Smelling the Flowers at Kew Gardens, London, England

Kew Gardens, Princess of Wales Conservatory (photo credit: Jill Browne)

I’m looking at hundreds, possibly thousands, of orchid blossoms in one of the world’s absolute best plant places: Kew Gardens, London.

The waxy lustre of the extravagant petals gives the deceptive impression that these plants are indestructible. Hardly so. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is one of the world leaders in plant conservation. Much of what grows here is endangered at home. But for me, today, the orchid experience is all about getting an eyeful of the sensuous curves of the outrageously attractive flowers. It’s a photo opportunity gone mad. I completely forget myself, until I feel a gentle tug at my sleeve and hear the patient voice of my companion, “I’m a little hungry.”

Fair enough, but first, we must get to the Palm House.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • It’s one of the world’s leading botanic gardens with over 300 acres to explore and indoor gardens, galleries and restaurants for days when the weather isn’t co-operating.
  • The Palm House designed by Decimus Burton, built in the 1840s, is the best surviving example of a Victorian iron and glass building.
  • Photographers, artists, landscape designers, gardeners, scientists, naturalists and students will find unlimited material here for study and inspiration.
  • It’s accessible and interesting to all ages, with wide, level pathways, children’s play equipment and the X-Strata tree walk 18 metres above ground.

Royalty, Landscape Design, Horticulture and Above All, Plants

For much of the past three centuries, the land here has been owned and altered by a succession of royalty and their favourites. Even though Kew Gardens has moved out of royal hands, it still has a connection with the monarch. You can visit Kew Palace,  the smallest of the historic royal palaces, and if you want to take a stroll, walk around the grounds of Kew Gardens to Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a rustic two-story getaway with a thatched roof, dating from around 1774.

Kew Palace and Queen’s Garden (photo credit: Jill Browne)

The second very visible theme at Kew is landscape design and horticulture. I always think of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, because of the sweeping, naturalistic curves and the way that the place seems to be much bigger than it actually is – the true art of the 18th century British landscape designers. Brown was one of many to have left an impression. Kew Gardens’ towering pagoda, far at the end of a tree-lined vista, was completed in 1762 under the direction of William Chambers. It’s the largest of several follies, each reflecting passing British fashions.

Finally, and of greatest importance by far, Kew is all about plants.

The gardens are always in bloom, indoors and out. Despite it being winter, I still see some purple pansies in great urns in front of the Palm House, and buds beginning to break on the magnolias. As the seasons change, there is a steady sequence of flowers: crocuses, daffodils, rhododendrons, lilacs, bluebells, roses, and so many more.

Kew Gardens is a Living Museum of Botany and History

One of the big differences between a botanic garden and an ornamental one is that while both are attractive, a botanic garden chooses and displays plants for scientific and educational reasons, not only for aesthetic ones. You can come to Kew simply to enjoy the quiet and feast your eyes. Or, you can go a little deeper.

For example, the rhododendrons, like all the specimen plants at Kew, are individually labelled. As I read where each one comes from, I soon see that the group planting as a whole is a rhododendron museum. This aspect of Kew, garden as museum, is most clearly displayed in the Order Beds, where the plants grow in regular, rectangular beds organized taxonomically. It’s a living botany textbook.

Palm House at Kew Gardens (photo credit: Jill Browne)

Some plants alive at Kew today were grown from seeds and cuttings brought back by the botanists and scientists who accompanied the great explorers. Joseph Banks brought his finds here, and so did Charles Darwin.

The history of Kew as the epicentre of the science of plants really hits home when I’m standing in the Palm House. I look up into the palm-like canopy of a 14-foot tree collected in the 1770s on one of Captain Cook’s voyages, the oldest potted plant in the world.

I walk along the conservatory pathways, wiping the steam off my glasses, smelling the moist earth, guessing what the plants are, and reading labels. Here’s the plant that tea comes from, and over here, coffee, chocolate, black pepper, bananas. Thinking about bananas brings me back to that reminder of someone being a little hungry.

The Wollemi Pine

The two of us head over to the Orangerie, one of Kew’s restaurants. Earlier in the day we rested at the cafe by the Victoria Gate and browsed the bookstore and garden shop. Now we’re eating lunch outside in the sun, looking across the lawn at the living symbol of Kew’s most important missions, plant conservation.

A feathery evergreen with soft, flat green needles stands in an iron cage all alone on the grass. This particular tree has a cousin living in a similar cage in the Sydney Botanic Garden. It’s the Wollemi pine, and this one at Kew was a gift from Sydney, planted here in 2005. What’s so special about it?

Flowers in February at Kew Gardens (photo credit: Jill Browne)

The Wollemi pine was only known of from fossils until 1994. People thought this plant had been extinct for two million years. Then David Noble, a parks and wildlife officer in Australia, found a cluster of them in a remote part of a national park in New South Wales. By growing this critically endangered plant and studying it scientifically, Kew is helping to prevent its extinction, just as it is helping conserve life around the globe.

We’re finished eating, but we haven’t been to the Alpine Garden yet. It’s time to get going. So many flowers, so little time.

Practicalities

  • The gardens are about 300 metres from Kew Gardens station on the London Underground District Line toward Richmond.
  • Go prepared to be outside for most of the time, weather permitting.
  • There is an admission fee.
  • Wear comfortable flat shoes so you can walk on the lawns as well as on the pavement.

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