As Graham Young finds out, the Birmingham's Botanical Gardens are literally kept alive by the repeat generosity of visitors.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses will celebrate its 180th birthday next year.
And, as plant collections manager Simon Gulliver says: ‘‘It’s the best austerity bargain you’ll ever get.’’
The 15-acre green oasis in the middle of Birmingham’s most exclusive suburb, Edgbaston, typically attracts a quarter of a million visitors per year.
Designed by JC Loudon, one of the leading garden planners, horticultural journalists and publishers of his day, the site never ceases to surprise first-time visitors.
But it’s the people who want to return who are truly valued.
Their willingness to take out subscriptions literally helps to keep the centre’s plants alive.
As a not-for-profit, independent educational charity that was one of the first places of its kind to have a purpose-built study centre, it’s probably an under-appreciated fact that Birmingham Botanical Gardens does not receive any outside public funding.
The site requires more than 40 full and part-time staff to function effectively and to walk around the tranquil site is to follow in the footsteps of history.
Whether you decide to go clockwise round or anti-clockwise, the paths are relatively easy for the sure-footed and their are outdoor toilets, too.
Many of the pathways feature donated benches which has been dedicated to the memories of lost loved ones who used to frequent the gardens ready to enjoy plants which have arrived from as far afield as the Himalayas and South Africa.
In the subtropical house, for example, look out for that country’s Strelitzia reginae, which produces blooms ‘‘held confidently in banana-like leaves’’.
They are also regarded as an emblem of Los Angeles, where the species is extensively planted.
The name Strelitzia was in honour of Queen Charlotte, Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (and wife of George III), who lived at Kew Gardens for many years.
Their colours are at odds with the increasingly spartan nature of the trees outdoors – which have been enjoying a spectacularly golden autumn.
Look out, too, for a magnificent cedar tree planted by the son of engineer James Watt. Famous visitors to the Birmingham equivalent have ranged from the Queen Mother – her maturing silver birch tree is close to the main walkway at the top of the hill – to the leaders of the G8 Summit in 1998, which included US President Bill Clinton, Russian president Boris Yeltsin and our own now former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
They world’s then most powerful people dined in the Pavilion Tea Room, which was given a full makeover last month in order to greatly improve accessibility for the disabled.
More than 5,000 individuals and families are now members.
Their passes allow unlimited entry (excluding events requiring tickets) as well as the chance to be admitted free (at the discretion of the owners) to other garden sites including Westonbirt Arboretum, Kew Gardens, Bodenham Arboretum and the National Botanic Garden of Wales.
In order to encourage a higher take up of memberships, anyone buying a pass before December 31 can enjoy 13 months’ membership for the price of 12.
The idea being that in a world where many people don’t really need any material presents for Christmas then this kind of gift must surely be the next best thing. An annual membership of £42 allows entry for two people from the same family.
Family membership of £62 is for up to five people from the same family.
Annual or family members can buy guest tickets for £13 which allows entry for one other person.
Season tickets are also available – it costs £27.50 for each person over the age of 60.
Applications can be made online via www.birminghambotanicalgardens.org.uk
Another way of having a more permanent present is to buy a tree, either for yourself or as a gift or to be dedicated in memory of a loved one.
Simon says: “We are planting a range of fruit trees, blossom trees with flowering crabs.
“We are deciding where they will be planted, but people can choose out of those which site you would like for your own tree.”
* Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses, Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3TR. Tel 0121 454 1860.