Sunderland's glasshouse winter garden

PUBLISHED: 13:56 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 20 February 2013

Grass trees

Grass trees

Sunderland's impressive Winter Gardens has risen out of the ashes to be one of the city's delights

Many people in the growing industrial town of Sunderland lived in overcrowded conditions, and in 1857 Mowbray Park was opened to provide recreational facilities for families.

Inspired by the glasshouse at Crystal Palace in London, which was built for the Festival of Britain in 1851, Sunderland began its own project a few years later creating the Winter Garden together with the towns museum.

Sadly during the Second World War the impressive glasshouse was bombed. But, thankfully, rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes a new impressive Winter Gardens was built thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund celebrating the new Millennium.

The domed glass and steel rotunda looks stunning whether viewed from the park or the city streets. Water cascades down a ten metre high stainless steel monolith designed by William Pye, who has also created work at Alnwick gardens. This is encircled by a winding staircase leading up to the Tree Top Walkway with panoramic views across the park.

What better way to spend time on a cold wet day than transporting yourself into this tropical paradise. I met up with head gardener, Lee Stephenson, who proudly took me on a tour of this horticultural wonderland. He has worked for the Parks Department since leaving school as did his father - who like many still fondly remembered the gardens before they were destroyed.

The Koi pool is always very popular especially with the younger visitors. The Arid display is constructed to mimic a desert and here cacti from both the old and new world are seen and plants that have evolved over time to adapt to the conditions thrown at them.

The euphorbia here, which is far removed from those we have in our gardens, has had to evolve over time, enabling it to store water. To do so it has lost its leaves for the dry conditions it has in Africa, Lee pointed out. The silver/blue plants have adapted to reflect light.

As we moved on I realised how much there would be to learn from my visit. We think of citrus coming from the Mediterranean but in fact they originated from China.

Also in this area are the fig and olive and a geranium with huge leaves, which made mine at home look miniature. In the undergrowth, delphiniums and cyclamen spring up as they would in the wild. Lee has collected the seed of the giant monocarpic (bearing fruit only once) echium which he will swap as well as grow more plants. There is a fine example of a Saharan cypress which is one of the rarest species in the world dating back some 3,000 years.

There are plants from the southern hemisphere like the stunning Bird of Paradise which is often seen in floral art, as well as the cinnamon tree, sugar cane and tea and coffee trees.

There is also the pepper tree which produces pepper corns, and grass tree which I think has been the inspiration behind the fibre optic lights we can have in our modern homes. We pause and Lee pinches the leaves of a bush. Does this remind you of anything? I have to think for a moment, then he says: Tea tree oil - which is produced from its narrow leaves.

There is a collection of Wollemi Pine which is one of the rarest trees in the world. It was discovered in a deep gorge in Wollemi National Park in Australia in 1994, and is closely related to the Monkey Puzzle Tree and Pauri Pines.

Lee was delighted when his own specimen at home produced cones for the first time and when I visited his was amongst the display.

When I bought mine it cost about 100 but they are now more readily available, he said.

Dinosaur footprints take you back to prehistoric times in Fern Gully. There are many rare specimens to be found - endangered species from around the world.

It is hoped that plants that have been cared for and grown here will eventually produce seed and in time will be replanted in their places of origin. Ancient conifers and Bromeliads, Air plants and a Stag Horn Fern cling to branches of their hosts.

We do get plants donated, Lee said. And sometimes they have a tale to tell like this 150 year old Aspidistra, which is contained in a pot, and came from the Shetland Isles with a scandalous story.

This stunning glass domed construction allows the plants to grow to their full potential and fill all the senses. This place is not only educational but also therapeutic and for the residents of Sunderland a total delight, which will give pleasure for many years to come, and like the plants will evolve with time.

It certainly requires more than one visit to take it all in.

Tips for January

1. Browsing through gardening books and magazines can give you inspiration and take away the frustration of not being able to do much outside.

2. Remember to look after the wild life. Whilst feeding the birds is a must, plan ahead and work out what plants you can add to attract them to your garden. By leaving a small area with decaying wood, beneficial insects will find a home and it will make a welcome place for hedgehogs to hibernate.

3. Keep water pipes drained or lagged and if the pond freezes over place a hot saucepan to break the ice so the fish can have oxygen.

4. It is an ideal time to check your tools and replace any that are past their sell by date. I have found the copper trowel I bought several years ago was my most used tool last year it seemed to cope with any task thrown at it. Being a trowel this meant I needed a kneeler and I find the heavy duty builders knee pads ideal as it means you don't have to move the kneeler.

5. Provided the soil is not too cold or wet, rhubarb can be planted or transplanted now. If you put cloches on the ground this will enable the soil to dry and warm up enabling you to sow broad beans for an early crop if you didn't get round to it in the autumn.

6. Winter flowering shrubs have an added bonus of also being scented to advertise their presence to the few insects around for pollination. I am particularly fond of the witch hazels with its clean pure scent and the winter honeysuckle's which start flowering early winter right through to spring are such an asset.

As part of the Museums exhibition China: Journey to the East which runs from 30th January to 9th May, the Winter Garden, which is part of the complex, is running a China Trail. The Winter garden is open Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 2 pm to 5 pm. Telephone 0191 553 2323 closed 25th and 26th December and 1st January. Admission free.

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