25 Sep 2021
Written for Paperback
Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, was a towering figure in the world of botany and the promotion of Britain’s forests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Puck’s Hut (see cover illustration) was opened in 1928 at Benmore as a celebration and memorial to his life and this book, a description of how it came to be built, sets out some of the things he did and why we should know about him. With COP26 due to take place in Glasgow shortly, it is appropriate to draw attention now to this most energetic and visionary scholar who was a driving force in working for better national recognition of the value of forests through, for example, the establishment of the Forestry Commission and the spectacular Botanic Garden at Benmore. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), of which Sir Isaac was Keeper from 1888-1922, celebrated its 350th anniversary last year. It began as a physic garden, situated close to Holyrood Palace, but now consists of four gardens located across central and south-west Scotland (Edinburgh, Benmore in Argyll, Logan in Dumfries and Galloway, and Dawyck in the Scottish Borders) which are renowned not just as places to visit and enjoy but also, though perhaps less visibly, for their international work in capacity building and scientific research.
Benmore Garden lies near Dunoon in Argyll, some 90 minutes travel west of Glasgow. It hosts specimens of approximately 50% of the world’s endangered conifers, while the herbarium in Edinburgh contains around three million records, representing between half and two-thirds of the world’s documented flora. At a time when we better understand the value of trees, not just for their beauty and economic importance to rural life, but also their indispensable role in retaining water, reducing flooding and mitigating climate change, through carbon capture and storage, this book celebrates one of Scotland’s giants in the world of botany and arboriculture. One of the great achievements of the RBGE is in helping countries to write floras, for if countries do not know the extent of their botanical resources how can they properly value them? Floras of Nepal and Bhutan are recent publications.
Isaac Balfour (1853-1922) was the son of John Hutton Balfour (1808-1884), also a Regius Keeper, and Isaac was raised in the environs of the Edinburgh garden. By the age of 26, he was Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, followed by a four-year period as Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford, before returning to Edinburgh in 1888 as University Professor of Botany and Keeper of the Garden, formidable achievements by the age of 35, and not to overlook that by then he had also written the Botany of Socotra and established a Winter Garden in what is now Glasgow Botanic Garden. As President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1894, he called for increased tree planting ‘as forests reduce the extremes of temperature of the air; they protect and control the water flow from the soil’. He also discovered the absorptive and antiseptic properties of dried Sphagnum moss, and by 1918 over one million dressings per month were being used in British hospitals. For this work, he was recognized with a knighthood. Should you be fortunate enough to visit Benmore you will see this remarkable building set amidst one of Scotland’s most spectacular arboreta.
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