The garden of Kew
- Part 2 -

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

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

Plants and fungi are vital to the future of food, clean air and medicine

In the official website of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew it is written that plants and fungi are vital to the future of food, clean air and medicine; we are fighting against biodiversity loss to save life on earth. In fact, the botanical gardens of the world in the early days started as medicinal plant gardens.

It is also a fact that plants and fungi are going to play more roles in the future of food of the world; due to acute shortage of food for the increasing population of 8 billion and due to non-vegetarian food creating more water footprint. The total area of Kew is 300 acres (121 ha). It became a UNESCO site in 2003. Its sister garden Wake Hurst is of 535 acres (about 15 km away).

It is the most famous of the botanical gardens in the world and it contains the diversity which is the most among the botanical gardens in the world. So, walking across the garden what the authorities called great broadwalk is of nice experience. There are other walkways such as princess’ walkway, riverside walkway, woodland walkway and many other walkways each having unique attractions.

The royal botanic garden was opened in 1759 by Princess Augusta, mother of George III. But its origin can be traced to Henry Capell, Lord of Tewksbury (1638-1696). George III inherited it and joined it with another royal estate and merged the two in 1772. In 1840, the Royal Horticultural Society took over its management and William J Hooker, the director of the garden expanded the garden.

His son JD Hooker (Joseph Dalton Hooker of Bentham & Hooker fame) succeeded him as director and during his time the garden underwent a great development. The garden is now sponsored by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Development. It has 1100 employees and its annual budget is 65.6 million GBP. It had 2,316,699 visitors in 2019.

It has 68,000 living plants of 27,000 taxa of which many are extinct in the wild and 8.3 million herbarium specimens of trees, plants and fungal species (there are also 40,000 species in seed banks). The herbal garden gives a lot of importance in the fungal species.

There are 14000 trees growing here. Every tree planted here is a source of knowledge, helping us conserve the habitats of beloved native trees and protect some of the world’s most fascinating species at risk from deforestation.

Unique trees here in the garden are the heritage trees, giant redwood and mighty oaks. Heritage trees are old ones which grew since garden’s establishment such as Japanese Pagoda Tree, Lucombe Oak and Black Locust Tree. The giant redwood is the tallest living tree here in the garden which is 40 metres tall (sequoia). The chestnut leaved tree is so huge it is hard to believe that that is a single oak tree, the biomass it contains would be at least of six trees or more elsewhere.

The Palm House though it is called so contains other tropical rainforest species. The simulated condition of humid and hot tropical rainforests has mimicked the actual field condition and many of the Palms of wetter side of tropics and on the other side the drier palms like date palms are made available.

A unique palm called suicide palm there is a Madagascan Palm which lives for fifty years and flowers only once in lifetime and dies shortly after that. A few cycads including our own Cycaspectinata are available there (Cycads are one of the oldest plants, the ancient tree in the evolutionary history). Various types of ferns and tree ferns are on display, the black tree fern was an extremely beautiful specimen.

There were also rubber tree (Heveabrasiliensis) and cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) among them which are popular among many. The oldest plant here are of periwinkle species.

There is a whole lot of science behind the 50,000 plant collections at Kew. Every corner here is unique in its content. The Victorian glasshouse is also said to be the world’s largest. And it houses Travel the world in this glittering cathedral – home to 1,500 species of plants from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands. One can find many of the Indian species there.

Following a major five-year renovation process, the Temperate House re-opened in 2018 to showcase the splendour of the world’s temperate zones. As temperate plants, all the species contained within its walls need to live in conditions above 10 degree C to survive. Despite being the foundation of much life on Earth, many of these plants are under threat.

Mediterranean region of the world is also a rich bio diverse area and Mediterranean type of climate has been taught as suitable for many of the fruit trees. Mediterranean garden was made around the King William’s Temple built in 1837 in memory of William IV (1837 is the year Queen Victoria was crowned). Planted in 2007 to depict a typical Mediterranean natural habitat, this area of the Gardens transports you to the sun-kissed landscape of Southern Europe.

It was designed to highlight the economic uses of Mediterranean plants, the diversity of life the habitat supports and the conservation efforts needed to ensure its survival. Stone pines (Pinus pinea), Tuscan olive trees (Olea europaea) and the green spires of Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) grow above shrubs such as Cistus and lavender (Lavandula lanata). The arrangement has been very thoughtfully designed.

Having an arboretum is not mandatory but is most commonly found most of the botanical gardens. Planting up an arboretum following a system of classification is in fact a gigantic task. Actually, the arboretums are mostly maintained from the earlier vegetation either of natural or artificial origin. The Kew has a huge arboretum. It is comprised of a collection of temperate woody plants in 100 ha of botanical planting and 30 ha of semi natural woodlands.

It is a vast garden of trees, a living collection that reflects the changes of seasons and of course the efforts put in. The winding pathways made among these trees makes the walks in the garden highly pleasant. The tree top walkway is made among these tall trees of the arboretum.

Any one from Manipur shall be looking for our own lily, the Shirui Lily, in our college days, we tried to grow at home with the bulbs brought from Shirui but unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, it is autumn and there was no chance of seeing our Lily. We have heard with amazement that it grew and flowered at Kew and we were curious.

Here with ten computer-controlled and simulated climate zones, the Princess of Wales Conservatory is a glassy labyrinth leading one through a series of fascinating ecosystems. It has many plants sections, cacti and succulents of dry tropics, water lily of wet tropical zone etc. by simulating special conditions required for the ecosystems and for particular plants.

The carnivorous plants sections have many unique carnivorous plants, climbers and minute carnivorous plants, even pitcher plants were many other than our Nepenthes. Walking through the conservatory is in fact like travel through ten different climate zones of the world.

The rock garden also known as rockery was originally built in 1882 and it is one of the oldest and largest in the world. Formerly known as rockwork, it is a garden with a landscaping framework of rocks, stones and gravel. Framed by rising sandstone peaks and cascading waterfalls, the Rock Garden mimics life in the world’s mountainous regions.

Small alpine plants are more suitable because they require less of soil and water like cactus and semi cactus plants in tropical countries. The rock gardening is becoming nowadays a popular hobby thanks to Kew for popularizing this hobby. It is highly artistic way of gardening and a beautiful one. In Kew there are plants of 3439 Taxa (6312 Accessions) and wild sourced is 70% (seed collected from wild). Bulbous monocots of Liliaceae, Iridaceae, Amaryllidaceae form main taxonomic strength.

One may be aware that in the early days the system of classification of plants tracking the evolutionary trail through flowers parts (sexual parts) was developed mostly based on C. Linnaeus theory. Kew also originally followed a system more or less on the same line, a system propounded by one its director, JD Hooker and George Bentham.

Later another renowned scientist John Hutchinson who was associated with Kew developed another system based on Bentham and Hooker’s system of classifying the flowering plants. In spite of Kew being associated with the two most popular system of classification of flowering plants, it has taken a lead in a system of classifying the plants based on their DNA due to flaws of classifying the evolutionary trend based on the sexual parts of a plant.

It has adopted the new system known as APG (Angiosperm Phylogeny Groups), this system has evolved taking advantage of technical advances in DNA sequencing. An appreciative role it has taken in advancing botanical science indeed!

Unique and majestic, vast and beautiful leaving aside exploring, having just a view of what all it has is bound to take days and not in hours. I could just have a bird’s eye view only in a few hours’ time and time really flies inside Kew. It charges 16.5 GBP per person for a day starting from 10 am to 6 pm.

Had I have a day or two days more, certainly I would have paid another visit, but I stayed a bit far off in Farnborough area and had to keep some time for commuting. Only regret was I had to miss the library, one of the best containing 7,50,000 volumes and illustrations, because the day I visited the garden, it was Saturday, if you visit Kew, be mindful of it.

But I am sure that I had enough of excitement for a day’s visit and learnt a lot more than I expected. As a top up, during my visit, there was a month long programme of Mexican Government to show case the botanical and cultural richness of Mexico inside Kew Garden near Temperate House and Palm House which was also a nice attraction, with plants, culture and herbal foods of Mexico.

“Our future is botanic”.

* 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 16 2022.

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