Norman Villis

(Left) Norman Villis (right) with colleagues Peter Orriss (centre) and Donald Pigott, (left) in 1995  (Right) Norman Villis in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden Glasshouses

Norman Villis   Acting Superintendent 1995 – 1997
Normal Villis joined the Botanic Garden in 1957 as a young trainee and remained as a staff member.  Norman was promoted to Garden Supervisor in 1974 and formed a creative working partnership with Garden Superintendent, Peter Orriss –  this role of Superintendent is now known as Curator. In 1995, he became Acting Superintendent, following Peter Orriss’ retirement. Over a 50-year career at the Botanic Garden, Norman Villis worked under the directorship of Dr Max Walters, Prof Donald Pigott, acting directorship of Professor Thomas ap Rees and Professor John Parker (1996 – 2010).

During his time as Garden Supervisor and Acting Superintendent, Norman Villis was involved in the design and planning of several of the most innovative contemporary plantings in the late twentieth-century.

Garden Displays
1978               New Winter Garden
1989               Tropical Palm House
1996               The Grass Maze
1997               The Dry Garden in association with Peter Orriss, Garden Superintendent
1998               The Genetics Garden

New Winter Garden  The New Winter Garden display has been described as ‘the most influential in Britain.’  The Old Winter Garden, originally conceived in 1958, by Bob Younger, was reworked with plantings that are seen at their peak during the winter months. The new Winter Garden was moved to its current location in 1978.
Voices from the 1970s  Listen to Norman Villis talking about the reason for the move and his vision for the new display.

The Dry Garden Another innovation was the Dry Garden in 1997. The challenge was to create an ‘average’ suburban garden containing plants which required little or no water. This sustainable garden was created with a grant from the Cambridge Water Company.

Garden Voices  Follow the link to hear Norman Villis talk about the development of the Dry Garden Voices from the 1990s.

The Dry Garden takes shape in 1997, (left)  The Dry Garden in 2012 (right)

Sustainability  Norman Villis and his team selected 100 different drought-tolerant species, including hardy native British plants, such as Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima) and Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), which thrive in dry conditions.  They selected easily available plants that may be purchased from local garden centres and nurseries. The planting includes popular Mediterranean native plants – Lavender and Thyme – that are adapted to dry environments.  Since the Dry Garden was completed in 1997, it has never been watered.  The planting demonstrates to British gardeners that it is possible to have an interesting garden without the need for using hose-pipes or sprinklers.

The Genetics Garden  Plant breeding and plant hybridisation has a history that goes back to the first farmers, over 10,000 years ago, selecting the best seeds for forthcoming crops.  The Genetics Garden was developed in 1998 by Professor John Parker with the assistance of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB).  The Genetics Garden was created to demonstrate ‘the dramatic effect of genes on plant appearance, and how, over the years, plant breeders have improved the crops we grow.’

Genetics and the development of hybridisation has a long history at Cambridge.  Indeed it was zoologist, William Bateson, who coined the term ‘genetics’.  Bateson and botanist colleagues grew experimental hybridisation crops on experimental plots in the allotments in the nineteenth and early twenty-first century.  The Genetics demonstration beds show the growth of Pea plants Pisum sativum of the Fabaceae family, dwarfing genes in wheat, the production of double flowers as well as Brassica and Beta derivatives.

The Grass Maze  The Grass Maze was developed as a fun planting for children.  It offers a short labyrinth and an interesting pattern of short grasses for young children to explore and run around while remaining in clear sight of their parents.  With the lack of green urban spaces, the Grass Maze is a child-friendly display where young children can enjoy exploring and discovering plants, especially the soft grass – New Zealand Pheasant’s Tail Grass Anemanthele lessoniana.

Norman’s international plant collecting includes an expedition to Mount Roraima, Guyana, South America with Dr Edmund Tanner in 1989.  He  accompanied Professor Donald Pigott (1984 – 1995) to Tbilisi in Russia in 1988 and to USA in the 1990s to study lime-trees in the wild.

(Left)  Norman Villis on his retirement in 1997, with Professor John Parker in Cory Library. (Right) Norman with Dr Tim Upson visiting the new Winter Garden, February 2013