Days Out: National Botanic Garden of Wales

Today we headed south down to Carmarthen to visit the National Botanic Garden of Wales. This 500 acre site is dedicated to conservation and home to an impressive collection of approximately 8000 different species of flowers and plants from the UK and around the world.

Despite not feeling my best, a day immersing myself in the vibrant colours, sounds and smells of the gardens turned out to be just the nature therapy I needed. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough, my only complaint is that we had to go home eventually!

Here are some of the day’s highlights:

Double walled garden:

The double-walled garden was historically used as a kitchen garden, it’s unique outer stone and inner brick walls creating a microclimate within where the conditions within would be more favourable for vegetable production.

Entering the double walled garden
Inside the walls

Today the double walled garden has been lovingly restored and is now divided into quadrants with plants arranged by their taxonomic order. These quadrants contain representatives of all of the major flowering plant groups and take visitor on a fascinating visual journey, documenting the evolution of flowers over 140 million years.

A journey through plant evolution…
A place to sit and admire the gardens
Monocots on display in the walled garden

Flowering plants are divided into 2 major groups known as monocots and eudicots (sometimes referred to as dicots as I recall from GSCE biology!). Flowers within the two divisions share unique characteristics which helps differentiate between the two, as demonstrated in this graphic.

The grounds of quadrant 1 and it’s Tropical House are home to the monocot family which includes grasses, bromeliads and sedges, aquatic plants, lillies, magnolias, daffodils, alliums, hyacynths & irises to name a few.

Monocot flowers are most easily distinguished at a glance by their flowers and petals, which are almost always arranged in multiples of three or six. Their leaves tend to have parallel veins running the length of the leaf.

Blue spiderwort – Commelina tuberosa
Autumn pineapple lily – Eucomis autmnalis
Peruvian garden lily – Alstroemeria x hybrida
African lily – Agapanthus praecox

Constructed in 2004, the Tropical House is a modern day addition to the walled garden and displays a variety of plant species native to humid tropical rainforests including palms, bromelias, orchids and passionflowers.

Hot and humid inside the tropical house!
Peace lillies – Spathiphyllum wallisii
Towering palms and bromeliads

The remaining 3 quadrants of the double walled-garden are dedicated to eudicots, this classification of plants is vast containing 75% of all known plant species. These typically have flower petals arranged in multiples of four or five and leaves with a network of veins.

Whilst they share these similiarities there is also an almost endless variety of colour, size and form among these thousands of species, each having evolved it’s own unique way to survive in it’s environment.

Rose mallow – Hibiscus syriacus
Sneezewort – Achillea ptarmica
Apple mint – Mentha suaveolens
Californian tree poppy – Romneya coulteri
Lilac squirrel flower – Sanguisorba hakusanensis
Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
Purple coneflower – Echinacea purpurea (and a bumblebee)
Japanese anenome – Anemone hupehensis

I could easily have spent an entire day just within these walls, crisscrossing the various routes and finding new things to discover at every turn. In a brief hour or so I feel I barely scratched the surface of all this fascinating garden has to offer!

The Great Glasshouse:

Perhaps the botanic garden’s most impressive feature, the Great Glasshouse is the largest single span glasshouse in the world covering 3500 square meters and made up of 785 glass panels.

Spectacular tiger lillies framing the exterior of the Great Glass House
Black eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) in front of the glasshouse

Inside the glasshouse beneath it’s sloping glass roof the conditions within are carefully controlled to replicate a Mediterranean climate. Designated zones within display plants from regions such as Australia, Chile, South Africa and the Mediterranean, including some of the world’s most endangered species.

Entering the magnificent glasshouse
Walking through Mediterranean landscapes

Towering above almost everything else in the glasshouse is the impressive dragon tree standing at almost 8 meters tall. It’s unique red sap is known as ‘dragon’s blood’ and is believed to have magical and medicinal properties among certain cultures.

The towering dragon tree

Wallace Garden:

The Wallace Garden, overlooked by a statute of the great man himself is named after naturalist, explorer and collector Alfred Russell Wallace who was also a key figure in the discovery of ‘evolution by natural selection’.

The Wallace Garden
The statute of Alfred Russell Wallace overlooking the cultivated beds

The Wallace Garden’s vibrant themed flower beds explore plant breeding and genetics, displaying a variety of cultivated flowers. Most abundant are flowers from the daisy (asteraceae) family which includes some of our most familiar garden flowers from dahlias and sunflowers to echinacea, chamomile, marigolds and cornflowers.

Among the dahlias in the wallace garden

The sunshine emerged from behind the clouds at just the right time to accentuate the rainbow of colours in this most beautiful of gardens. For a lover of colour like myself, it was paradise!

A pop of colour
Black eyes susans – Rudbeckia Fulgida
Complimentary colours
Tree dahlia – Dahlia imperialis
The ‘everlasting flower’ – Xerochrysum Bracteatum

Of course where there is an abundance of flowers there is also no shortage of insects, keen to enjoy a sip of sweet nectar in exchange for their vital pollination services. A patch of dazzling pink dahlia flowers appeared to be particularly attractive and was quite literally buzzing with life.

Dazzling dahlias

The most frequent diner here were the small tortoiseshell butterflies, careful probing for nectar with their delicate proboscis.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly probing for nectar

They weren’t without company though, with buff tailed bumblebees also drawn in by the promise of easily accessible food. Fortunately there was more than enough to go around!

Budge up!
A pair of buff tailed bumblebees

Various other species of pollinating insects were also busily foraging among the garden, a great excuse to bring out the macro lens and take a closer look at life among the flowers.

Buff tailed bumblebee – possibly a queen looking at the darkness of her tail
Peacock butterfly in the black eyed susans
A big ginger bodied carder bee, one of my favourites!
Grooming honeybee
Another buff tailed bumeblebee

The Broadwalk:

The broadwalk winds it’s way through the centre of the botanic gardens, flanked on either side by more spectacular floral displays as far as the eye can see with yellow being the dominating colour. It was difficult not to stop ever few steps and admire the splendid scenery and I could have easily spent the entire day just within this small patch without running out of things to photograph.

I used my 300mm telephoto lens for most of the landscape shots, not the traditional choice of lens perhaps but great for conveying a sense of depth among the sea of colours and textures.

A sea of yellow!
A striking red admiral butterfly
Scarlet beebalm – Monarda didyma
Blue globe thistles – Echinops bannaticus
Peacock butterfly feeding on thistles
Aromatic lavender flowers – Lavandula
Wooly yarrow – Achillea tomentosa
Round headed leeks – Allium sphaerocephalon
Red tiger lilies – Lilium lancifolium

A towering buddleia bush along the boardwalk was perhaps the highlight of this final garden. It’s easy to see why this species is commonly known as the ‘butterfly bush’ as this single plant was teeming with a rough estimate of over a hundred butterflies from at least four different species.

Most abundant were the same species enjoying the earlier delights of the Wallace Garden, the small tortoiseshell butterfly. With so much activity to focus on and the butterflies flitting high up among the flowers it was difficult to photograph them and accurately convey the sheer scale and abundance of the insects.

Small tortoiseshell feeding on buddleia flowers

Whilst many were sipping nectar from the densely packed flowers, others were basking in the sun, lazily flapping their wings and offering a glimpse of their distinctive patterning.

The ‘butterfly bush’
Bee and butterfly
How many butterflies can you spot?
Buddleia flowers in their distinctive conical clusters

The buddleia bush is a valuable food source for numerous insects although butterflies in particular seem to be irresistibly drawn to these large, fragrant plants in vast numbers.

Side by side

Some of these species are more conspicuous than others. This small white was well camouflaged on this particular white flowered variety of buddleia.

Small white butterfly

Largest of all is the red admiral butterfly, a species which migrates to the UK from Europe and Northern Africa to breed during spring and summer. They have a particular taste for rotting fruit as well as buddleia flowers.

Red admiral butterfly

Arguable the most beautiful visitor to the ‘butterfly bush’ was the unmistakable peacock butterfly. Named for the vivid eyespots on each wing, it is thought that these markings are used to deter predators from feeding on them.

At the very top of the towering butterfly bush
Feeding frenzy
Small tortoiseshell (left) and peacock butterfly (right)

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All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography © 2021

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