Portrait of a pear

One of my favorite trees at the Botanics is in bloom. I've been visiting recently trying to take its portrait, but the grey weather hasn't been cooperating. Then last weekend the clouds broke for a few minutes and I got the sun for which I hoped. 

This is Pyrus korshinskyi, the Kazhak pear. It is native to Kyrghystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but it seems quite at home in Edinburgh. Unfortunately this tree is critically endangered in its native habitat because of overgrazing damage by livestock and harvesting. 

This particular tree at the Botanics is listed on the Tree Register of the British Isles as the largest Kazhak pear in cultivation. 

I especially love the upright habit of its gnarled, lichen-covered branches and they way it seems to lift its blossoms skyward. It is truly spectacular and a rare tree that some day I hope to raise in my own garden. 

British Tits and other wonders of natural history writing

As I walk to work before seven each morning, I pass scores of antique and second-hand book stores displaying treasures to make a botanist's heart beat fast.

There's one shop near the Botanics that has an ever-changing selection of natural history books, and this little collection caught my eye today. It's a good thing the shops aren't open on my way to work or I'd spend my paycheck before I even got it

Perfectly simple: The Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder

The reason behind last week's venture to the top of the Palm House was check the sunshine recorder mounted on its roof. The irony of tracking hours of sunshine in Edinburgh does not escape me, but it's something staff at the Botanics do every day as part of the observations they collect for the Met Office, the U.K.'s national weather service.

You'd think there would be some sort of technologically sophisticated gadget to record this data, but the reality couldn't be further from that:

This is a Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, and in it's analog simplicity it's one of the most beautiful things I've seen at the Botanics. It is just a crystal sphere, held in place with two metal clips, positioned in front of a paper strip. Any sunlight hitting the ball is concentrated by the sphere and burns a mark on the paper behind it. By retrieving the paper each day and measuring the length of the marks one has a fairly accurate record of the day's sunlit hours. Or minutes--this is Edinburgh after all. Different-sized paper strips are used in summer, winter and around the equinoxes to allow for the changing altitude of the sun throughout the year.

Pretty simple, but it works perfectly.

Palm House panoramas

One of the best things about working at the Botanics is getting to spend time in all the places that are off limits to visitors. On Friday I climbed with a coworker to the top of the Temperate Palm House, Britain's tallest glasshouse. The long view stretched from the extinct volcano of Arthur's Seat, to the Craigs, on up the Royal Mile all the way to Edinburgh Castle and beyond, with the garden and glasshouses laid out at my feet.

The extent of the display and non-public back-up glasshouses was pretty impressive when viewed from this height. The Victorian Tropical Palm House is in the foreground. It was built in 1834 and is not only the oldest glasshouse at the Botanics, it's the oldest in Edinburgh.

Below, a closer view of Arthur's Seat, the big land form on the left horizon, all the way up to Edinburgh Castle at the very right edge of the frame. Two public glasshouses, built in the 1960s, are in the foreground.

Edinburgh Castle with a bit of the blue Pentland Hills further to its right, with the Azalea lawn in the middle distance.

Titan Arum blooms at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh bloomed Saturday after 12 years of careful cultivation and a few feverish weeks of tracking bud development. It's the first time a Titan Arum has bloomed in Scotland, and a huge victory for the dedicated staff at the Botanics who nurtured the corm from the size of an orange to 153.9kg, the heaviest on record.

I made it back from London just in time to see it last night, on the second day of its two-day peak bloom.

I queued with the public for an hour and 15 minutes in order to experience the spectacle from an outside visitor perspective instead of slipping through the back door waving my staff pass. One of the most unexpectedly interesting aspects of studying at the Botanics is beginning to understand how nonhorticulturists experience plants, and how to get more people involved with them who wouldn't otherwise be interested. The Titan Arum is a perfect example of how, amazingly, a plant can get so many people fired up about a botanical phenomenon. Thousands of people stood in line, some for more than two hours, to spend four minutes or less with this massive inflorescence. And they were excited.

The Titan Arum Army of Botanics staff, students and volunteers did a great job of making the queue organized, fast, and fun. They worked the line, handing out informational pamphlets and chatting with visitors about the plant and other work done at the Botanics in an excellent display of community outreach, education and PR. There was even a three-piece band playing sprightly tunes for entertainment.

It's no surprise that, like much today in the world of science and conservation, botanical gardens struggle to make enough profit to employ the skilled gardeners who tend them, let alone dedicate resources to research and plant and habitat conservation. Rock star plants, such as the blooming Titan arum, are one way to attract more people into the gardens. With a £5/person charge to enter the glasshouses (the general Botanics grounds are still, miraculously, free to enjoy), these experiences could significantly affect the garden's bottom line, while at the same time spreading horticultural knowledge and enthusiasm. Who knows, maybe the world's next great botanists were amongst the children who stood, open-mouthed and wondering, at the eight foot-tall flower that looked like something come to life from their picture books?