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Green with gardener's envy at the Edinburgh Botanics

I fall for it every time. I make up my mind once again to explore the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh as no more than an Admirer of the Unattainable. And then, before I know what I'm doing, I find myself jotting down Latin names on the back of an envelope, in the sanguine belief that I will be able to introduce into our own Everything Garden at home that spectacular blue poppy over there in the Woodland Garden (Meconopsis grandis) or this striking pink-purple orchid here in the Peat Garden (Dactylorhiza foliosa).

I imagine that this condition is called ``gardener's envy.'' It strikes most irresistibly in botanical gardens. And in none I know is it more tempting than in the matchless Edinburgh Botanics. Surely that entrancing tall white anemone with its frost-white, green-centered flowers or that herbaceous potentilla (with flowers that are fierce flame-orange in the middle and soften to a warm yellow-orange at the tips) wouldn't be difficult to grow if I could find a plant specialist who sells them? And look at that rhododendron with its thousands of small gray-blue, hair-fringed leaves rushing like water over a rock (Rhododendron lepidostylum), or that shade-loving lily (Lilium Grayi from the Alleghany Mountains, says the label) with its bronze-red bell-flowers held on slender, angled stems! Dreams, dreams!

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Edinburgh might not be the most likely setting for one of the world's finest gardens. Its east winds are against it. And it has an urban atmosphere that caused one in-house commentator in 1970 to moan that none of the conifers in the garden ``is of great size, none is a beautiful specimen, and none will ever be satisfactorily cultivated.''

But despite these drawbacks, this is an endlessly fascinating collection of beautifully grown plants (and trees) from every corner of the globe. It is a haven-like place of gently sloping lawns, dappled shade, and amiable pathways. It is at once a workplace for horticulturalists and botanists and one of the pleasantist places anywhere for strolling on a Sunday afternoon. Or morning. If the weather's good.

Each time I visit the Royal Botanic Garden here I see things I've never noticed before. The seasons change, of course. But it's not just that. Though by no means a vast garden, it is so rich in plants that you can never take in everything on a single visit. Fresh enthusiasms are fostered every time.

Some of the delights that caught my eye on a recent visit this summer included the collection of hummocky alpines -- like small green hedgehogs or Christmas puddings -- in the alpine house: Drabas, Raoulias, Androsaces.

The long raised bed outside this house is filled with alpine treasures, none as stupendous (and few as small) as the native British Gentiana verna, with its brilliant blue star flower; I've never managed to grow it, but every time I see it I want to try again.

The collection of stone troughs planted with alpines would be hard to rival. Behind these are wall-climbers dominated by a clematis called ``Bill MacKenzie'' with a yellow lantern flower (like Clematis tangutica,'' but better). Also, though not particularly extravagant in its growth, there is a golden-yellow-flowered form of the Chilean glory flower, Eccremocarpus scaber ``Aureus.'' The tubular flowers of this attractive climber are more commonly red-orange. It's always fun to see an unusual form of a favorite plant.

Backed by a high beech hedge, the herbaceous border (and I wonder where there is a longer one) was only just coloring up -- still a little early. But the peonies in the Demonstration Garden on the other side of the hedge were out in all their exaggerated, old-fashioned glory. And the roses in this area were flowering like mad. One in particular had me writing on the envelope: ``a climber smothered in clusters of small white flowers with yellow centers, Rosa multiflora from Japan and Korea. The information label explains that this nearly thornless rose has been used in cultivating ``modern climbers and ramblers.'' I just wanted it for itself.

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The labeling is very thorough, and a self-instructive time can be had wandering across the lawns from tree to tree discovering how various in leaf and form maples can be, or how oaks from the world over grow happily in Edinburgh. I'd never before noticed one birch I came across: Betula Jacquemontii from west Himalaya. Its fat trunk might almost have been plastered with thick whitewash -- though it turned out to be only bark.

The rock garden is a great favorite in Edinburgh, with its pathways twisting through rocky hillocks. It's a great place for children to play hide-and-seek -- whatever the rules say (at least one guard seems tolerant). Of the thousands of different plants grown here, nothing compares for pure effect with the blue carpets of the Tibetan Gentiana, sino-ornata, and its various hybrids, planted en masse on the peaty fringes where the Rock Garden gives way to the Peat Garden. But they don't flower until autumn, and in summer it is the groups of Meconopses, orchids, and primroses in the Peat Garden that impress. There is a patch of the strange Primula Vialii, with its small red-hot flowers, that's quite remarkable.

Rhododendrons, particularly dwarf ones from West China, are one of the glories of the Edinburgh Botanics, though few are flowering in mid-summer. This collection shows, however, that as foliage plants they can be of considerable interest.

Since the weather is rarely certain in Edinburgh, it is sometimes quite a mercy that the green houses are so worthwhile. In them I abandon my note-taking and resort (as I should all the time) to admiration. Great pendulous trumpets compete with firework explosions of red flower-sparks, bright magenta bougainvillea vies with climbers covered with blooms like giant violets. One house is a desert for cacti and succulents; another a forest for ferns both small and very large.

But nothing is in competition, really, with the house containing the pool smothered in summer with the great green leaves of the Victoria water lilies from the Amazon. And the visitor can also gaze up at the underside of these strange floating platters and study their elaborate vein-structure.

It's a bonus not to be missed.

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