Kew Gardens is famous round the world. Its magnificent palm house is an unsurpassed marvel of glass and cast iron architecture, home to tender trees from un-British climates such as Brazil and Madagascar. Its pagoda is more than 130ft high, the tallest and arguably the earliest tribute to Chinese gardens in Europe. Its herbarium of dried and pressed plants is an international wonder, spanning centuries of collected material, which has now jumped into unexpected life, thanks to our new understanding of genetics where DNA can be recovered from dried leaves and flowers even when the original plant has become extinct in nature.
When did Kew’s own past begin? 2009 is being billed as the 250th anniversary and will be celebrated in February by an enhanced version of the Tropical Extravaganza, Kew’s tropical flower and orchid festival, and in August through a photography competition for all comers, who can submit their pictures of any botanical garden in the world. Kew will also be delivering a Darwin Treasure Chest to every primary school in the UK as part of an even bigger project called the Great Plant Hunt, which wants “to help children explore the natural world around them”. Tobacco and poppy-juice are not included.
The date of the 250th anniversary is not calculated from the first surge of gardening on Kew’s site, however. Earlier in the 18th century, the area to the west of London had begun to be landscaped by royalty, especially by the eager Frederick, then Prince of Wales under King George II. Kew was one of a cluster of fine sites along the nearby Thames, which individual royals were laying out as green retreats from the smell and bustle of their residences in the capital. Prince Frederick died from the chill that he caught during a soaking day’s work in his Kew garden but his widow, the energetic Princess Augusta, continued their joint venture on the site and by 1759 had appointed the first specialised head gardener. One of his jobs was to look after her plantings of medicinal plants and herbs and as a result the garden at Kew was first called “botanical”. It is this part of the initiative that modern Kew treats as a foundation date.
Like many keen gardeners, I have admired Kew’s commitment to science but wondered if it has had much of a commitment to the gardening that I love. One of its great projects is its Millennium Seed Bank, which aims to host and save a high proportion of the seeds to be found in partner-countries around the world. Very few of them are much use to gardeners because the majority derive from tropical dry-lands and cannot be grown outdoors.
Kew is committed to “sustainability” but the only “sustainable” garden in Britain would be one full of nettles and ground elder. I admire hybrid plants whereas Kew concentrates on wild forms. I have had a nasty feeling that deep down the scientists have thought that flower gardeners are extravagant and not central to Kew’s botanical purpose.
I have also not envied modern Kew its challenges. It has had to confront crises that could easily have crippled it. They have ranged from the thunder of aircraft using Heathrow airport to Thatcherism at its least forgiving. Even Kew’s famous past began to turn against it: under the famous Hooker family in the Victorian era, the garden was a leader in overseas plant-collecting when botanical display was linked with the power of the British Empire: the empire then fell and the removal of plants by foreigners was attacked as “colonialist”. Above all, the climate has started to warm but heating is still essential in the huge tropical glasshouses. How does such a consumption of fuel relate to modern Kew’s declared scientific mission of encouraging sustainability in plantings around the world?
On a garden bench beside spurge plants in mid-winter, I put these doubts to Nigel Taylor, longtime servant of Kew’s best interests and now the director of horticulture, with responsibilities for a garden staff of 150. We had just walked through the big rock garden, object of my critical eye after many years’ experience. I shared my doubts and memories with Taylor. My views were not unfounded because I really know how to put the gardening back into the phrase “botanical gardening”. Most modern directors of such gardens are scientists or even bureaucrats and have little idea about the potential of the outdoor, public side of their enterprise. Kew’s two recent directors have been scientists of exceptional distinction and freely admitted that gardening was really not their expertise. Sir Ghillean Prance is a revered expert on worldwide conservation, particularly famous for his championing of rainforests, and Peter Crane is a scientist of equal distinction who once even proposed that I tell him what to do with the garden as it was not his field. It was after dinner but he was not entirely joking.
My first job was as an outdoor worker in the vast alpine garden of the botanical garden in Munich under the legendary direction of Wilhelm Schacht, a super-hero who had even laid out an alpine garden for the last king of Bulgaria. The Munich garden’s only European equal was and is Edinburgh’s, now back on top form after a wobble from envious bureaucrats in the early 1990s. When I returned to England after a transforming period in German public service I naturally went straight to Kew to compare ideas.
It was autumn 1965 and with youthful eagerness I hunted down a senior employee among the boulders of Kew’s own rock garden. A botanic garden, the expert Allen Paterson remarks in his good new book The Gardens at Kew, may be defined “as a place where a wide range of plants are collected and grown and where they are all labelled, mostly correctly”. In 1965, there were many more labels than alpines on the Kew rock garden. It looked like a graveyard for former cushion plants. The most conspicuous residents were non-alpine cotoneasters hugging the rocks. I asked my senior what hours he worked, explaining that I had worked a 44-hour week for 82 Deutschmarks, beginning with a departmental check-in at 6.45am. “Christ,” he replied, “the Germans had the better of you. Here we take out the wheelbarrow at 8.30am but by the time we get to the rock garden we somehow find a tyre is flat. We go back to find the man who signs out the tyre-pump and by the time we have found him and it, it is time to have our mid-morning break.” The rest of the day went by in such calculated footling and I remember wondering if he was being played by Peter Sellers in a horticultural sequel to the British comedy film I’m All Right, Jack.
Taylor listened to my memories as echoes from a legendary past. In 1984, Mrs Thatcher ruled that Kew could no longer expect full public funding and must learn to stand on its own economic feet. The entrance fee went up from a traditional sixpence to nearer £10. I felt sorry, except for dodgers in the rockery department, and reckoned Kew would sell up. With hindsight, Taylor thinks it was a blessing. Kew could no longer simply “tolerate” its public visitors. The central scientific mission is mostly conducted away from the garden visitors’ gaze but nowadays it needs the entry fees from the garden to meet its costs. The results include realistic workers and unions, scores of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of newly planted bulbs and an excellent display of sculptures by Henry Moore last spring. Visitor figures have shot up and private and corporate sponsors have financed a new multiplication of displays. The garden’s biggest natural threats are no longer bolshy workers. They are the hordes of newly resident ring-necked parakeets, birds that were idolised when they first escaped into wild and warm south Britain but which now strip the buds off too many of Kew’s distinguished trees.
To prove the point, Taylor showed me the new glass-covered alpine house, a gift of businessman Edwin Davies, who made his fortune through an improved design for switches for electric kettles. He should be so proud of the displays of rare alpines when they are in flower without any need for electric heating. As for Kew’s heat-intensive greenhouses, Taylor countered me by observing that people cannot become keen to save the world’s endangered tropical plants unless they can also see them growing locally in cultivation. I am not a gardener who idealises “sustainability” because in Britain, I do not want a garden with nothing but weeds from the hedgerow. So long as Kew does not attack my garden’s range, I will go along with Taylor’s defence of his sweaty palm house.
I will certainly pay to support his new-style workforce. On a corner of the rock garden we found eight workers in shirt sleeves in mid-winter keenly shovelling new soil with spades shaped like the ones I used in Germany. If a big boulder needed shifting they set about it without a thought for the tyres on their barrows. Most of them were eager, muscular females. Happy anniversary, ladies. There is indeed a new source of energy at Kew and we should all pile in to support it. in Financial Times, 9-1-2009
FOTO: a famosa Palm House de Kew.
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