The Longwood Graduate Program class of 2012 was privileged to visit a diverse group of gardens in Oman, Abu Dhabi (UAE) and India. Travelling in January 2011, four very different floras were experienced covering desert, tropical, subtropical and mountain biomes, and gardens were visited with a historic range from the 15th to 21st centuries. In addition to seeing a wide variety of public gardens, the Fellows had opportunities to meet with upper-level management, researchers, and other staff to learn about their operations, thus gaining a global perspective of horticulture and public gardens management. Beyond the gardens themselves, the trip comprehensively fulfilled the Fellows’ objectives of gaining diverse cultural, environmental and historic perspectives.

An ambitious itinerary, and occasionally difficult travelling conditions, taught the Fellows much about working together as a group, supporting each other, and the challenges of leadership. They were exceedingly grateful for the accompaniment of Longwood Gardens staff, Dr. Matt Taylor, Research Horticulturist, and Ms. Pandora Young, Senior Gardener.

Beginning with Oman Botanic Garden (OBG) and Al Ain Wildlife Park (AAWP), the Fellows were able to see two exciting, modern conservation projects, both in the master planning and construction phases and each utterly different. OBG is seeking to conserve the complete flora of Oman in a living collection. To this end it has ongoing field collections, is engaged in a significant growing project, and is building a world-class botanic garden, complete with glasshouse biomes displaying three seasons simultaneously! In parallel with this, the Fellows’ host, Sarah Kneebone, has developed comprehensive interpretive and curriculum master plans.

AAWP is also engaged in a conservation exercise as it prepares to landscape safari scale animal enclosures to represent and conserve some of the worlds most threatened species. Each zone will be landscaped as the natural ecology of its animal group dictates, and AAWP is scouring the nurseries of the world to populate these landscapes. In each project, exceptional hospitality was matched with a comprehensive introduction and explanation of the project from all senior staff involved.

Flying from the Middle East to South India brought not only an environmental change from desert to tropical flora, but a huge cultural shift, too. The first visit, the National Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in Palode, Kerala, was shortened by an exhilarating bus ride through city, suburbs and rural villages that occurred because the driver was lost! Nevertheless, the Fellows learnt about the importance of the indigenous plant life for medical and food uses, together with the need to gather the knowledge of how to use these plants. Learning about the conservation challenges of over-collection, and the field projects seeking to catalogue and preserve what remains were a real highlight.

Flying north, the Fellows visited two historic gardens, Brindavan and Lalbagh Botanic Garden. The former is a re-creation from the 1930’s of the original terraced Mughal garden style. Staying in the Brindavan Orchid, a beautiful hotel in the garden, the Fellows were able to enjoy the relaxing interplay of fountains, lit for evening displays, and see the vast crowds who come to enjoy this garden. Lalbagh, in Bangalore, is a botanic garden established in 1760 by Hyder Ali and significantly expanded under British rule in the late 19th century. Lal Bagh’s crowning jewel is a beautiful glasshouse modelled on London’s Chrystal Palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851. A warm welcome from the Director, a tour of the garden school here, and amazing local food just outside the garden gate sent the Fellows contentedly on their way for the flight further north to New Delhi.

Wow! What a city. Nothing can truly prepare one for the sheer mass of humanity that is New Delhi. A rest day provided an opportunity to acclimatise culturally, do some shopping and visit some key tourist sites (Old Delhi, the Red Fort, India Gate and, again, amazing local restaurants). A visit to Lodi Gardens, a beautiful public park, was followed by the privilege of a private tour of the garden of Rashtrapati Bhavan – the palace of the President of India. After, somewhat surreally, walking down a corridor past her office (she was in – the flag was up), the director guided us through the Lutyens designed garden, explaining the design of the whole city radiating from this point, and turned on the fountain and music display for our personal delectation! The importance of landscape to architecture is perhaps nowhere more easily illustrated than at the location of the next visit – the Taj Mahal. There is little that can be said; the Taj rising out of early morning mist is just a magical and unexplainable joy.

The pre-dawn start enabled a brief visit to another mughal garden before boarding an overnight train. This was a garden requiring, and starting to receive, significant conservation work, the Ram Bagh, built by the Emperor Babur in 1528, and the oldest garden in India.

The next three days saw a whirlwind tour encompassing the National Botanic Garden and Research Institute (NBGRI), Lucknow, the Nek Chand Rock Garden, Chandigarh, and the Vice-regal Lodge, Shimla. Each was different in flora and objective, yet at each a warm welcome was received and appreciated. NBGRI provided an in depth view of a botanic gardens contribution to advanced sciences, and paved the way for possible future collaboration. Garden as art and social commentary is the focus at the Nek Chand rock garden, certainly the most unusual (dare one say, eccentric) garden the Fellows saw. Finally, at Shimla, the Fellows slept through a major earthquake before discussing the conservation plans of this historic garden, the site of the British-Indian conference that returned to India its independence.

At the end of a packed itinerary, the Fellows returned from India with a much greater appreciation of the range and role of public gardens in a very different part of the world.

The Fellows also recorded their experience in a travel blog that can be accessed here. Be sure to enjoy our overview video below, created by Raakel Toppila!