In 1752, the Earl of Bute and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha called gardener John Dillman in for a little chat. Their instructions to Dillman were simple: Design a garden. It should, of course, be attractive; a classical English garden, blending the formal decorative with the new fad of naturalism, which is to say, lots of bluebell woods and wildflower meadows.
Oh, and one more thing: The garden should also, in Bute’s words: “Contain all the plants known on Earth.”
A tall order, but Dillman was unfazed. He got to work. And what are now the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, in southwest London, began to grow.
Architect Sir William Chambers was called in to augment Dillman’s efforts, and he threw himself energetically into the construction of pagodas, follies such as The Ruined Arch, and temples to such notables as Aeolus, the Greek god of storms, and the nymph Arethusa. Other gardeners, most notably Capability Brown, and architects such as Decimus Burton, who designed the magnificent glass houses, continued the good work. The collection of plants also expanded rapidly.
The wealthy entrepreneur and natural history enthusiast Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Capt. James Cook on his round-the-world voyage from 1768-71, collecting specimens, took a particular interest in the gardens. It was him who steered them further down the path of scientific research and conservation. Banks was determined that every newly discovered plant should be exhibited first at Kew, before any other botanical garden in Europe.
The spread of the British Empire gave him a head start in this enterprise, and a constant stream of new plants was sent to Kew by missionaries, diplomats, and army and navy officers.
The result? Kew’s herbarium currently contains 7 million specimens covering 98 percent of the world’s known genera.
Two museums of botanical products having economic value were built to demonstrate the Kew credo that “All life depends on plants.” These hold everything from wood collections (12,000 species) to peculiar herbal products.
Now, as we move toward 2002, Kew has still not quite achieved Bute’s goal of gathering “all the plants known on earth” — but it has come closer than any other botanical garden.
Nor is it resting on its laurels. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank project aims to collect the seeds of every single native British plant species, as well as the seeds of 24,000 additional species from around the globe.
The gardens have had their ups and downs. Chambers’ Orangery proved too dark to grow oranges in (it’s now a restaurant), a German bomber nearly blew up the pagoda, and suffragettes demanding the vote for women burned down the Refreshment Pavilion in 1913.
In fact, although there are still 31 listed buildings at Kew, many of Banks’ constructions have vanished. Also gone, for reasons we failed to ascertain, is Kew’s animal menagerie, which once contained “Kew’s Roos” (kangaroos), cattle from Algeria, tigers and a mysterious creature described in early records as “a hog like a porcupine in skin, with navel on its back.” Shame, we’d have liked to have seen that one.
The weather, too, has not been particularly kind to Kew. Tempests in 1916, drought in 1921, blizzards in 1926 and, most destructive of all, the so-called Great Storm of 1987 have all done their best to wreck the place.
Nothing, though, has succeeded in knocking down the 68-meter, 15-ton flagpole (the tallest in Britain), which was presented by British Columbia to mark Kew’s bicentenary.
Indeed, the gardens seem to be going from strength to strength. Fifteen of Kew’s total of 121 hectares have been designated a conservation area. This area is home not only to extremely rare native trees such as the Plymouth pear and the Bristol mountain ash (only 100 of still grow in the wild), but also provides habitat for 128 bird species, endangered great crested newts, as well as typical British woodland wildlife such as foxes, squirrels, hedgehogs and so on.
Kew also recently witnessed the opening of the Princess of Wales Conservatory (in honor of the deceased Princess Diana), a new Alpine House and the fascinating Evolution House which showcases 4 billion years of planetary history. This last one features a particularly impressive coal swamp, complete with club mosses, horsetails and a model of a giant wood louse.
Visitors to Kew fall into various categories. On sunny summer days, most people seem to arrive and just conk out on the lawns. Mycologists, however, are drawn by the collection of 700,000 different fungi. Although of humble — frequently microscopic — stature, fungi are crucial to our planet’s survival. Eighty percent of all plants grow in association with fungi. As the Kew guide points out, “Many [plants] from orchids to pines will not grow without a partner fungus within their root systems — a mycorrhizal association.”
Lepidopterists also love Kew, which has 26 species of butterfly — an impressive tally given Kew’s proximity to the grime of London.
Another category of visitors consists of enthusiasts of botanical oddities. Many of Kew’s plants are very odd indeed: gargantuan water lilies from Brazil, so large that they can support the weight of a man; grotesque-looking carnivorous plants; the world’s oldest potted plant, and more. Tens of thousands flocked to see the giant arum plant from Sumatra burst into flower (the flower rarely blooms in cultivation, and the first such cultivated blooming was seen at Kew in 1889). Not many stayed more than a minute, though, as the flower has an overpowering, thoroughly revolting aroma.
For me, though, the greatest thrill of Kew is traveling through its different ecosystems. One glass house contains a tropical rain forest — and it’s just like being in the real thing: hot, steamy and lush, overwhelming in its exuberance. Another glass house is desert: dry, merciless, a moonscape of weird succulents and cacti. Elsewhere, one is in bamboo thickets or palm houses, alpine heath or temperate woodland. Then, after the world tour is over, the visitor stumbles out of the wet tropics glass house, wiping sweat from his eyes . . . to find himself face to face with England again.
To borrow the words of Camille Pissarro after his visit in 1892, “Oh! My dear friend, what trees! What lawns! What undulations of the ground!”