Dip beneath overhanging leaves of every colour and hue, pass by an explosion of tropical flowers, avoiding the creeping vines emerging from the verdant undergrowth, and you will reach a waterfall.
Sound like a far-off paradise? No, it’s a greenhouse in Edinburgh’s Inverleith – the Royal Botanic Gardens to be precise – visited by more than 700,000 people every year.
While the location isn’t exactly far-flung, the collection within famously boasts plants, flowers and seeds from the four corners of the earth, and has been helping conserve its diverse plant life for more than 330 years.
But though the garden has roots in the science of plants, one of their latest projects delves into the mythology and tradition so deeply connected with the rainforest in Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
“Nowadays we’re trying to look more at preventative medicine and things like diet but the indigenous groups there basically build that into their medicine,” said Dr Ann Simpson, who has been working with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh’s Colombian research programme.
“They look at illness as an imbalance so if you’re completely healthy you’re balanced with your environment, your family and community. If someone is ill they’ve got to put that balance back, so they’re using plants that can actually heal, but also the energies from those plants.
“That’s where the tricky bit comes in for the scientists; it’s a very hard concept - you can’t actually measure the energy or prove it, so you’re really basing it on the indigenous people’s views.”
Ann, from the University of Strathclyde, first encountered the Amazonian rainforest in 1989, when she moved to Colombia with her husband, who was working there.
Originally a pharmacist, she was put in touch with the Universidad Javeriana and Colombian anthropologist Blanca de Corredor, who specialised in Amazonian culture, and was taken to the Amazon Rainforest for the first time.
Once there she began her research into indigenous methods of recuperating and preserving the environment, as well as their reliance on traditional medicine, mythology and Shamanism.
Over the past two decades Ann has overcome language and culture barriers to work and live with local tribal people and their families, guided by elders, establishing academic and cultural exchanges with Colombian and Scottish universities.
“It’s basically an exchange of information and expertise,” said Ann. “The elders are very worried that they’re losing their environment and knowledge so all the projects that we’ve done have been based around their worry and concern.
“It’s a very long process. Amongst that comes the traditional medicine because the conservation of the biodiversity, knowledge and identity is obviously vital to any part of the knowledge they hold.”
“As the years went on I became a believer in the traditional medicines. I think if you’re doing any research at all you’ve got to have an open mind, otherwise you’re going to miss what you’re actually researching.”
Most recently, Ann, who lives in Edinburgh, has been collaborating with the Botanic Gardens, which set up a Colombian research programme in 2009.
She is currently conducting an eight-week course at the Botanics focusing on Amazonian traditional indigenous medicine, which is set to be repeated in January.
“I’ll be talking about the incredible knowledge that the indigenous elders and their apprentices have of conservation of biodiversity but in particular traditional medicine and the importance of not just looking at one aspect of it,” said Ann.
As well as Ann’s findings, the Botanics’ Colombian research programme focuses on various aspects, from a partnership with University of the Andes in Bogotá looking at the Páramo ecosystem to work on a film with Cromatophoro, a Bogotá based film company.
In August, a weekend-long event of talks, music and storytelling celebrated Colombia’s cultural and biological diversity.
James Richardson, head of Tropical Biogeography and Evolution in the Botanics’ Tropical Diversity department, said: “We’re interested in the biodiversity of Colombia. What we want to do is actually grow the plants and show them to the public to demonstrate the diversity that exists, as well as doing scientific research into these plants.
“When you hear about Colombia you often hear about the negative aspects of the country, you don’t hear about a lot of the positive things that the indigenous people represent and work with, that it’s so biodiverse, it’s such an important country.
“Our main aim is to promote Colombian biodiversity, not only through scientific research and publications, but by talking and working with a broader section of society.”