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Stopping and Smelling the Qualup Bells

Ali Smith’s description of her childhood in Surrey, UK, immediately made me think she grew up in an Enid Blyton story; ambling through the countryside with her parents, playing among overgrown gardens, tending to vegetable patches – seemingly magical surrounds that gave rise to a lifelong passion for plants and a job many of us dream of. Today she is a Coordinating Horticulturalist in the WA Botanic Gardens of Kings Park and recently spent time in the Eden Project in Cornwall overseeing the construction of a new West Australian exhibition.

Eden project

Ali’s genuine passion for her work – the kind most people spend their lifetime seeking – was most evident from her palpable enthusiasm towards the scrubby heathland exhibition she helped establish in the Eden Project. As someone who grew up getting scratched by our scraggly flora I found that a little mystifying, so started with an obvious question: A scrubby heathland exhibition? You mean boring old WA bush?

No! The south-west of WA, from about Geraldton to Esperance is one of only 36 biodiversity hotspots on the planet. We have approximately 8,000 species of plant growing here, with about 60% growing nowhere else on earth. Yes, there is a perception that things are scratchy and prickly but there is so much beauty. These plants have evolved in utter isolation over a very long period of time, so they are unique in almost every way, from their flowers to all the ways they have adapted to survive in our environment, like some needing smoke for their seeds to germinate.

Eden

Great, so the idea of replicating this in the Eden Project was to allow English children to have the experience of getting poked in the eye by a stray grass tree spike?

Well one of the members of the Eden team visited WA a few years back and was just blown away with our biodiversity and the beauty of our flora. That was in about 2012 but it was a very long process to actually get it working. WA plants are very hardy when they are in our environment but they don’t travel well, so you can’t just dig them up and put them on a ship for 6 weeks without the proper care. What we had to do was grow most of these WA oddities from seed about 5 miles away from the biome and then transfer them. The grass trees in particular were tricky – even though it’s a WA exhibition we had to use eastern states varieties and then source them from international nurseries in Europe. And of course the Eden Project is a series of temperature controlled biomes – we’re in the Mediterranean biome – and you can’t allow pests in so everything not grown from seed needs to sit in quarantine for a year before being transferred.

This was all going on for a couple of years before we were ready to install the exhibition and that’s when I went over in May 2017 to help out. My role was to help place things so it was authentic and also display information so we can tell a story to visitors. That’s really what Eden is about – storytelling. In our area, the Kwongan bed, we have an Aboriginal meeting place where people can learn about WA and its history, and the whole place is part of a story about sustainability, opening people’s eyes to our impact on nature and not taking our environment for granted.

That’s also what we do at King’s Park. People are understanding the uniqueness and importance of our local environment and I think appreciating it a lot more, so for example we’ve recently removed some international beds and replaced them with more WA flora. In fact, we’re in the process of planting 26,500 plants from 3,000 species in the WA Botanic Garden over winter in preparation for the Kings Park Festival in September – it’s going to be amazing and each year more and more people come to see and appreciate what they grew up with, but probably don’t notice as much as they should. Not that they are all your side of the road flowers, we have a Curator in our Seed Centre who spends weeks driving around the state, sometimes even helicoptering into remote places just to get a sample of some tiny pocket of plant growing in the middle of nowhere, which we then replicate in our on-site nurseries.

Eden project

So do projects like these help change the public attitude toward our own backyard?

Absolutely. What’s really encouraging is that more and more councils are following our lead too and replacing the jacarandas, for example, with beautiful native Eucalypts and the like, so rather than King’s Park being the haven for these plants they are everywhere. And that’s changing on an individual level too. Not that long ago a lot of people were trying to recreate European gardens around Perth, which look spectacular but take so much water in our drying climate. Why not take advantage of our locals, which are just as breath-taking but don’t really need much attention?

To finish our chat I decide to ask what is clearly a futile question: What’s your favourite WA plant?

That’s impossible to answer! Every week I fall in love with something else, depending on the time of year. I love them all really, I’m looking forward to the Qualup Bells this year which will be amazing but everyone should come and see for themselves.

 The next time you’re in King’s Park take a moment to check out the floral clock near the entrance to the WA Botanic Gardens, and if you see someone trimming it lovingly it’ll most likely be the grown-up Ali, who’s mind will probably be back in her childhood garden in Surrey.

What’s the Eden Project?

Based in Cornwall, UK, its an educational charity that connects us with each other and the living world, exploring how we can work together towards a better future. It’s built in a huge crater with a series of striking biomes housing flora exhibitions from around the world. Learn more here.

Eden project