Gardening: Shangri-La in SE1

The Tibetan Peace Garden which opened this week in south London is home to a rich variety of unusual plants from the East.
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Swathes of flowers in primary colours - red, yellow, blue and white - draped over steel and wooden pergolas; below, beds filled with shrubs and colourful herbaceous plants. This is the vision for the Tibetan Peace Garden which opened in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in London this week.

First appearances are surprising. Far from being an exotic Eastern landscape, this garden is similar in its planting to many of the back gardens that surround it. Prominent among the climbers are Clematis montana Alba, and winter-flowering Jasminum nudiflorum; nearer to ground level are cotoneaster horizantalis and the hardy plumbago with bright blue flowers, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides; all staples of the British gardening scene.

But among them are more unusual specimens such as Codonopsis ovata, which has bluebell-like flowers, or the low-growing Himalayan geranium. Some are proving elusive: few nurseries in the UK keep stocks of the pink-flowered Buddleia crispa, so an example will be hunted down and planted later.

The plant list was drawn up with the help of Charles Erskine, head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens, who was asked to suggest plants that have some association with Tibet. Since they don't obey geographical boundaries, there are specimens from all over the Himalayas, including western China and Nepal. The Tibet Foundation, which commissioned the garden in anticipation of a new start for mankind at the beginning of the new millennium, stipulated that there should be plenty of colour, particularly yellow, red and blue, all of which are significant in the Buddhist religion.

The Himalayas have a huge diversity of plants, and have been making a significant contribution to the flora of this country for more than a hundred years, since the first Victorian plant hunters set out to explore the area.

Not everything is suitable for a British garden: the Tibetan climate ranges between intense, dry heat, and alpine conditions and thick snow for many months in the mountains. The garden's designer, Virginia Kennedy, is anxious that a proper watering system should be installed, to compensate for the lack of melting snow which benefits many of the plants in their native habitat.

The garden's site, by a roadside a few hundred yards from Waterloo station, poses its own problems. Rainfall is low, and snow almost non-existent, so alpines are unlikely to do well. Meconopsis - the blue Himalayan poppy - has been avoided: it does better in the cooler climate of Scotland. The main difficulty has been assessing the likely effects of pollution from the cars and buses that use this main route into the centre of London.

In Tibet itself, gardening is not a major pastime, although there are many areas described as gardens. They are not owned or cultivated, but are enjoyed by the nomadic farmers who have a deep respect for nature, and use them as sites for their festivals. But many people brighten up their window-sills with pots. Phuntsog Wangyal, from the Tibetan Foundation, grew up in eastern Tibet. He remembers his mother growing sunflowers every summer; when they died down she covered them with dried dung and brought them inside until the next year.

Most of the population of Tibet concentrates its horticultural efforts on cultivating herbs and plants for use in traditional medicine. Traditional medicine was stopped by the Chinese, but has recently been reintroduced; the problem now is the shortage of doctors who know how to use herbs effectively.

It is only the rich, in towns such as Lhasa, who have formal gardens around their homes. Their style is influenced by the British expatriates who once ruled neighbouring India, and had a close relationship with Tibet in the first half of the century. Many of these gardens have more in common with large country estates than with traditional cottage-style planting. In most parts of the country it is difficult to grow anything in winter, since glass houses are unknown. But even in such a harsh climate, emphasis is on providing as much year-round interest as possible. Leaf shape is important, and if a shrub has no flowers, it will be used for its foliage alone. Just how much plants like these have influenced our own gardens can now be seen in a corner of south London.

The Tibetan Peace Garden is in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, St Georges Road, London SE1 6ER