James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange

James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange

James Bateman came from a family made rich by iron and coal during the Industrial Revolution. A landowner and accomplished horticulturist, in 1842 he bought Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire where he set about creating what has been called ‘a Great Exhibition of a garden – the whole world in one green
space, with planting to reflect the spirit of Italy and China, Egypt, England and the

At the same time as Bateman developed his gardens to represent the variety of creation, he began work on a Geological Gallery at Biddulph Grange which, when it opened to the public in 1862, presented a selection of fossils and geological strata displayed in a chronological order – his attempt to reconcile his evangelical Christianity with geological understanding at the time. Resolute in his belief in divine creation, Bateman planned his Geological Gallery as a refutation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, unveiled in The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Continue reading “James Bateman’s garden of creation at Biddulph Grange”

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

These are the mornings when I pull back the curtains and light floods into the room as if overnight there has been a sudden, heavy fall of snow.  It’s the magnolia in the front garden, planted nearly thirty years ago that for a week two in spring is clothed in dazzling splendour, the creamy white flowers like candles, touched with pink blush.

It never lasts long; after their couple of weeks of glory, the petals fall and carpet the garden as if snow has fallen. Richard Lambert’s poem, ‘The Magnolia’, speaks of this:

Will you watch the wind blow
white blossom from the tree,
will you watch it blow,

the branches strained with love,
the garden stained with white,
will you watch the wind?

A blackbird leaps into the height
and sings; sky is blue.
Will you watch it blow?

The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.

Old hippy that I am, it’s usually a tune by The Grateful Dead that sings in my head as I gaze at the tree:

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care …

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine

And those blissed-out lyrics seem just right for these days of fine weather, warmer than southerly parts of continental Europe such as Barcelona, Nice and Majorca.  As if we’ve skipped a season and plunged straight into summer.

Magnolias are, I learned from Wikipedia, truly ancient.  Named after a French botanist Pierre Magnol, they evolved even before bees appeared, the flowers developing  to encourage pollination by beetles.  Fossilised specimens of Magnolia have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the family Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago.  A primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals.

This reminded me of  the recent BBC TV series presented by geology professor Iain Stewart, How to Grow a Planet.  Branching out from rocks and volcanoes, he set out to demonstrate how plants are the ‘silent power’ that has shaped the Earth as much the geological processes he usually describes.

As recently as 130 million years ago plant life was so limited in its evolutionary journey that the part of a plant we prize above all else – the flower – didn’t exist at all. Stewart went on to show that in the geologically short time they’ve been around flowers have brought about the single most powerful transformation in our planet’s history:  they kick started an explosion of diversification in the animal kingdom – that ultimately lead to homo sapiens.

It was all to do with sex.  All organisms have to reproduce to survive, and that’s what a flower is for, of course.  But before flowers the plant kingdom consisted of  conifers and ferns, and they relied on something completely random – wind and water –for reproduction.

But flowers are basically super-efficient sex organs which, by forming all kinds of partnerships with animals, were incredibly successful, transforming the planet and helping  to steer evolution of animals at the same time.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how and why flowers appeared – there’s some evidence they share genes with fir cones, or evolved from adapted leaf structures. What’s remarkable is that flower fossils all start appearing around the same time – 140–130 million years ago. Darwin called this sudden appearance an ‘abominable mystery’.

Iain Stewart explained that flowers emerged at a time of geological transformation:  the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea was breaking up and new habitats and niches were being formed. Flowering plants evolved a survival ‘toolkit’ that made them better adapted to colonise a changing planet.  Above all, the reason why flowers were so successful was because they harnessed animals to reproduce – flies, beetles, and above all, bees.

As bees evolved they became perfectly adapted to collect pollen from flowers. Their whole bodies became covered in hair, so that the pollen would stick when they landed on flowers. They developed special antennae to smell out nectar,  and their sophisticated compound eyes, each made up of up to 6000 tiny lenses, were perfect at spotting flowers. While we are all familiar with the idea that flowers use colour to attract insects, Iain Stewart demonstrated that insects can also see ultra violet markings on plants – patterns that are indetectable to the human eye.
The magnolia in our garden has been around for close on thirty years, but its kind have flourished on this planet for a few million years longer.


We saw Creation this afternoon at FACT: a screening that began memorably when they began to show an entirely different film by accident, and continued with some mad American creationist muttering and heckling through the film. Continue reading “Creation”

Ediacara Biota

Well, you learn something every day – especially if it’s Thursday and time for In Our Time! Today Melvyn Bragg and guests Martin Brasier, Richard Corfield and Rachel Wood discussed the Ediacara Biota, the Precambrian life forms which vanished 542 million years ago, and whose discovery proved Darwin right in a way he never imagined. Continue reading “Ediacara Biota”

Almost Like a Whale

I’ve just finished reading Almost Like A Whale: The Origin of Species Updated by Steve Jones, inspired by the edition of In Our Time a couple months back on the whale’s evolution. The title of the book is a reference to the passage in The Origin of Species for which Darwin was most vilified when it was first published in 1859. “In North America, the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth,” he wrote, “thus catching, almost like a whale, insects in the water.” The implication that bears might share an evolutionary path with whales, was deemed both outrageous and lunatic at a time when the literal truth of Genesis seemed indisputable. Continue reading “Almost Like a Whale”

How whales evolved

How whales evolved

As usual, In Our Time today was engrossing and revealing – and especially interesting after our recent visit to Down House and yesterday’s unveiling of  Ida, humanity’s long-lost relation. Today it was a discussion between Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College London, Eleanor Weston, a mammalian palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and Bill Amos, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at Cambridge University. Continue reading “How whales evolved”

A visit to Down House

A visit to Down House

A brief Kent tour began today with a visit to Down House, where Charles Darwin lived with his family for forty years. It was here that he worked on his ground-breaking theories and where he wrote On the Origin of Species. Continue reading “A visit to Down House”

Darwin at 200

Darwin at 200

Today is the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and this year marks the 150th Anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species. Continue reading “Darwin at 200”