In 2003 Kew Gardens, located in the borough of Richmond-on-Thames, was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Better late than never, is all I can say. Once called Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, there has been gardens on the site since the 16th Century. That plural is due to the merging of two main gardens – Kew Park and Richmond Gardens.
Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales acquired Kew in 1731 from the Capel family and in 1759 Princess Augusta established the exotic plants that makes Kew so famous. By 1769, she’d amassed 3400. A small start, because from then on, the numbers just get huge.
Kew Gardens contains 28,680 Taxa of living plants, a herbarium of 7 million dried specimens, a library of 130,000 volumes including periodicals and drawings. The Kew Millennium Seed Bank is the largest wild seed bank in the world containing 13% of known species and 2.25 billion seeds from 189 countries.
Big names also managed the gardens, although Capability Brown applied for the job, he was rejected. They include Sir Joseph Banks, manager 1772-1819. He was part of Captain James Cook’s First Voyage and brought back 30,000 botanical specimens, then while at Kew, he despatched botanists around the world to bring back more. Sir William Dalton Hooker, 1841-1865, was an expert in ferns, lichen and algae, is son Joseph Dalton Hooker, 1865-1885, turned Kew Gardens into a centre of scientific research. He personally examined thousands of plant specimens and published the Genera Plantarum.
In 1840 Kew ceased to be in Royal ownership and was conveyed to the nation, and by the 20th Century it had expanded to 300 acres.
Here are some more big numbers and facts:
Chinese Pagoda, built in 1761, is 10 octagonal storey high at 50 metres, and 15m in diameter. During WW2 some bright spark had the idea of making a hole in each floor then dropping model bombs down the hole to test how they fell.
The renown Palm House (1848) was designed by Decimus Burton (an urban architect responsible for Hyde Park, Regents, St James and Green Park) along with iron maker Richard Turner. All the glass is hand blown. The house was heated by two boilers with a 33 metre chimney, now called the campanile. The coal was brought in by an underground light railway.
Temperate House took forty years to build and is twice the size of the Palm House. Commissioned in 1859, it’s another one of Burton / Turner’s constructions. It rises to the height of 19 metres and is used to accommodate temperate and hardy plants. It is the largest Victorian greenhouse in existence.
Prince of Wales Conservatory (1987) houses ten climate zones with the cooler zones on the outside shielding the warmer zones. It is home to cacti, orchids, carnivorous plants and bromeliads (pineapples being one.)
The Orangery built in 1761 is the largest classical style building. However, it was too dark to grow citrus plants, so they were moved out.
The Water Lily House is hot and humid and built to house Victoria Amazonica, the largest of the Nymphaeaceae family. The plant was transported to Kew in a vial of clear water in 1849, but refused to take root. The poor ventilation was unsuitable and the lily was moved to another smaller house.
The Japanese Minka house is located in the bamboo collection. Originally created in Okazaki, Japanese craftsmen rebuilt the Minka (small townhouse) along with British builders who made the Globe Theatre; they added the mud walls.
The Arboretum contains 14,000 trees and covers half the site.
Less well known is the forensic horticulture department that provides expert advice to the police. It was responsible for identifying the African bean found in the stomach contents of a headless corpse washed up in the River Thames. (Sadly, the body of the young boy has never been formally identified)
From 1958 to 2007, Kew Gardens was home to Britain’s tallest flagpole. Made from Douglas Fir, the tree (275ft) was a gift from Copper Canyon, British Columbia. The flagpole was removed due to woodpecker damage.
I could go on, and on. There is so much more there. Can’t wait to go back and visit, it’s been many years since my last trip.
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