Inverness Botanics

From our correspondent …

In Highland Region, at latitude 57.46 N, in a cool temperate climate, lies Inverness Botanic Gardens [1]. It combines in its small space, education and community growing with displays of local and exotic plants …. and a cafe .. CafeBotanics. It lies on the west side of the River Ness, just south of the town centre and close to the new southern ring road.

Pass through the cafe, enter the glasshouses and marvel at the collection of tropical plants. Follow the signs along a path to the community hub – the G.R.O.W project – which practices horticultural therapy. There’s grass to play on, a collection of herbs and vegetables and an outdoor insect-house. 

Two cactus plants: details of Cleistocactus strausii (left) and Echinocactus grusonii at Inverness Botanic Gardens. mid-October 2022 (

The garden was opened in 1993 and revamped in 2014 [2]. It’s now open to the public every day each week, admission free, donations welcome.

The Living Field appreciates the blend of education, outreach and botany. But first – and especially for those who haven’t yet visited the region – some notes on the local climate. Is it warm and sunny enough for a tropical glasshouse?

The Climate (outside)

57N has a reputation in the UK – cold and gloomy, cloud and wet! Not at all! Weather is relative – it depends what you are used to and what you mean by gloomy …. and wet. From spring to autumn, there’s plenty of solar income, warming the ground and giving plants the energy to grow, and providing what is, by many standards, very good growing potential.

Fig. 1 Map from Assessment of the Climatic Conditions of Scotland produced 1969 by the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research, now the James Hutton Institute [3]. The white arrow in the lower selection points to Inverness. The red zone is the warmest.

Good growing conditions? Yes, providing there is enough rain to wet the soil but not drown it (which there is) and the soil and air are warm enough to allow plants to thrive and survive (which they are). 

The average air temperature in the main summer months is usually 13-14C. The average daily minimum in winter months is just above zero. And while temperature usually falls below zero on several days each winter, there is rarely the prolonged, deep cold of winter farther inland. In the map in Fig. 1, Inverness Botanics lies within the warmest climatic zone – the dark red and yellow areas that fringe the eastern coast.

Details of a fan palm and a north american pitcher plant, lower images in reverse to show structural detail, at Inverness Botanic Garden, mid-October 2022 (

The equable climate is determined mainly by a high solar income over the summer months and proximity to the nearby firth and sea which moderate temperature so it is rarely too cold or too hot.

The graph of daily solar radiation received at the earth’s surface in 2021 (Fig. 2) shows the summer peak and winter low, but also the great day to day variation caused by cloud. The average around the winter solstice in December was about one-tenth of that around the summer solstice in June.

Fig. 2 Daily solar radiation received at the earth’s surface, at Kinloss near Inverness, from 1 January to 31 December 2021, vertical lines at the summer (red) and winter solstice (blue) [4].

The annual solar variation is linked to both the change in daylength (Fig. 3) and the low elevation of the winter sun. It’s the winter low in Fig. 1 that would make for very cold temperatures in December to February at this latitude if the place was in the middle of continental Europe rather than by the sea.

Fig. 3 Change in daylength through the year from 1 January to 31 December at Inverness, 57.46 N, vertical lines as in Fig. 1, horizontal dashed line drawn at the equinox, hours of daylength at summer and winter solstice indicated [4].

But can the area support tropical rainforest?  Not quite (not yet!), but Inverness Botanics lets you feel what it might be like. 

In the cactus house, Inverness Botanic Gardens, taken late July 2022 (gkimages).

The Glasshouses

Inverness Botanics houses a diversity of tropical and sub-tropical plants, all viewable from short walkways, some elevated so you can look down at the tops of small palms and plantains. Rock piles, stone walls and big mirrors partition the space making it feel secluded and personal. A few seats and benches give people a chance for quiet contemplation, immersed in the tropical warmth. 

The moist tropical section also has several types of epiphyte – plants that grow on on other plants, but are not parasitic, instead taking nutrients from the water falling on them and their host. Tillandsia usneoides, from south and central America, is one of them, forming a hanging mass of stems bearing short thin leaves. It was good to loiter here – brought back memories of tropical rain forest. 

Past a bench of pitcher plants and into the cactus house, displaying a stunning range of shape – tall, thin and hairy, round and prickly. You can’t miss Cleistocactus straussii, native to high mountainous regions in Bolivia and Argentina. A note next to the plants says it can withstand temperature down to 10C, and survives the winter with little water. (Couldn’t live in the Highlands then!) Near to it are the prickly orbs of Echinocactus grusonii, from Mexico. 

Go out of the glass, find the path and follow the signs to …..

The GROW Project

The Garden’s web pages explain: “…. an opportunity for practical horticulture for adults with a learning disability. GROW stands for Garden-Recycle-Organics-Wildlife …. The GROW Project provides a sympathetic workplace-type environment that uses horticulture therapy to deliver training and work experience ..…”.

This part of the garden was well occupied on the day of our visit in mid-October, families wandering, children looking at things – an easy relaxed atmosphere .The flowering season was over for most species but earlier in the year: “… you will find fruit trees, vegetable plots, wild flowers, bulbs, herb beds, a bug hotel to encourage insect life, and much, much more. For children the wooden bears at the tee pee and Jungle Path are looking forward to welcoming you!”

Tree fern, insect residences, stack of cross cut tree trunk and fish pond, the first and last under the glass, at Inverness Botanics, December 2022 (

G.R.O.W. has won formal support from public and private funds, including over £20k in 2021 from the Inverness Common Good Fund to buy around 50 m of raised beds to give people a comfortable working height [5]. The food produced by G.R.O.W is sold on site or else donated to Inverness Foodstuff [6].


Here’s an extract from the Garden’s web pages …

“Our volunteers play a vital part in many aspects of the smooth running of the Gardens. Over the last few years they have spent many hours on the various tasks to assist our gardeners. Inside and outside they help with many horticultural tasks and maintaining our woodwork, paths and glasshouses.”

Follow the links below for more information about becoming a volunteer.

The blog from Marr Communications gives  more on the history, activity and aspirations of G.R.O.W and the Botanics [7].

The hanging threads of the epiphyte Tillandsia usneoides consist of many short thin leaves on long stems (inset) taken late July 2022 (gk images).


[1] Inverness Botanic Gardens and Cafe Botanics at visitinverness and highlife highland. Quotes in the text are from these web links. The Garden also has a facebook page: search @invernessbotanicgardens

[2] On BBC News, 15 January 2014: Inverness floral hall to be branded as botanic gardens. And more information at Britain Express.

[3] Birse and colleagues, working from Aberdeen in the 1960s, produced three stunning maps of the climate in Scotland: Birse EL. 1971. Assessment of the climatic conditions of Scotland. Soil Survey of Scotland: Macaulay Institute for Soil Research, Aberdeen (now the James Hutton Institute). The first of the maps – on temperature and rainfall – is used here to indicate the relatively mild climate of Inverness compared to much of the surrounding land.

[4] Sources of data: for solar radiation, location Kinloss – Centre for Environmental Data Analysis CEDA; for daylength, location Inverness – Time and Date. Graphs constructed by The Living Field web has several articles on solar radiation and climate, e.g. Solar income.

[5] The Highland Council, 15 December 2021: Huge donations to help project GROW – describes what will be done with funds from the Inverness Common Good Fund and HSBC Bank.

[6] Inverness Foodstuff at Ness Bank Church.

[7] Marr Communications: Growing more than just plants.

Ed: thanks to our correspondent for their note on Inverness Botanics and photos taken during visits in July, October and December 2022, examples of which we use on this page

[Update: some minor editing and rearrangement of figures on 24 December 2022]

Nourish Conference 2019 – lessons for the Living Field

Where next for the Living field! Here we look at Nourish Scotland’s Conference and Food Atlas for inspiration. We conclude that the Living Field should remain within its core areas of environment, community and healthy eating, while working towards better integration of these core activities to link agriculture and the human food chain.

The Living Field project began 19 years ago. The name and concept were proposed by Geoff Squire in 2001. The garden and its habitats were designed by Gladys Wright, built by science and farm staff and opened to the public in 2004. It’s time to assess where we are and what might come next. We therefore examine some local and international initiatives in the food chain to help judge where the Living Field stands.

Of the many organisations we have worked with over the years, Nourish Scotland [1] offers the most comprehensive set of practical aims based on improving the food chain as a system, as a set of connected and interdependent parts that need to evolve as a whole. 

Here we look at one of Nourish’s achievements – the Conference held earlier in November 2019. Their Food Atlas of 2018 will be featured later. In each case, Nourish defined those parts of the system that need to be in good shape for the whole to work effectively.

The Nourish system goes well beyond the biophysical properties of soil, agronomy and climate to include human health and wellbeing, the end of malnutrition and hunger in Scotland and the cultural and political will to make this happen. As a further step in our own evolution, we consider those topics from the Conference in which the Living Field already operates and those it might need to move in to.

Nourish Conference 2019

The Conference held in Edinburgh 21-22 November 2019 aimed to devise a Game Plan for a Good Food Nation. Its basic premise is that the food system is broken and needs radical change. It brought together people with a very wide range of interests and expertise. (Nourish will publish a full report in due course.)

People attending were divided into groups of about 8, each group to consider where things stand and what can be done to bring about major change. A diagram, designed by the Centre for Food Policy, City University [2], helped to guide discussion: the food chain lies in the centre, surrounding by five ‘domains’ or ‘spheres’ that affect and are affected by the food chain – environment, society, economy, politics and health (Fig. 1). Each person indicated their expertise by placing paper dots on the diagram. The domains were all well covered.

The Food Chain and its five spheres

The Food Chain in the centre is made up of of 8 topics [3]. The five surrounding ‘spheres of sustainability’ go farther than the widely used three (environment, economics and society) or four (those plus politics) to include health. Each sphere consisted of 6 essential topics [listed at 3].

Fig. 1 Food chain diagram (top left) used at the Nourish Conference reinterpreted to show main activity in the Living Field project: the bigger the letters, the greater the activity in the Living Field. Full list of topics at [3]. The food chain diagram was created by the Center for Food Policy, City University [2], used with thanks.

The diagram is shown upper left in Fig. 1, but to examine our activities more closely, the spheres are reproduced as boxes drawn in the same colours as in the original. Each box lists those sub-topics that the Living Field has been active in over the past 15 or more years. We have a strong base in many topics of the Food Chain from production to eating, but have done little in processing, retail and waste.

Of the surrounding spheres, most activity has been in three – Environment, Health and Society – where we combine practical knowledge in the garden and farm with online activity in this web site.

Looking at the possibilities, it would be difficult for us, with a base in the Garden, to move far into economics and politics. Rather, the scope for expansion lies through improving the connections and overall integration among topics that we already cover, with some additions such as waste.

For those readers with long-term interest in the Living Field and its future, we summarise below our work on the Food Chain and in the spheres of Environment, Society and Health, providing links in each case to articles on this web site. Finally, we look to the future.

Fig. 2 Schoolchildren visiting fields at the James Hutton Institute, looking at crops and the bugs (invertebrates) that live in them – hosted by the Living Field.

Food Chain

The Living Field has been active in four of the main topics in the Food Chain [3]. Agricultural production and Farm inputs have been core activities, both in the garden and the surrounding farm. A range of cereals, legumes and tubers, some bred at the Institute, have been grown in most years. We have interpreted many aspects of Research and Technology and their practical application on the Hutton Farms for our audience of schools and the public.  Eating has concentrated on the use of home-grown grains, pulses and vegetables.

There has been some integration of these topics. Our ‘grain to plate’ – or more graphically ‘seed to sewer’ promotions – have looked at links along important segments of the food chain. And we have explained that, while most of our food is imported and relatively little produced locally, there is scope to raise home grown production.

Examples of Living Field web articles on these topics Crop diversification. Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on. Energy and light – no life without the sun. The Year. The barley timeline. The Brassica complex. Beans on toast – a liquid lunch. Three grain resilience. Effect on corn yields of the 2016 winter flood. Seed to sewer – the water footprint. Resilience to the 2018 drought. Food production from the first crops to the present day. Great quantities of aquavitae. Crop-weeds.

Fig. 3 Diversity of crops: panel of photographs to show the range of crops and other useful plants grown in the Living Field garden (original images by GS).


Of the 6 topics in the sphere of Environment [3], the Living Field has been active in Biodiversity, particularly as it affects ecological functioning, and Land use and Soil. The need to study and display diversity among managed and wild plants of the croplands was one of the main reasons for constructing the micro-habitats in the garden.

In Water, we have looked at both the water cycle as it affects agriculture and to a lesser degree the use of water in processing. Less emphasis has been given to Climate and Air, other than through having to respond to weather, as do all gardeners and farmers, and writing articles on climatic patterns and shifts.

Examples Pollinator plants. The meadow. Hedge and tree. Pond and ditch. Crop diversity. The late autumns floods of 2012. Resilience to the 2018 drought. Winter flood. Dust bowl ballads. The beauty of roots. Booting small scale seed production. Kidney vetch and the small blue.

Fig. 4 Biodiversity in the Garden – collage of images taken in the Living Field garden arranged to show the micro-habitats with their plants and invertebrates, all interconnected. Original images by Stuart Malecki / Living Field.


The Living Field has placed Education centrally from the beginning, offering visits from schools and the public and working with formal education to produce teaching aids, notably the Living Field CD which was distributed to all schools in Scotland and had been widely requested from overseas (though is no longer updated). Working within the wider Community has exposed many people to the issues being discussed here, for example through various open events including Open Farm Sunday and public road shows.

In Culture, we have promoted the existence of our traditional crop landraces, notable bere barley, and explained the transitions in farming that have led to the present state.  Several artists and writers have worked with us to extend the Garden’s activities to new appreciative audiences.

Examples: Jean Duncan Artist. Open Farm Sunday 2019. The garden at Open Farm Sunday 2017. What are landraces. Bere line (rhymes with hairline). Tina Scopa – Edaphic Plant Art. The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre. Transition Turriefield. Shetland’s horizontal water mills. On the edge (rigs on Lewis). More than landscape. Dundee Astro. Anniversary designs and sketches.

Fig. 5 Living Field roadshow at a Biodiversity Day, Dundee Science Centre, showing: top right c’wise, people at the event, learning how to make bread, two types of edible insect, bread made from insect flour, gluten and a sheaf of emmer wheat, with (centre) cereal grain.


The project has promoted the benefits of healthy eating, mainly through growing and locally processing pulses, vegetables and grains. A major living exhibit in 2017 emphasised the nutritional content of different types of vegetable. The wider community has shown how to prepare and cook healthy plant products. Our work touches on food safety and general wellbeing, but much less so if at all on other topics in this category [3].

Examples Vegetables in the garden. The Garden’s vegetable bounty. Can we grown more vegetables. The vegetable map of Scotland. Legumes in the garden. Peasemeal, beremeal, oatmeal. Feel the pulse. Scofu – the indigenous Scottish tofu. 2Veg2 pellagra. Vegetables markets of the world: Little India, Inle, Bangkok.

Fig. 6 Vegetables grown in the garden, sectioned: cauliflower, carrot, onion and beet (images by Living Field)

Should the Living Field expand into Politics and Economics

The Living Field project has had little activity in spheres of Politics and Economics. The web site has touched on issues in rural policy, such as CAP Greening, and value-generation, for example through new legume products, and web articles have pointed to our reliance for food security on international trade in commodities. Yet in general we have kept out of Politics and Economics.

How far then should the Living Field enter into Politics? There is scope for more activity in topics around tax and subsidy but little option, given our status as part of a research institute, to enter into debates on party politics, power relations and governance structures. We have not been a campaigning organisation. Rather, we contribute basic knowledge and experience which we hope will be useful to others.

Similarly, how far into the Economy? There is certainly scope to raise our contribution to generating value in agricultural products, mainly through public outreach in food technology as developed within the Institute. There is perhaps more scope in comparing the economics of various crops and forms of agriculture, and the associated trade in these products, but to do that would need closer involvement from those with the right skills.

Fig. 6 Each year the garden grows a wide selection of useful plants in addition to the food crops. Here are some from 2019: top left c’wise, flowering stems of dyer’s weld, flower of dyer’s coreopsis, great mullein, dyer’s greenweed with wild carrot heads emerging, chicory flowers, and (centre) painted lady on knapweed (


The Centre for Food Policy’s concept of five spheres around the Food Chain is a challenge. The Living Field has worked in two of the spheres from the beginning – Environment and Society – and has increased its activity in a third – Health – for example through diet and nutrition.  The other two spheres, Politics and Economy have been left to other organisations adept in these areas.

Talking to people both at the conference and elsewhere, it looks like the greatest value offered by the Living Field is to continue concentrating on its core areas. Very few small projects can grow and display year on year around 200 plant species that are or have been useful to people as food, medicinals, fibres and dyes.

In looking to the future, the work needs to be more directed. Progress since 2001 has been a fairly random walk through plants and their cultivation since the neolithic. The speed and direction of this walk have been determined mainly by external events and the interests of the community – the scientists, artists and practical people who have contributed their time, effort and knowledge to the project.

Integration along the food chain

There is scope therefore for the Living Field to take on the Food Chain more holistically by integrating Environment, Society and Health with an awareness of Economics and a nod to Politics. This more purposeful approach should show the progression of products along the food chain, developing several case studies from the cereals, pulses and vegetables.

An example of how the project might operate in the future might learn from the Vegetable Map of Scotland [5]. Gladys Wright had the idea of constructing the Vegetable Map as a living entity in the Garden. The idea came from earlier web-work with Nourish in which we constructed a digital map of the country showing where the various legume and vegetable crops were grown. But when the map was made real, growing in the Living Field Garden (shown right) the wider interest was immediate – here’s the land, here are the vegetables now grown – and here’s what could be grown if the food chain was operating for the benefit of all.

We have already begun this to a degree in association with the Hutton’s lead in the EU TRUE project on legumes in the food chain [4]. Taking Scotland’s pulses, peas and beans, as an example, the Living Field has describe their history of cultivation, shown how to grow them, their agronomy and environmental benefits including nitrogen fixation, and explored the potential for new uses and higher value in products such as Scofu. Yes, the Scottish tofu!

And we could extend the line of thought and practice: here are the benefits for environment and health … and this is what it would take in the form of support to farming to achieve these benefits ….. and perhaps most important of all, here is the public buy-in and political will needed to make it happen.

There’s much to think about …. and not least where the money comes from for the next phase.


[1] Nourish Scotland: information on the conference at Game Plan for a Good Food Nation.

[2] Conference Food Chain diagram: Centre for Food Policy, City University of London The diagram was published in the following brief: Parsons K, Hawkes C, Wells R. 2019. Brief 2: What is the food system? A Food Policy perspective. In: Rethinking Food Policy: a fresh approach to policy and practice. London: Centre for Food Policy. Available through this link.

[3] The Food Chain comprises: Farm inputs, Agricultural production, Research and technology, Processing, Distribution/transport/trade, Food retail/service, Waste/disposal and Eating. The sphere of Environment comprises: Land/sea, Soil, Water, Air, Climate and Biodiversity. That of Society: Education, Livelihoods, Gender, Media and advertising, Culture and Community. Of Health: Wellbeing, Food safety, Environmental health, Diet and nutrition, Antibiotic use and Workplace safety. Of Economy: Trade, Jobs, Skills, Competitiveness, Value generation, Allocation of resources. Of Politics: Legislation, Policy, Power relations, Tax/subsidies, Governance structures and Political parties

[4] EU TRUE Transition Paths to Sustainable legume based systems in Europe. TRUE Project home:

[5] Current and potential vegetable production in Scotland was explored in an article titled Can we grow more vegetables? from which arose the living structure in the Vegetable map made real.


[Online 5/12/2019, minor edits and new links 17/12/2019 and28/12/2019]