Photo: Herry Lawford

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which most people know by the more informal name of Kew Gardens, is among the most respected public gardens in the world. With its large acreage and extensive glasshouses, the site functions as a unique opportunity for the public to examine exotic plant life as well as a serious research institution of enormous international importance. This is reflected in the sheer size of the organisation, with over 700 staff and an annual income of more than £40 million. Since 2003 Kew has been a UNESCO World Heritage site, a fact recognised by the many thousands of visitors who come every year to experience it.

An exotic garden has existed in Kew Park for centuries, going back as far as the grounds laid down by Lord Capel of Tewkesbury. This was extended by Princess Augusta in the eighteenth century: the Chinese Pagoda (built in 1761) is still standing. King George III also commissioned extra work on the Gardens and added Kew Palace, previously known as the Dutch House and used as a nursery for the royal children. By the mid-nineteenth century the Gardens had been adopted by the nation and increased in size to 300 acres. To this day it retains many awe-inspiring period features, such as the Palm House, designed by the renowned architect Decimus Burton in the mid-nineteenth century: this structure was the first major building made of wrought iron and still features hand-blown glass panes. The Temperate House, named after the variety of plants it contains, is even larger and is the largest existing Victorian glasshouse.

However, Kew’s modern elements are as stunning as its older features. In 1987 a third large structure, the Princess Of Wales Conservatory, was opened by Princess Diana to house no fewer than 10 climate zones. That same year, unfortunately, Kew’s tree population was reduced by hundreds during the great storms that swept the south-east of England. However, the large number of conservatories, the famous herbarium, the library, the extensive visitor’s services such as restaurants and cafes and the remaining infrastructure of the Gardens form too strong a historical foundation to be threatened by a mere freak weather occurrence, and the site rallied rapidly. After all, Kew has an international reputation as a seed bank (co-sponsoring the Millennium Seed Bank Project inside the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building at Wakehurst Place in Sussex) and as a centre of research into botanical names and naming (a collaboration with the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Australian National Herbarium) – roles that few other institutions can provide.

Most of the scientific work executed by Kew is, of course, behind closed doors as far as the visitng public is concerned, many of whom are – quite rightly – here to appreciate the beauty and exotic nature of the world of flora in all its forms. With over 40,000 species at Kew, there is more than enough for even the most dedicated botanist to explore. Ironically, Kew’s location doesn’t lend itself to ideal plant-growing conditions on paper (the location suffers somewhat from London’s atmospheric pollution, and the ground is dry due to the relatively low rainfall experienced in the area), but the Gardens’ staff – among the finest growers in the world – work past these problems to cultivate their remarkable plants. However, these adverse conditions have prompted the Kew management to establish collections at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, a National Trust property, and (in tandem with the Forestry Commission) at Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.

Sights to take in at Kew are many and diverse. For instance, the library and archival collections form one of the most extensive botanical collections anywhere, with over 500,000 books, botanical illustrations, photographs, letters and manuscripts, periodicals and maps. Much of this is housed in the Jodrell Laboratory, a unit formed when the Economic Botany and Mycology Libraries were merged with the Jodrell Library.

Next, take a look at the splendid Great Pagoda, a 10-storey octagonal structure which was used in World War II to examine the motion of bombs (a hole was drilled in each floor so that a model could be dropped the entire height of the building). The lowest story is an impressive 15 metres in diameter and the building stands 50 metres in height. The building was originally covered with large dragons and ceramic tiles, although these were supposedly sold off by George III to pay off debts. Be warned that the 253-step staircase is no easy hike, especially in the summer heat.

Near the Pagoda there stands a replica of a section of a Japanese temple – in fact, a copy of the Karamon (Chinese gate) of Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto. This complements the Pagoda perfectly and emphasises the slightly eccentric (and historical) nature of the site’s architecture. Visit this and the Sackler Crossing bridge (a bridge made of granite and bronze, opened in May 2006 in honour of philanthropists Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler) before taking in Museum No. 1 near the Palm House, another Burton-designed structure from the middle of the nineteenth century, whose function is to celebrate man’s relationship with the plant world. After an extensive renovation in 1998 the Museum now houses extensive ‘economic botany’ paraphernalia such as tools, ornaments, clothing, food and medicines. A wide-ranging ‘Plants + People’ exhibition in the same building showcases the relationship still further.

The Gardens contain too many high points to list here, but visitors should make a point of spending time in the Marianne North Gallery, housing over 800 works by the eponymous artist, whose plant portraits came from travels to Asia and the Americas. The minka – a Japanese wooden house, acquired after the 2001 Japan festival – was partially transported to London from Okazaki a century ago and is very much worth a visit, as is Kew’s enormous compost heap – the largest on Earth – composed of green waste for the gardens.

Kew Gardens remains one of the finest celebrations of the plant world on Earth, and represents a truly unique chance to explore it in detail. Together with its mission to preserve the environment and the enormous range of exhibits, Kew brings the visitor an experience and a philosophy like few others.

Kew, TW9 3AB
Tel: 020 8332 5655
Times: Daily, 9.30 – various, dependent on attraction.