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INGENIOUS INVENTORS, INNOVATIVE THINKERS

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kew, Palm House

On the trail of royal quarrels,

southern voyages, and the storied Gardens

In a bend in the river Thames between Kew and Richmond, a royal deer park became the site of a royal palace, king and courtiers arriving swiftly by river. In the 17th century, the Duke of Ormonde leased the lodge, built a summer house, and had walks cut through the woods. The numbers of birds made “a most delicious habitation”. Lovely while it lasted, the property was swept away from the Duke after the unsuccessful Jacobean Rebellion. The Prince and Princess of Wales, exiled from court by George I, who disliked his son, moved in.

The Princess

The Princess, later Queen, Caroline, decided to landscape Ricmond Lodge, her estate. In 1719 she called a parliament of gardeners, invited suggestions, and selected two of the greatest British landscape designers, Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, to set about “helping Nature, not losing it in art”.

Bridgeman, Kent and Merlin's Cave

These words she took from their lips. At Richmond Lodge, Bridgeman designed a free and informal landscape of woods and fields. He created Merlin’s Cave, established the Amphitheatre and Oval connected by the Duck Pond, and laid out a canal garden. Kent built a classical pavilion and a romantic folly. Large crowds strolled along the promenade, and Caroline enjoyed some rural idylls there before dying, deeply in debt, in 1737.

A dysfunctional family

The Hanovers maintained a family tradition of hostile relations. Just as George I had quarreled with the future George II and Caroline, and banished them from court, so George II and Caroline quarreled with their son and his wife, and banished them from court. Repeating history the Prince and Princess of Wales took refuge at Richmond. The Prince died in 1751, but not before he made changes to the gardens – redesigning gardens was another family trait.

Princess Augusta, the Earl of Bute, all the plants on earth and the red Chinese pagoda

A year after the Prince died, Augusta decided to complete the gardens. It was soon rumoured that she was having an affair with John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, the tutor of her son, the future George III. Bute, however, had fallen in love with the garden, and he and Augusta made plans to establish a serious botanic garden, a garden which would “. . .contain all the plants known on Earth”.

The dream of a botanical garden was realized in 1759, when the Physic or Exotic Garden was created. It is the direct ancestor of today's establishment, and “1759 is now accepted as the foundation of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.”

Kew Pagoda

Augusta had a quixotic spirit, and she hired William Chambers to build the legendary 10-storey red Chinese pagoda.

Botanical adventurers

When George III came to the throne, he naturally decided the garden needed alterations. He hired Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who contributed to the garden’s design mainly by sweeping away previous contributions, and introducing sweeping vistas to the scene. Despite his best efforts, however, it is still possible to see Bridgeman and Kent's work in the Gardens and, of course, Augusta's Chinese pagoda.

Meanwhile, as the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew points out, the Physics or Exotic garden covered an area of about ten acres and was devoted to medicinal plantings. It continued to grow and flourish under Princess Augusta's patronage, but it was not until after her death in 1772 that Sir Joseph Banks began his involvement with the site and Kew developed international significance.

Joseph Banks was twenty-five when he joined Lt. (later Captain) Cook on HM Bark Endeavour, a ship designed to handle reef-strewn oceans and archipelagos. They rounded Cape Horn, and arrived in Tahiti in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun as part of the Royal Society's scientific effort to establish planetary distances. By then Banks was already filling the ship with his South American plant specimens.

Once Tahiti had been reached, Cook opened his sealed orders, and learned they were to sail south, to search for the continent of Terra Australis. They reached New Zealand, and sailed along the east coast of Australia. Banks was ecstatic. They had found the southern continent and thousands of plants he had never seen before, and since the ship required a long layover for repairs, he had time to collect buckets of them.

Less than ten years later, when he was back in Britain, Banks would begin dispatching explorers and botanists to all corners of the globe, and botanical specimens would pour into the Royal Botanic Gardens, which he now headed. The English Garden, Part 2, describes a few of those horticultural adventurers.

Hooker's Vision

In the 1840s, William Jackson Hooker became director, and initiated the great metamorphosis and flowering of the Gardens. Hooker established the museum, the library, the crucial department of economic botany, and the glass palaces that are the Palm and Temperate Houses.

As a result of Hooker's work and those who followed him, the Gardens now contain the largest plant collection in the world. Research has led to the commercial cultivation of the banana, coffee, tea, the rubber tree, and medicinal drugs.

Onward

The year 1987 saw Diana, Princess of Wales, opening Kew's third major conservatory, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which houses 10 climate zones. That was the same year that the Great Storm knocked down hundreds of trees. Their loss was a pity as you felt you walked with history under their shade, but Kew, naturally, replanted.

Beautiful garden outside historic Wakehurst Place

Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, location of a beautiful old house, gardens, and the Millennium Seed Bank

Today - the plant world's ark

Kew Gardens is a leading centre of botanical research, a training ground for professional gardeners and a visitor attraction with 2 million visitors a year. Recently, Kew established two out-stations to grow more plants. They are at the beautiful estate of Wakehurst Place in Sussex, and (jointly with the Forestry Commission) Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent. Bedgebury specializes in growing conifers.

The Millennium Seed Bank is the plant world’s ark - gathering seeds from every flowering plant on the planet and keeping them safely in cold storage. In a milestone, the Bank collected seeds from 10% of the world’s most vulnerable wild flowering plant species a year in advance of its 2010 target date. Its work continues.

Kew does not contain “all the plants known on Earth,” but it comes close.

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass