Interview - Simon Gulliver, Plant Collections Manager, Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses

You can tell that you are on to a good thing by the build up of plaque. Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses was awarded its blue circular disc last week for helping to nurture the talents of one of the city's most famous sons, whose name now graces that wall-mounted plaque.

Simon Gulliver - Plant Collections Manager -image:  Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses
Simon Gulliver - Plant Collections Manager -image: Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses

Ernest Henry Wilson has given Birmingham more than the dark-blue plaque, now hanging on a white wall near the garden entrance. "Chinese" Wilson, as he came to be known, was one of the world's most prolific and pioneering plant collectors, introducing 1,200 new species from 15 countries across three continents.

One-hundred years to the day since Wilson's fourth and final expedition to China, the plaque was unveiled in leafy Edgbaston. Simon Gulliver, the garden's new plant collections manager, gives due praise to the man who gave us 100,000 dried specimens of 5,000 species. But if Wilson, as Gulliver insists, is a role model, Birmingham Botanical Gardens is another kind of role model.

In this age of coalition-led austerity cuts and downsizing of the public sector, it is perhaps reassuring that Birmingham receives not a penny from central or local government. It makes do with funds from visitors, members and those using the gardens' conference facilities. It is also good for an educational charity that welcomes 20,000 school kids a year into its gardens and glasshouses.

"It will be interesting to see how much the green agenda is seen as a priority," says Gulliver, allowing his eye to wander from the 0.6ha gardens to the political landscape. "Or will it be seen as something that can be cut at a time when a strong green agenda is most needed? Liberals have always had a stronger green tradition, so let's hope that their influence carries on in that direction."

The need for green role models is great, insists, Gulliver, who cannot overstate the importance of Wilson to a city more famous for its heavyweight industry stalwarts Chamberlain and Cadbury. Like many of these people, Wilson was a self-made man - nursery boy at 13, director of Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum by 50 but dead at 54, killed in a car crash in 1930.

"Birmingham is often thought of as an industrial city, but it was also a centre for science and the plaque was given for his world contribution to horticulture. It's good to remind people that the city made its mark in areas other than business. He had a humble upbringing as a railway worker's son who earned 2/6d a day and did botany evening classes at technical college," says Gulliver.

"He's a great example of how people can make a real difference to their lives and maybe others' if they take opportunities and run with them. We see Wilson as an inspiration to our students - he's about history and the future. As a botanist and practical horticulturist, he struck the perfect balance between understanding science and knowing how to grow plants and preserve seeds.

"As a pioneering conservationist he understood the importance of trees. In the 19th century people saw the world as infinite and not really capable of being impacted by man. But Wilson had seen the damage of mass forest clearing for charcoal in China. His pioneering vision could see what an impact we can have on the planet."

Among Wilson's crowning glories was the introduction to this country of Davidia involucrata, the dove or handkerchief tree, and Lilium regale, regal lily. These came from China, where he made four visits to a feudal kingdom at the height of the anti-colonialist Boxer Rebellion. He also collected from New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Africa and Australasia.

Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses were designed by the leading garden planner, horticultural journalist and publisher John Loudon and opened to subscribers in 1832. Today the gardens take on around four trainees a year, some of whom end up at Kew. Others, like their famous forbear, go further afield. One alumnus is a conservation officer in the Ascension Islands. Others have ended up working full time or on placements in areas like New Zealand or Iceland.

"We were created 178 years ago to bring the wonders of the plant world to the people of Birmingham," says Gulliver. "It's still very much our duty to alert people to the conservation pressures that face the natural world and in particular plants. The reality of our lives is you can feel divorced from nature.

"Plants are very often forgotten about and regarded as little more than pieces of furniture," he says, banging the bench on the Loudon Terrace overlooking the sloping main lawn, bandstand and aviary.

He continues: "They are not. They are the foundation of our civilisation. Right here, you become reconnected. In a sense here is where plants and people come together to form partners for life."


1995-99: Quits IT to study a BSc in horticulture at Pershore college

1999-2000: Works at conservation charity Plant Heritage

2000-01: Studies a masters in plant taxonomy and biodiversity at RBG, Edinburgh

2002-05: Area supervisor, Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses

2005-10: Promoted to plant records officer and horticulture lecturer and then plant collections manager.

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