ST. AUSTELL, ENGLAND — In the beginning it was just a wild scheme thought up by an aging rock musician and his friends at an English country inn.
Nine years later, the idea of creating a "garden of Eden" in the heart of Cornwall has not only come to fruition, it has blossomed into the biggest attraction in southwest England.
The Eden Project has transformed an ugly clay pit near the Cornish town of St. Austell into a plant paradise that boasts the biggest greenhouses in the world.
It's a gardener's delight, from the first sight of its two breathtaking conservatories. The massive croissant-shaped "biomes" erupt from the crater floor, their glistening honeycombed shells mimicking the eyes of a giant insect. These spectacular structures dominate their surroundings - 35 acres of flower beds, shrubbery, and landscaped vegetation interrupted only by pathways, ponds, and festive banners flapping in the breeze.
The Eden Project is an amazing botanical garden, but it's also much more.
"To describe it in one phrase is impossible," admits Eden's media director, Paul Travers, although he tries. "It's the largest greenhouse in the world, it's a wonderful scientific institution ... it's a living theater of people and plants ... it's all about human dependence on plants."
Mr. Travers can be forgiven for relying on catchphrases to describe this effort. He has lived and breathed Eden ever since his best friend, Tim Smit, wooed him from the hustle-bustle of London eight years ago.
Mr. Smit seems an unlikely person to head a project touted by some, with a healthy dose of hyperbole, as "the eighth wonder of the world." Dutch-born and British-educated, he first made his mark in the music industry as a composer/producer in rock music and opera.
After 10 years of jetting around the world, Smit moved to Cornwall in 1987 with his wife and three children to pursue "a quieter lifestyle."
Instead, he stumbled into the world of gardening. Smit discovered in 1990 that he was living beside a long-abandoned, overgrown Victorian garden - " 'Peter Rabbit' meets 'The Secret Garden' in a green ocean of plenty," as he once described it.
Smit and a partner, with a team of volunteers, spent six years restoring what became the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which now draws 350,000 visitors a year.
Smit's desire to do something big - too big for Heligan - prompted him and a few friends to brainstorm the genesis of a second garden, the Eden Project, in May 1994.
A year later, Smit was scrawling sketches in a pub to tempt Travers into being the fourth person to join this venture.
Travers remembers thinking: "If anyone can make it happen, he will, and if I'm not part of it I'll never forgive myself."
Today, he knows it was the right decision. "How often do you get invited to be part of the eighth wonder of the world by a recording artist who knows nothing about horticulture?"
But Smit knew how to excite others with his vision. By the late 1990s his dream to build the world's largest greenhouse became one of Britain's Millennium Projects. It received a $70 million government grant, and soon other public and private investors covered the rest of the $138 million tab.
Construction crews descended upon the derelict pitin January 1999. Aided by teams of architects, engineers, and horticulturists, they took 26 months to sculpt the ugly china-clay crater into a site of beauty.
Since opening in March 2001, the Eden Project has attracted 4 million visitors to England's westernmost county. It has quickly grown into a key stop on the popular coach tours that whisk tourists to Britain's numerous horticultural sites.
The Eden Project offers acres of gardens within the landscaped crater, but the vast conservatories are the real stars. The pair of bubbled biomes house 125,000 wild and cultivated plants from 5,000 species around the world - everything from South Africa's tangerine- colored desert daisies to the towering kapoc tree, which at 52 feet is the tallest plant in Eden.
These conservatories are themselves a remarkable feat of engineering. Both structures have been built without internal supports to prop up the honeycombed mass of steel pipes and translucent hexagonal foil "windows" that shroud the horticultural collections.
The larger Humid Tropics Biome is, at 790 feet long by 360 feet wide, large enough to cover four NFL football fields and, at 180 feet high, could easily swallow the Statue of Liberty.
Yet this architectural marvel is all but invisible once one is inside. Then it seems as though the visitor is in a lush rain forest. Tropical trees and green palms grow alongside banana groves, vines, spices, and pungent tropical flowers - all thriving in a steamy 95 degrees F. A waterfall feeds a stream that meanders through the jungle growth in this biome, which boasts plants from the islands of Oceania, Malaysia, West Africa, and South America.
Across a covered walkway lies the Warm Temperate Biome, with flora from the Mediterranean, South Africa, California, southwest Australia, and Chile. The eclectic collection includes citrus trees, grapevines, cork oaks, and olive trees mixed with fragrant roses, geraniums, and other flowers.
Outside, the surrounding gardens along the bottom of the crater represent a third biome, so to speak, where native English plants thrive alongside foreign flora that can weather Cornwall's climate. Apple trees, lavender, indigo, sunflowers, and tea all sprout in this outdoor landscape. Areas are sectioned off to represent habitats in Chile, the North American prairies, and Cornwall.
The Eden Project has plenty of appeal to green thumbs around the world, but what really makes it different is the mix of art, education, and its underlying "sustainability" message.
This sets the Eden Project apart from places like the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, near London, and other collections around the world.
Even the presentation is different. Eden isn't the typical garden-variety conservatory where exotic plants bear small plastic labels with long Latin names.
"We don't want to look like a cemetery," Travers explains. "It's not a tree museum, far from it ... and we're not about collecting rare plants, either" - although Eden does have some rare flora, including a "coco de mer" (a tropical palm from the Seychelles that grows from the world's biggest seed or nut, which may weigh more than 48 pounds), and endangered plants from the Atlantic island of St. Helena.
More than half of Eden's exhibit space depicts humanity's dependence on plants, often with a combination of thought-provoking exhibits, sculptures, and cloth signs with intriguing facts. "In terms of species per square meter, we probably have one of the worst collections in the world," Travers says, "but it's because we want to tell stories."
In the Humid Tropics Biome, for example, a grove of rubber trees rises from an area sectioned off by giant rubber tires decorated by quirky words associated with rubber. Nearby, a sign explains that centuries ago South American natives painted the plant's milky latex on their feet to make the first "rubber boots."
Different rice varieties sprout beneath giant rice-straw sculptures in an area that explains the Green Revolution, the crop-breeding program of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the Warm Temperate Biome, pig sculptures made of cork mingle among cork oak trees, with an explanation why the increasing use of plastic stoppers in wine bottles, instead of the traditional cork, may result in a loss of cork oak forests and habitat, as this woodland could be cut down in favor of other uses such as farming. (Cork comes from the bark and can be stripped off without harming the trees or forest.)
As part of the storytelling, Eden employees circulate among visitors to explain the science and nature behind the plants. Their hope: to get young and old hooked on horticulture.
"We're not preachy," Travers says. "Our position is not to have a position." But the Eden Project does try planting a subtle message - one of biodiversity, conservation, and hope - in the minds of its visitors.
"We intended to create something that not only encourages us to understand and celebrate the world we live in, but also inspires us to action," Smit wrote in Eden's guidebook. "Eden isn't so much a destination as a place in the heart. It is not just a marvelous piece of science-related architecture; it is also a statement of our passionate belief in an optimistic future for mankind."
As visitors wander among the cheery greenery, soaking up fragrant scents and kaleidoscopic colors, it's easy to see how such infectious optimism can spread like wildflowers in the garden of Eden.
• For more information:
The Eden Project, Bodelva, St. Austell, Cornwall, England PL24 2SG. Telephone: 011 44 1726 811900. Visit the website at www.edenproject.com.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Pentewan, St. Austell, Cornwall, England PL26 6EN. Telephone: 011 44 1726 845100. Website: www.heligan.com.