The garden of Kew

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

 The garden of Kew
The garden of Kew :: Pix - TSE

Who has not heard of the Kew Garden, the Royal Botanic Garden of England at London Borough of Richmond on Thames. Richmond is one of the 32 boroughs of London and Greater London (a borough is a district of London having its own Local self Government). Kew is just a few kilometres from the Richmond train station.

The word Kewis said to have come from Cayho a combination of two words: the Old French kai, (landing place; "quay" derives from this) and Old English hoh (spur of land). The land spur is formed by the bend in the Thames. It is perhaps the most famous botanical garden in the world in terms of its content and variety. In extent it is the largest botanical garden to be followed by the botanical garden of Berlin (?).

It is a pretty old Botanic garden by any standards but not the oldest of course, the Botanical Garden of Padua (Italy) being the oldest. Its setting is also pretty good, the river Thames taking a detour there (most of the landmarks of London are by the side of Thames). Itís a dream for most of the students of Botany and Forestry to visit and see the garden in their lifetime.

I came here once in 2020, in May and in the midst of pandemic and it was closed. I never thought that the pandemic would assume such magnitude and sabotage my Kew plan. Of course, sometimes, the best laid plan of men can go awry. Any way I came and I stood there. The high walls do not allow anybody even to peep inside, only tall trees nearby could be seen and some identifiable buildings of course.

The tall pagoda and some part on the other side of the wall also could be seen from a distance. From the two main gates, when I looked inside, it was in pitiable shape, nothing of the famous sort of Kew; with the strong winds it had a few days back, all the leaves fallen in late spring coupled with unswept and un maintained entrance and unkempt office fronts, it was a pathetic sight. My dream picture of Kew was not there.

The picture that my former boss painted in my mind was nowhere. Even if I knew that the look was due to non-maintenance due to pandemic, still I could not help despair seeping in to me; one due to the looks that was in front of me and the other one was the feeling of so near yet so far. And it was not certain if I would ever come again here to see it again and it was not helping either. I had to turn back full of disappointment.

Had to go back far with inconvenient connectivity, had to change bus three times and I was not too familiar with bus routes, I was staying in Cheam area under London Borough of Sutton on the southern side of Thames in the outskirts.

This time I am here in Kew, once again, this time in the month of October. May in fact is the best time to see Kew, being late spring most of the flowering trees shall be full of life and blooming. In temperate countries, late spring is the best time to visit nature and enjoy its landscape.

With Cherries, Plums, crab apple, goat willow and most of rosaceae trees flowering, the crinum and irises blooming, the undeniable and unmistakable daffodils painting roadsides and glens with their flamboyant yellow flowers any landscape would be beautiful here. Oaks are plenty too. But I will tell you, late autumn is not too bad either.

With the fall season, the trees begin to transform into tapestry of colours and paints the landscape with magical colours. In fact the autumnal change of colours of trees always appeals, may be more to me. Here in Kew, I cannot say that autumn is the most spectacular season, but it is not bad. Not the flowers, in autumn, it is the leaves which do the trick.

The squirrels are in hundreds busy stockpiling the acorns for the long winter. With the nip of winter in the air, the leaves displaying colours of vibrant red, yellow and smooth gold, very much insta-friendly scape if moments of autumn are captured. With tens of thousands of plants and trees from far and wide, collected from all nooks and corners of the globe, plants of all colours and hues are around. I believe that the days of British Empire helped a lot in making such a wide collection.

Why autumn is so spectacular in temperate areas ? In autumn there is hormonal change triggered by shorter days and longer nights as the summer comes to an end and temperature dips. The abscission layer develops and blocks flow to leaves and back and chemicals in leave gets stuck. Ultimately, the leave would fall off as the abscission layer is fully developed. But, the process is slow in temperate region taking weeks and hence, the leaves continue to display different shades of colour for the entire autumn.

Ultimately, leaves would fall and the season is also called fall season even in UK. Acer (Field maple), Corms (wedding cake tree), Euonymus (burning bush), Red Oaks are highly showy trees in autumn. Unlike in our place, the fallen leaves adds to the beauty, it is really a nice feeling to walk on a path strewn with yellow, purple and red coloured fallen leaves. In addition to the techni-coloured leaves, the well made roads to the quality and well maintained roads still give clean look with those leaves.

It not in Kew alone, it is in most parts of London and surrounding areas. I have not gone much outside London area yet. (In Manipur, our roads and paths really need to be made to specifications and maintained well and if our people develop a clean habit, we can also have beautiful roads, paths, villages.) The most important element of beauty is cleanliness, after all cleanliness is next to Godliness.

The borough of Richmond, a site of many Tudor Kings, a seat of many courtiers and barons, the place has even a Palace, many buildings, old structures and ones made for the garden unique in style and looks which themselves are heritage. Richmond Palace, built 1501 became actually a permanent residence of Henry VII. Many of the courtiers of some of the Tudor kings built their mansions in and around Richmond and many in Kew area.

So, every building has a tale to tell, not botanical but they are parts of the royal botanic garden very much associated in the evolution of this great garden. The king in whose time the garden was formally constituted (1759) was King George II, he was the last English monarch who fought war alongside his soldiers (against France in 1743 at the battle of Detingen), he was from Hanover dynasty (House of Hanovers).

The centuries old buildings all of pre Victorian age match beautifully with the multitude of autumn colours. There are altogether forty different and unique buildings within the park which are a heritage in itself. Kew is just wonderful, it charges 16.50 GBP (about 1500 INTR) and with train ticket and other fares, it is above 3000 MR, still there is quite a good number of visitors every day and many are from outside UK.

It has many attractions, children's programme of all sorts, entertainment, learning, excitements, camps and all. For adults too, Winter Lantern Trails (very exciting one), willow deers weaving, foods and drinks, shoppings etc. The tree top walk is an exciting experience, the 60 ft high tree top walk is one of the highest, I have not experienced any other higher tree top walk than this one.

This is a very tall one and it is made to sway with the wind to save it from damage. In India too we have a few Tree-top Walks known as canopy Walks in places like Kollam District of Kerala, but the one in Kew is most wonderful and is a star attraction for the visitors. A few good ones are coming up in Karnataka and elsewhere.

Not only following its mandate of scientific research and preservation of biodiversity of the world and attracting the scientist, botanists and foresters from all over the world and also being a hub of natural history, it is also now a prime attraction for domestic and foreign tourists.

I think now, one has to dig and see little deeper why Indian Botanical Garden (Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanical Garden) though claimed to be largest in Asia (109 ha) doesn't figure anywhere in the world picture. That apart, the garden is so stagnant and contains only 12,000 (appx) live specimens whereas Kew is claiming to have 50,000 live specimens (and millions of herbarium specimens).

It has to capture the entire spectrum of India's diversity; after all it is a land of widest floral diversity. A few innovative and radical steps are to be taken so that it grows commercially and scientifically.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at bonbir13(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on November 06 2022.

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