Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hanging out with Naturalists

I enjoy the opportunity to learn and discover each time I’m in Cambridge, from the open university lectures to the technology society meetings to the networking events.  Everything is gathered together daily on the Talks.Cam website, really a good place to start if you are going to be visiting and want to find a tour or talk.

This week, for example, the local Chemical Society presented an overview of medicinal compounds derived from plants.  The talk took place at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where a professor has established an interpretive walk to highlight useful plants being grown in their collection.

mapThe gardens were founded in 1831 and cover 40 acres  just outside of town.  They are unique in being a preserve for trees as well as for flowering plants and herbs: the paths wind through a forest of mature varieties brought to Cambridge by explorers over the past 150 years.  The Herbaceous Beds group varieties within a family together so that you Medicinal plantscan see the relatives of the tomato, distinct from onions, distinct from mints, all gathered together.  (New genetic profiling is revealing that groupings based simply on appearance are, in fact, incorrect, so the entire area is undergoing rearrangement and renaming).

The tour took place after closing, in windy, rainy twilight, led by a naturalist and the chemist who established the trail.  He was armed with an interpretive book; she had sheets of chemical diagrams (all available here).  It’s sort of quirky British fun and education: the usual academic traits of competitive deference gave the Q&A some spice over who knew the most trivia.

For visitors unused to cavorting with naturalists, these events throw back to a time, not so long past, when a working knowledge of plants, weather, animals, and soils was a basic component of common education.  ‘not something I’ll ever be good at (despite the attempts of the Dutch to make me a gardener in my inburgering course), but I can appreciate the knowledge and passion of those who thrive on it.