Ursula Buchan

A piece of paradise

I find it impossible to be dispassionate about the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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I find it impossible to be dispassionate about the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. For me, it is not just an area of part-designed, part-semi-natural landscape of 300 acres in south-west London, as well as a world-renowned centre of research and learning in botany and horticulture. Kew is where I learned the science and craft of gardening, and where I first started to write about them. I am prouder of being a ‘Kewite’ than pretty well anything else, so I cannot easily view Kew’s semiquincentennial this year with Olympian detachment.

The story of Kew is well-known*. Put shortly, a royal playground morphed into a repository for unusual plants and then became an important reception for plants found by plant hunters searching for economically useful, or decoratively attractive, plants across the globe and thereafter a pre-eminent place to study those plants, both dead and alive. Kew was blessed with far-sighted royal patrons, who could command the most interesting architects and designers of the day and then, as a result of a succession of remarkable, energetic directors, it developed into one of the pre-eminent botanical gardens in the world, as well as a pleasure-ground for Londoners.

For most of the 20th century, Kew was funded and run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Visitors were tolerated, but not encouraged, except by the penny entrance fee. In 1984, Kew became a non-governmental, grant-aided institution, under a Board of Trustees, and visitors had to help pay for upkeep, so Kew began more actively to engage with them. All the remarkable glasshouses are now in spanking nick, the Herbarium and Jodrell Laboratory have been recently enlarged, and the quality of the new garden structures and buildings — the Shirley Sherwood Gallery for botanical art, and the beautifully sinuous Sackler Bridge across the Lake, in particular — defends Kew from accusations of theme-parkery, while ensuring a really enjoyable ‘destination’. In the 1970s, a wander through all those acres of trees could be a pretty dull affair, if you lacked a botanical bent. Now you can listen to a eucalyptus gurgling or brave the agonisingly vertiginous, but thrilling, Xstrata Treetop Walkway. It’s just a pity that the branding people have landed RBG with ‘Plants People Possibilities’. The fatuity of this alliterative, unpunctuated tag line is demeaning to an august scientific institution.

If I were to view Kew’s recent achievements coolly (which I cannot do, of course), four would swiftly come to mind. In the 1970s, a plants database system was developed, which made connecting with botanical gardens all over the world much easier, and promoted the development of stratagems for conserving plants and plant communities, just when this was becoming really important. It is no coincidence that the headquarters of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) are at Kew.

Connected with this was the foundation of the Seed Bank in the early 1970s, now housed at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, owned by the National Trust but looked after by Kew. The importance of this facility need hardly be spelled out. Complementing this is the research done into taxonomy, especially ‘molecular systematics’, and plant physiology; there are 19 science teams working on upwards of 300 projects at a time.

And, of course, there is education, in particular of school children and students. The unique — and, most important, independent — three-year diploma course of study and practical work for young botanically minded horticulturists draws students from across the world. If you think I am biased, I should say that the course has improved markedly since my day.

Perhaps Kew’s greatest achievement, however, has been to affect cultural attitudes. Born in the Age of Enlightenment, for 250 years it has influenced the way we see plants and the natural world. Even if people can name only one garden, that garden will always be Kew. 

*The story can be traced in Allen Patterson’s admirable and readable book, The Gardens at Kew, enhanced by Andrew McRobb’s atmospheric photographs, published by Frances Lincoln (£25).