South London Botanical Institute

South London Botanical Institute

Tulse Hill is not the first place you might expect to find a botanical garden, but a short walk down the high street from the obligatory Ladbrokes and used-car dealerships is the South London Botanical Institute. “Although we’ve got ‘south’ in our name,’ president of the Institute Roy Vickery explains, ‘we’re actually the only one of our kind in north, east or west London, too.”

And ‘one of a kind’ is right. Housed in a handsome (if a little fringe-worn) Victorian home at the bottom of Norwood Road, the Institute comprises an extensive herbarium, a pretty walled garden (complete with newt-filled ponds and colourful greenhouses), as well as a well-stocked library and a recently renovated dining room-cum-lecture hall.

The Institute really is a ‘hidden little gem’, as the website tagline claims. Of course, there is another (rather more famous) botanical garden in the south London area, but SLBI is like Kew’s smaller, kookier cousin. If it wasn’t for the unseasonably green and well-groomed garden rotunda bursting from the front of the property, you’d be forgiven for walking past without a second glance.

The property was built as a private home around 1863, back when Tulse Hill didn’t exist as we know it today. Leafy rows and farmer’s fields surrounded the peaceful property, and it was given the moniker ‘Norwood Lodge on Norwood Lane’ by local residents, so research conducted by the Institute reveals.

From the census, we can also establish that the property was owned by a string of merchants, including the German Ernest Sengel in 1881, who sold it to Joseph Taylor Timmins ten years later. But thanks to the nearby railway that opened around the turn of the century (which transformed the area from affluent suburb into densely populated commuter belt), 323 Norwood Road was denatured from family dwelling into an austere, Victorian boarding house.

So how did it blossom into an eccentric herbologist’s haven? Just six years later, in 1907, the life of the house took another unexpected turn. The property was sold at auction to a certain Allan Octavian Hume, civil servant and renowned botanist, who had decided to rescue Norwood Lodge on Norwood Lane, cultivating it into a home for his ‘little venture’, as he phrased it.

Earlier that year, Hume had returned to London from British India, where he helped found the Indian National Congress, and later was one of the pioneers who established the Indian Independence Movement. In India he had become an authoritative voice on ornithology – capturing, killing and studying rare and as yet undiscovered birds. On his return, Hume “did an about-turn”, explains Vickery. “He suddenly decided that killing living creatures was wrong, and instead developed an interest in early 20th century plants.” In 1910, he founded the Institute that still stands today, with the aim of providing a meeting place and facilities for all people interested in botany. Today, the founding principle remains unchanged. Not much has altered in the building itself, either. When you open the door, you can smell the history of the place, mingling with fresh soil and strong tea.

“Hume wanted to introduce the people of south east London to plants and natural history”, continues Vickery, “so they were less interested in alcohol.” But using lichens, mosses and liverworts to lure the locals away from the public houses was always going to be a tall order. In fact, all the odds were stacked against the Institute from day one. “The buildings either side of us were bombed during the Second World War, but the Institute somehow managed to survive on very little income,” Vickery, who has been involved in the running of the Institute for around fifteen years, reveals. “It was only thanks to a number of generous donations, and the introduction of our membership charge 25 years ago, that we started getting back on track.”

And thank goodness they did. Hume’s collection remains an important one, including in excess of 40,000 specimens of flowering plants alone, with a particular emphasis on species local to Cornwall. As well as collecting all the specimens himself, Hume designed the cabinets and library shelves that they would be stored in, which are still very much in use today. These striking antiques are cause in themselves for visiting the Institute, and bare no sign of aging. “These well-travelled trunks could have been the very ones Hume used to transport his samples to and from India”, Vickery explains. Inside are the famed samples upon which the excellent reputation of the Institute is based. Each specimen was delicately hand-dried by Hume or his assistant, William Griffin, then glued onto large sheets of paper (some of which are endearingly dog-eared).

“To know when a specimen is completely dry,” says Vickery, lifting a paper upon which a hundred year old leaf is flickering, “is to place it on your cheek. If it’s cold, it’s ready to be stuck down.” With such an extensive and important history, it comes as a surprise that the rare and often frail specimens are treated with a relaxed, welcomingly carefree attitude often lacking in larger, more sterile museums.

The Institute now runs a busy schedule of events, based loosely around Hume’s collections, including gardening workshops, children’s activities, plant sales and academic seminars. The first lecture took place at the Institute in 1911 on the folklore of plants, which also happens to be Vickery’s key area of study. Unfortunately, Hume wasn’t well enough to attend and died a few months later. From here, running the Institute was even more of an uphill struggle. Although William Griffin was a clever curator, running such an ambitious institute without the guidance of its founder was never going to be easy.

This being said, Vickery – who has previous experience as curator of the Natural History Museum’s collections of flowering plants under his belt – is leading the Institute from strength to strength. In April, it was announced that the SLBI would be awarded its second National Lottery-funded grant of £99,600 to contribute towards a growing community activities program, and specifically a project called Plant Recording for all Ages. Vickery is joined by a small but dedicated team of volunteers, two part-time administrative staff, as well as two (very) part-time gardeners.

Considering the gardeners only work a day or two each week, the walled botanical garden is immaculate, and in the warming spring air it vibrates with insect activity. Spanning the width of the property, the garden contains all sorts of exotic offerings, and – rather bizarrely – 30 different types of moss (all of which are diligently labeled).

One of the quaint garden’s many highlights is without doubt the raised weed bed that borders the back wall – a re-creation of one of Hume’s early additions. Here, plants considered by most to be pests (Aquileria, Yarrow, Doves-foot cranesbill) are encouraged to trail and bloom as they wish. “I’ve always considered plants to be more vicious than animals,” Vickery notes, surveying the weeds, “because they’re rooted to the spot and are forced to stand and fight.”

This works as a fitting analogy for the Institute itself, which has stood its ground, well-rooted through war, the untimely death of its founder, and decades of next-to-no funding. But thanks to passionate leaders and a generous community, the Institute continues to flourish. What’s more, standing amongst the elegantly overgrown weeds, it’s easy to forget we’re in a bustling south London suburb, and not in the leafy, green meadows that surrounded Norwood Lodge on Norwood Lane, before Tulse Hill bloomed up around it.

WORDS: Elly Parsons