The Eden Project: A Force to be Reckoned With

The Eden Project was co-founded by Durham alumnus, Tim Smit.

Breathtaking, curious and an architectural feat of achievement, the Eden project, home to the largest greenhouse in the world is a seemingly unstoppable eco-force, unrecognisable as the disused china clay pit from which it originated. Each biome (green house) is a horticultural masterpiece bursting with surprising plant species. Citrus medica is a prime example; in the same genus as the humble lemon, the fruit produced by this tree is anything but. Astonishingly, the fruit is over four times the size of a lemon with a lumped surface, with some varieties sporting finger like protrusions colloquially termed Buddha’s fingers. For the aspiring biologist Eden is a unique opportunity to explore first-hand a myriad of exotic species without breaking the bank on plane fares. Immersed in a biome, you could be easily be fooled that you were back on that gap year.

Whilst most have heard of the Eden project, many may be unaware that its co-founder and chief executive Tim Smit attended our very own Durham University. Taking a rather unconventional route after reading archaeology and anthropology, he worked in the music business for ten years before conceiving the Eden project in 1995. Last year, the Dutch-born entrepreneur received an honorary knighthood in recognition of his services to public engagement with science.

Tim Smit’s book entitled Eden, chronicling the Eden Project’s birth from conception through to launch, is the best selling environmental book of the past decade, and with good reason. The prose, novelistic in the intense vividness of the images portrayed, leaps off the page. The book bristles with Smit’s passion, sweeping you along this extraordinary journey. Considering the fast succession of staggering challenges that had to be overcome, the internationally renowned success of the Eden Project is truly astounding. For example Eden’s soil, all 90,000 tonnes of it, had to be imported and manually composed to match the different plants’ needs. A headache of factors had to be painstakingly considered such as water supply, pest, disease and climate control. As a result Eden is not only home to plants but a variety of organisms such as geckos, bullfrogs and white-eyes (birds from south-east Asia), introduced to help maintain the ecological balance.

Inside the Tropical biome.

Eden is a showcase for economic botany and ethnobotany, demonstrating the vital role of plants in human civilisation and the need for stewardship of this resource. Described as a “living theatre” the Eden Project places a large emphasis on education from the general public through to university level academics. In fact, several students have completed part of their PhD or Masters research at Eden or Eden-sponsored sites, studying problems such as pest build-up in the biomes.

Eden is home to three areas: the outdoor garden (or the temperate biome); the Mediterranean biome; and the Tropical biome, housing plants from across the world focussing on those that have a human relevance, such as the cocoa tree. The plants are in perpetual flux so whatever the season there is always something exciting to see.

The ingenuity of the Eden Project team means that plants are no longer the only attraction. Eden currently serves as an art gallery for local artists and hosts unusual events such as the World Pasty Championships which will be held next month. Eden’s eco-philosophy and unique way of approaching things permeates everything it does – the “Eden Sessions” are no exception. This series of one day music and comedy festivals are held each summer challenging the conventional definition of the music festival. No greasy, overpriced food is found here, instead as with everything else Eden does you will only find quality, well thought through options such as falafel and foccacia pizza, all of which are sustainably sourced from local suppliers. Through the festivals Eden encourages the audience to think about their environmental impact. Any festival represents a large logistical challenge for the organiser, but running everything sustainably adds another layer of complexity.

In spite of this, the Eden Sessions are a slick operation. Confirmed acts to be treading the outdoor stage this summer include big names such as Example, Blink-182 and Plan B. Excitingly, the festival is fully integrated into the Eden experience with the “Biotik stage” situated right inside the Mediterranean Biome. Entirely solar-powered, this stage is home to an eclectic mix of acts including folk musicians, comedians and poets.

The impression the Eden Project leaves is that of a strongly visionary organisation who cares, won’t take no for an answer, won’t compromise on its core beliefs and most importantly wants to involve you. Like an excited child, Eden appears to have unlimited energy and inspiration which it is constantly using to introduce new and wonderful initiatives and projects. Eden has come a long way from its initial conception and is now firmly established as a both a charity and a social enterprise. It is highly regarded as an expert on all things green and this expertise has spilled out into its training of businesses on sustainability and its government accredited course on carbon management.

The project’s website and blog, found at http://www.edenproject.com/, are constantly updated with events occurring at the Eden Project and seasonally featured plant species. A special edition of Tim Smit’s book Eden was released last year to commemorate Eden’s 10th anniversary and can be purchased online from all good book retailers.

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