Lizards, vines, papayas: working solo in the Eden Project during lockdown

Lucie Oldale has been keeping the world’s largest indoor rainforest in check for when visitors return

Her only companions are darting lizards and the crested partridges that scrabble around her feet as she does the watering or tries to keep on top of the weeding. Background noise is the burble of a waterfall and birdsong.

The lockdown has forced many people to work alone, but few can be operating in such splendid, spectacular isolation as Lucie Oldale at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

As a specialist horticulturalist, she spends her working days among more than 1,000 species in the huge biome that houses the world’s biggest indoor rainforest.

“It’s quite a bizarre experience,” said Oldale, 32 and originally from Edinburgh. “Usually at this time of year it’s really busy with visitors. Now it’s just me.”

She says does miss the crowds, but that it’s amazing to be in there alone.

“I’m so privileged to have this brilliant space to myself with all the plants doing their thing, no matter what humans are up to outside. Spring is a beautiful time of year in the rainforest. The plants are enjoying high light levels and longer days. Everything is bursting into life.”

She concedes it can be spooky at times. “You’ll be in your bubble doing something then realise you haven’t seen or spoken to anyone for the whole day.”

However, she isn’t completely alone. Small green anole lizards and geckos appear as if by magic, then vanish in a flash. “Because it’s been so sunny, warm and quiet there are lots of them around. I’ve had a fright a few times when pruning or cutting and one of them has appeared. They are very well camouflaged and you can get a fright when you come across one unexpectedly.”

Roul-rouls – the crested partridges – also keep Oldale on her toes. “They run around all over the place. They have been pairing off for the season. I’m expecting the first chicks any day.” Other birds in the biome include white eyes from Indonesia and blackbirds and robins that have found their way into the biome.

Cockroaches are occasionally spotted, but nothing bigger. “I’ve never seen a big spider, thankfully. Sometimes I think if this was the real jungle you wouldn’t be rummaging around the way we do.”

Oldale works a normal eight-hour shift each day. Happily, Eden has just installed a new automatic watering system. “Otherwise I’d be spending the whole time watering,” she said. “I can even operate it from my phone.”

Still, she has to spend a couple of hours every morning watering the hard-to-reach areas – and an awful lot of time weeding. “The weeds are going crazy this year. I’m keeping on top of things as best I can.”

A jade vine in the rainforest biome.
A jade vine in the rainforest biome. Photograph: Eden Project

Highlights in the biome right now include the electric blue jade vine from the damp riverine rainforests of the Philippines, which has been particularly spectacular. “It’s such as shame visitors haven’t seen it,” Oldale said.

She is also pleased with the progress of the pineapples and papayas. Staff are not allowed to eat any of the fruit that grows in the biome. “But perhaps in a global pandemic you can bend the rules a bit,” said Oldale. She is particularly keen on the idea of making a green papaya salad. “You harvest it before it turns orange and grate it. It’s good with a little lime juice.”

Competition for the fruit is fierce, though. “The birds keep their eyes on it. You have to be pretty quick to beat them.”

A huge treat is clearing out the pools. During this fine spring the biomes have reached temperatures of more than 40C, but the water is nice and cool. “It’s definitely shorts and T-shirt conditions. Sometimes I think I could get along with even less because I’m alone,” Oldale says with a twinkle in her voice.

Other jobs include keeping a record of what work needs to be done to allow visitors back in. “Because the biome has really been heating up, the vents have started opening automatically to control the temperature. Open vents create air movement and this paired with new growth is a bad combination, resulting in lots of snapped limbs.

“I have been monitoring the trees carefully, keeping the biome safe and pruning any snaps I am able to reach. I can’t do a lot of tree work alone so I have been keeping a record of all the jobs we will be able to do when the team is back. We’ll use a cherrypicker and even work from ropes to make the rainforest safe before we invite the public back.”

Usually pests are controlled by releasing predatory and parasitoid bio-controls – insects that like to eat or parasitise the main pest species such as aphids, scale insects and mealybugs. “This is not possible right now, so as an alternative I have been clearing out annual crop displays and cutting back as much herbaceous material as I can. This will reduce food sources for pests and help me to keep the biome clean and tidy.”

Oldale’s situation has some parallels with the ecologist in the 1972 film Silent Running, who are alone in outer space with a dome filled with forest trees saved from Earth. “Everyone is feeling isolated in some way,” said Oldale. “I’m very happy to keep the biome going for when visitors can return.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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