Visit London's Other Botanical Garden

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 19 months ago
Visit London's Other Botanical Garden

A modern doorbell is mounted on the door frame, too new to fit in with the age of the rest of the house. We ring it once and wait. After a disconcertingly long time, the door creaks slowly open, and a friendly face steps out from behind the frosted glass.

"Is the botanical garden here?" we stutter, wrong-footed by the intimacy of the place. The face smiles and the door opens wider, an invite to come in. It's hard to resist the overwhelming urge to remove our shoes, so strong is the feeling of walking straight into someone's home.

This unassuming Victorian house in Tulse Hill is home to the South London Botanical Institute, a herbarium, library and botanical garden. The garden is the main reason we're here, but more on that later.

It's a little-known place, only a small sign outside differentiating it from the other houses on the busy Norwood Road, yet it's been here for over 100 years.

SLBI was founded by a chap called Allan Octavian Hume in 1910. He lived in Crystal Palace and bought this house as a base for his botanical collection.

As cars whizz past outside, and the nearby train tracks snake their way out towards Croydon and beyond, it's hard to imagine that when Hume bought it, this place was in the heart of the countryside — separated from the centre of London by fields.

Hume spent years in India, where he developed a fascination with birds. On returning to the UK, he donated his collection of 6,000 bird skins to the Natural History Museum at Tring, and turned his attention to plants instead. His legacy can be seen throughout the house, not just in the plants.

Look closely at the wallpaper - it was designed specifically for the SLBI. Hume's portrait takes pride of place above the fireplace.

The library

After signing the guest book on a wooden table in the hallway, we're led into the room on the left, probably once a sitting room, but now used as an events space. A portrait of Hume takes pride of place over the mantlepiece, and Indian-issued postage stamps featuring his face are prominently displayed.

The wooden floorboards give way to green and white wallpaper, but it's not your average B&Q creation. It was specially designed for this room by local artist August Akerman. The plants woven into the design can all be found here in the garden and herbarium. A peony was incorporated in as a nod to the design of the fireplace in the same room. The wallpaper is in the style of William Morris, to reflect the time period of the house.

Across the hall from this room is the library — and it's a satisfyingly, old-fashioned library, emitting a sort of faded grandeur. Floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves cover each wall, filled with books about botanicals, from funghi to mosses. Some leather-bound tomes are as old as the Botanical Institute itself, while others have only been published in recent years. A table sits in the centre of the room, where the public can make use of the reference library on days when the house is open.

Dragging ourselves away from the library, we head along the hallway, passing under a beautiful wooden clock, a replica of one that Hume himself owned in India, to reach the herbarium.

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The library has all manner of books about botanics, including specialist sections on mosses and fungi.
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Allan Octavian Hume was so well known in India, he made it onto some postage stamps. They're proudly displayed at the SLBI.
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This clock in the hallway is a replica of one in Hume's house in India.

The herbarium

Lined with what looks like filing cabinets, the herbarium is home to 40,000 pressed flower specimens, including a poppy pressed in 1898 by Hume himself, which still retains its distinct red colouring. As well as flowers, grass and other plants are stored here, bringing the total up to around 80,000 specimens — impressive for a room no bigger than your average sitting room.

The filing cabinets — metal, to prevent insects from getting to the specimens — were designed by Hume, and the herbarium's vast collection consists mainly of British plants, reflecting Hume's own green-fingered interests.

A freezer sits in one corner of the room, with strict instructions not to open it plastered across the top. It's is a further preservation aid — a dedicated team of volunteers rotates specimens into the freezer every week, to kill off any bugs or bacteria which may harm the pressed plants.

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A red poppy, pressed by Hume himself in 1898, is still part of the herbarium's collection.
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Specially designed cabinets in the herbarium. They're metal, to keep insects out and preserve the plant specimens.

The botanical garden

Finally, for the pièce de résistance — the botanical garden itself.

Overlooked by new-build flats in one corner, the square garden is exactly what you'd expect to find behind your average detached house in Tulse Hill — size-wise at least. Kew it is not, and therein lies its beauty — we feel like we've stumbled across a real secret.

With the trains rattling past in the background, and the occasional aeroplane humming overhead as it makes its descent into Heathrow, it's hard to forget we're in London. Yet a certain tranquillity descends from criss-crossing the paving slabs which weave their way among plants from all over the world.

The focus here is growing plants for scientific interest, so it's not a landscaped garden. Although the occasional bright bloom rears its head, colourful flowers are few and far between; green is the prevalent colour.

The plants are divided by type; those from South Africa stand opposite plants from Australasia. Native plants skirt the house, and the weed garden provides a home for greenery which may find itself unlovingly removed from most other gardens.

Perhaps worryingly, the poisonous plants almost intermingle with the plants for sale — prospective buyers, beware.

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Looking across the pond.
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Plants are organised botanically, rather than by colour as they would be in a landscaped garden.
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Each species is labelled.
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At this time of year, the pond is rife with frogspawn.
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A warning on some of the more dangerous plants.
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Looking back towards the house.
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A mosaic overlooking the garden celebrates SLBI's centenary in 2010.

The centrepiece of the garden is a pond, roughly 2.5 metres x 2.5 metres in size, sunk into the ground. On this particular March day, it's awash with frogspawn, although the frogs which produced it are nowhere to be seen. The occasional newt rises to the surface, announced by a trail of bubbles, before disappearing into the black abyss as quickly as it appeared.

Snail trails criss cross the paving slabs, combining with the overhanging plants to demand that visitors tread carefully as they explore.

Looking back towards the house, the narrow conservatory draws our attention. We've walked through it to reach the garden, but barely paid attention, writing it off as a ramshackle tool shed. Illuminated by sunlight, it's clear that it houses even more plants, and a quick peek as we leave the garden confirms that it houses venus fly traps among other plants.

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Plants line the walls of the conservatory.
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The sunny end of the conservatory.

Visiting

Unless you're a keen gardener yourself, you're unlikely to spend more than an hour at SLBI, yet it's worth a visit for the history, tranquility, and all-round warm feeling that you've stumbled across something special.

Learn from our mistake and don't rely on Google Maps to get you there — for all its wisdom, it tried to dump us down near the bottom of Brockwell Park. The SLBI is actually further south than this, at 323 Norwood Road — it's directly opposite Deerbrook Road.

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The house looks like any other in the area.
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Look out for the sign and notice board outside.
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You know you've found the right place when you see this.

The South London Botanical Institute is open to the public on Thursdays 10am-4pm, and for special events. Visits at other times can be arranged by request. It's free to visit, although donations are welcome. There is a charge for most events, see the events calendar for details.

All photos by Londonist.

Last Updated 08 April 2016

Greg Tingey

That should be "London's THIRD botanical garden, actually.
I assume you have forgotten or "mislaid" The Chelsea Physic Garden?