical health problems in society that botanic gardens will have a vital role to play in promoting wellness and nurturing wellbeing in society. This a new challenge but also reflects our origins a physic gardens – gardens of health. Just as we responded to society’s needs back in the 17th century by growing medicinal herbs and training apothecaries, so must continue to adapt and to lead in our social responsibility by tackling the most prevalent modern ills as we strive to combat loneliness, anxiety and depression.

The new report by Bernadette Lynch on the social role of botanic gardens is available for free on line here: How can Botanic Gardens grow their Social Role?

RBGE is the People’s Postcode Lottery charity of the week, largely in recognition of its work in engaging communities in growing food and leading healthier lives, read more here.

Oct 242015


We have just had a facinating week visiting communities and wild places across Scotland with three Sami guests from the Far North of Sweden.

Greta and Linn Huuva, and Anders Hakansson have provided an introduction to Sami ethnobiology through conversations and shared tastings with Scottish chefs, wild food gatherers, fishermen, hunters and others involved in Scottish food. Of course we found much common ground – the flora of Norrbotten, although it lies north of the arctic circle, is broadly similar to the boreal flora of the Scottish Highlands and unsurprisingly many plants are used in the same way by Sami and Gael. However, it was the differences that proved to be of most interest.
Birch and pine are common trees in both regions but the Sami have many more uses for both trees than we know within the Scottish tradition. Greta was able to explain, for example, how she is able to make flour from the inner bark of Scots pine collected at midsummer and we tasted some of the bark bread she had made. There is no gluten in the bark flour so it is more suitable for a thin crisp bread which was good without any taste of turpentine which is removed by cooking. Monica Wilde our resident herbalist told us about the antiseptic properties of pine needles and Greta told us how she uses them to make a pine salt condiment.

Birch trees are tapped in Spring For sap in Spring on both sides of the North Sea but whereas Scottish foragers wil insert a tube into the main trunk of the tree (in the style used for tapping North American sugar maple) Greta has a less intrusive method. In my experience trying to make something approaching maple syrup from birch trees is a waste of fuel and effort because the raw sap has such low sugar content (there are technical reasons for this to do with the lack of diurnal temperature changes in our maritime climate). I agree with Greta it is better to drink the sap fresh for its refreshing taste, essential minerals and revitalising properties. To do this Greta cuts a pencil-thick side branch and then collects the free-flowing sap using a plastic bottle strung from cut end. A cup full of sap collected this way is a valuable Spring tonic.

Scottish forager, Mark Williams, and Greta Huuva shared an interest in the chaga fungus that infests birch trees. More abundant in the more continental climate of Scandinavia and Canada, in Scotland chaga is mostly found in the birch woods of the Cairngorms. We found a tree full of it in Nethy Bridge and Mark and Greta explained how they used it as an important health supplement, full of antioxidants, and Mark brewed some chaga tea flavoured with pine needles. Greta said when times were hard the Sami used chaga as a coffee-substitute – a revelation that caused the espresso-loving Italians in our party to screw up their noses!

Greta’s book Nature is My Kitchen is available from Varda. Our Highland tour was organised jointly with Scotland’s Natural Larder and supported by Think Local Scotland as part of Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink.