Kew Gardens, World of Plants and History of Kew


Originally an eighteenth-century royal estate, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, now contain one of the largest collections of living plants anywhere in the world, with flora from habitats as diverse as tropical forests, deserts and coral reefs.

Kew means different things to different people. To most of the one million-plus visitors who come to The Royal Botanic Gardens each year, the 120 hectares (300 acres) represent a green oasis in the city and a pleasant place for a day out. To gardeners and landscape designers the Gardens provide inspiration; to artists and photographers alike they offer a galaxy of colours, shapes and forms. Yet how many visitors pause to consider the way in which plants from far-flung corners of the globe came there? Perhaps few appreciate that many have been collected on numerous expeditions originating from Kew, dating from as far back as the latter part of the eighteenth century up to the present day when exciting plants, new to science continue to be found.

Scientists Work in the ‘Living Laboratory’ At Kew Gardens

For the many scientists who work at Kew, the Gardens provide a rich source of research material – a living laboratory. Indeed, the primary functions of Kew’s plant collections are scientific research and education. As well as the Living Collections in the grounds, plants are raised and propagated in extensive nurseries, while a wealth of research material is stored in the Herbarium on Kew Green and in the World Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place — ‘Kew in the country’ — at Ardingly in Sussex.

The statistics are perhaps even more impressive, for Kew has the world’s largest collection of living plants: 83,000 accessions of some 38,000 species, from habitats as diverse as the steamy Amazonian rainforest, the heights of Mount Kenya or the tropical waters around coral reefs. In addition, with more than six million preserved specimens of seed-producing plants, ferns and larger fungi in the Herbarium, it can justly claim to house the world’s most comprehensive collection of plant material. What is more, this collection continues to grow as some 45,000 specimens are added annually.

How The Famous Botanic Gardens at Kew were Made

Kew Gardens are sited on a flood-plain terrace of gravel brought down by the waters of the River Thames. Gradually, as layers of detritus built up, herbs, shrubs and trees invaded the area to form scrubby woodland interspersed with marshy swamps. The porous nature of the terrace means that rain quickly drains through the sandy soil, so that extensive watering has to be carried out during long, hot summers.

It is reasonable to ponder how the most famous botanic garden in the world should be sited on far-from-ideal soil. The answer is simply that the gardens evolved quite fortuitously from the combination of two royal estates. At a time when transportation by water was widely used, the proximity of the river to both Richmond and Kew must have been a positive attraction to royalty. In 1721, several years before George II became king, he lived with the Princess of Wales at Ormonde Lodge (or Richmond Lodge) on the Richmond estate within the Old Deer Park which fronted on to the river. Several years after he succeeded to the throne in 1727, his son Frederick, Prince of Wales, took a lease of the adjacent Kew estate.

When he died in 1751, his widow Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales, appointed Sir William Chambers as her architectural adviser, but only six of his many buildings survive today: the Ruined Arch (1759): the Orangery (1760); the ten-storey Pagoda (1761-2); and the Temples of Bellona (1760), Aeolus (rebuilt in 1845) and Arethusa (1758).

History of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew

Within the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens based in Kew, Richmond, Surrey, a small arboretum and physic garden were laid out under the guidance of the horticultural adviser (Lord Bute) to Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales. In 1761, he was responsible for acquiring several trees for Princess Augusta from the estate of his late uncle, the Duke of Argyll, at Whitton up the river near Hounslow. Among these old trees, three still remain at Kew today: a locust tree or false acacia, Robinia pseudacacia, a Japanese pagoda tree, Sophora japonica, and the largest maidenhair tree. Ginkgo biloba, in the Gardens.

After Princess Augusta’s death in 1772, the two estates – Richmond and Kew – were united by her son George III. He appointed Joseph Banks (who travelled as naturalist on Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific) to advise on the botanical developments at Kew. It is estimated that some 7,000 specimens were introduced during George III’s reign – mostly by Banks’ collectors. Plants introduced during Banks’ time included the Banksian rose, Rosa banksiae, a climber discovered at a Guangzhou nursery, south China, in 1807 by William Kerr; the tiger lily, Lilium tigrinum, with deep orange-red flowers bearing many purplish-black spots, and the cineraria, Senecio cruentus, from the Canaries, since bred into the many coloured forms now sold as pot plants.

Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, had her own menagerie near the Queen’s Cottage where kangaroos, a blue nilgai from India and Algerian cows were kept until 1806. The surreal orange, blue and black bird of paradise flower, introduced to England from the Cape in 1773, was named Strelitzia reginae in honour of the Queen, formerly a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

The year 1820 saw the death of both King George III and Banks, after which the Gardens went into decline. Two decades later the ownership of Kew passed from the Crown to the State. Sir William Hooker was appointed the first official Director in 1841 of a modest 6 hectares (15 acres), but in the following five years, the area increased to over 100 hectares (250 acres). It was during Sir William’s directorship that the Palm House was erected at a cost of £30,000, and the Museums and Department of Economic Botany (1847), the Herbarium and Library (1852) came into being. When the Lake was excavated, the gravel was used to make a terrace for the Temperate House, the Main Block and two octagons being built during 1860-2, with the South and North Wings added several decades later to produce a glasshouse almost twice the area of the Palm House.

Vistas at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The splendid vistas centred on the Palm House at Kew Gardens, extending north, south and west, which we still enjoy to this day, were conceived in the 1840s by William Nesfield. From the Rose Garden adjacent to the Palm House, the Pagoda Vista unfolds to the south. No matter what the season, the Pagoda makes a spectacular focal point – even when its colours are not discernible, as it looms ghost-like from the autumnal mist. Instead of using a single tree species to line this avenue, over forty different kinds of trees were planted as opposite pairs. Running west from the edge of the Rose Garden is the Syon Vista, lined with evergreen Holm oaks, Quercus ilex – native to the Mediterranean region – interspersed with other trees. This vista runs right through the middle of the Gardens towards the Thames and Syon House across the river, although riverside plants now interrupt the view to the house. The Broad Walk, which stretches from a circular bed adjacent to the Pond up to the Orangery, is another of Nesfield’s vistas, planted with cedars and tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera.

After the death of Sir William Hooker (the first official Director of the Kew Estate), his son Joseph Hooker (later knighted) became Director in 1865 and made many additions to the Gardens. He planted the Pinetum, the Atlas cedars (1872), the Holly Walk (1874) and the Sweet Chestnut Avenue (1880) and created the Rock Garden in 1882. The buildings, on the other hand, were more modest than in his father’s time, although the opening of the Jodrell Laboratory in 1876 was an important landmark from a scientific standpoint. It was T.J. Phillips Jodrell, a personal friend of Joseph Hooker, who financed the building and equipment of the laboratory for scientific research into the anatomy and physiology of plants. During the forty-four-year period when father and son Hooker between them directed Kew, they contributed greatly to the international reputation of the Gardens.

Kew Gardens in the 20th Century

Within the 20th century the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, had seen many changes. At the beginning of the Second World War, large lawns were ploughed up so that potatoes and other vegetables could be grown, while indoor tomatoes were produced in some of the glasshouses. A model allotment laid out as recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to provide a family of four with vegetables virtually throughout the year, proved to be a great attraction to the public. When Chambers designed his ornate Pagoda for Kew, he could not have envisaged that it would be used during wartime for research into the velocity of bombs. Almost 50 metres (165 feet) high, the building had the floorboards cut away in each of its ten storeys, so that scientists could observe the way in which model bombs would fall from a height.

Notable additions to the Gardens in relatively recent years (the last 20 – 30 years) include the pyramidal topped Alpine House opened in 1981 and, six years later, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the glasshouse with the largest ground area at Kew. The futuristic design of the latter, with its low, extremely angular profile, is in complete contrast to that of the curvaceous Palm House. Built to replace twenty-six small houses, the prime concern was to conserve energy. Most of the space is below ground level and there are no side walls. It is divided into ten distinct environmental zones, in each of which the temperature, humidity, ventilation and lighting are precisely controlled by computer. Every two minutes the conditions in each zone are checked and, if necessary, adjustments are made. Here, optimum growing conditions are provided for plants from habitats as diverse as arid deserts, humid tropics, mangrove swamps and tropical freshwaters.

Kew’s fortunes certainly waxed and waned in 1987 for, not long after the excitement associated with the opening of the Princess of Wales Conservatory had subsided, the Gardens were buffeted by a storm of near hurricane force during the night of 15-16 October 1987. Overnight, 10 per cent of Kew’s 9,000 trees were felled or severely damaged – as many as might be expected to be lost by natural causes over a fifteen-year period. Among the notable losses was a specimen of the original introduction to cultivation of the Caucasian elm, Zelkova carpinifolia (1762), the very rare elm Ulnus villosa, and a 200-year-old Turkey oak, Quercus cerris, near the Palm House Pond. The Gardens had to be closed for ten days while some of the paths and roads were cleared. Seeing the Gardens on the day after the storm, I found that the most striking change was the temporary loss of vistas on this flat site, as huge leafy crowns (most of the felled trees were deciduous) interrupted the views created by landscape designers during the previous century. The sudden loss of so many trees at Kew caught the attention of the world’s press and media. Less well publicized, however, was the gradual, but none the less heavy, loss of some 600 trees during 1976 and 1977, triggered by the severe drought of 1976 combined with the prevalence of Dutch elm and sooty bark diseases.

The effect of the 1987 tree losses at Kew, however, was not entirely negative. For one thing, the gaps so created enabled a wider representation of species to be planted within some collections. Scientists working on tree roots in the Jodrell Laboratory suddenly had a quantity of material – and a range of species — beyond their wildest dreams. Exposed root systems were measured and systematically photographed. Because the precise ages of many windblown trees were known, sections of trunks could be used both to research the ageing of trees and to look for indications of the effects of air pollution, including acid rain.

In collaboration with Task Force Trees of the Countryside Commission, Kew scientists analysed completed questionnaires about windblown trees in south-east England. This work provided information on how tree roots develop in different soils and locations, as well as on the instability of certain species in high winds, which will be invaluable not only to landscape gardeners but also to urban planners. Much of the windblown timber from the storm was sold; some, however, was donated to craftsmen. They had the rare opportunity of working unusual woods to create unique pieces or furniture, some of which were exhibited at Kew.

Not long after all the additional work associated with the October 1987 storm had been completed, more storms in January 1990 felled, or damaged beyond repair, a further 120 trees at Kew. On this occasion, it was mostly broad-leaved evergreens or conifers that suffered, rather than the deciduous trees which had shed all their leaves by that time of year.

10. July 2017 by admin
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