‘Everything in the garden continued to flourish while everything outside of the glass frames was quickly going to hell. This is something we all sensed: life as we knew it was over. The vines would continue to grow, but the humans that tended them were altered – and not necessarily in a subtle way.’
In the Summer of 2021 I was invited to document the dismantling of a one- hundred-year-old Sabal Palm in one of the oldest Glasshouses of the Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens.
The ancient Palm was pushing up against the glass roof and having outgrown the failing Victorian glass and steel structure that had contained it for over a century, was to be cut down. Its removal signalled the beginning of the largest living collection decant in the Garden’s 350-year history, as the national plant collections prepared to migrate to a new set of planned Biomes.
I began to photograph the interiors of the original Glasshouses, documenting the orchids and cycads, the jade vines and the rare magnolias. I photographed the snaking paths of overhanging vegetation that tracked through all of the interconnected spaces and studied the flora that both blossomed and withered at that time, largely out of public sight. In their empty state (the spaces are currently closed to everybody but horticulturalists and research staff) the Glasshouses remain a place of deep suspension. The leaves continue to unfurl and seeds to germinate, despite the pandemic chaos of the world outside.
During the first deep lockdown, I often thought about the gardeners there as they made their way from their homes through the empty streets of the city to the Gardens. If they stopped coming (that was not an impossible thing to imagine in 2020-21), would the plants grow uncontrollably? Would they push uncontrollably against the glass, force themselves out from underneath the steel frames that contained them? That’s – I decided – what would happen.
Would wild creatures (foxes were already at home in the wider gardens) gain access and roam through the space? If birds would enter and become trapped, would they batter their bodies against the glass panes of the walls, unable to find a way out? But none of that happened because the humans kept on coming. The complex heating systems were maintained; the water supply continued unabated.
The gardens outside were closed to the public but life in the Glasshouses remained largely the same. The uncertainty of the outside world was at dramatic odds with their lush and burgeoning interiors. Everything in the garden continued to flourish while everything outside of the glass frames was quickly going to hell. This is something we all sensed: life as we knew it was over. The vines would continue to grow, but the humans that tended them were altered and not necessarily in a subtle way.
The vast spaces of the original Glasshouses continue to remain in a state of perpetual slumber as the living collection awaits its move. Plants continue to grow profusely. Birds, insects and even small animals gain access to the glasshouses via cracks in its systems. Vines twist around the steel supports and the paths that wind their way through the entire network of spaces still hang with profuse vegetation. The environment is both dreamlike, fragile and soon to be part of the history of the city. A memory, a dream, a phantom orchid curling and unfurling in perfumed isolation.