At the top of my list of places I wanted to visit while in London was Kew Gardens. This formidable bastion of botany has long enchanted visitors with its beautiful gardens and intoxicated scientists with its enviable collections. I’ve been under its thrall since my college days when I fell in love with botany, and specifically botanical history. Our first full day in London was dedicated to this pilgrimage and fortunately they have extended hours in the summer – and we used every single bit of it.
It’s a bit hard to say when Kew Gardens first started as its early days as a royal garden blur its growth into a world renown collection. However, it is generally accepted that King George III greatly propelled Kew into its birthright, aided greatly by the illustrious Joseph Banks (one of my heroes of botanic history). Just being on ground he touched and seeing his handiwork made me tingle from head to toe. Kew Gardens grew symbiotically along with the British Empire. As Britain expanded its influence and exploration throughout the world, scientists and botanists (Banks among them) were there firsthand to record the natural history of these new worlds and collect plants to bring back to England for further study. Because of this Kew boasts one of the largest botanical collections in the world, if not the largest. In modern times, Kew is on the cutting edge of botanical research and conservation efforts.
The glory of Kew Gardens is its greenhouses – the jewelry boxes that encase their botanical treasures. It was a continuous battle with my camera about whether I was going to photograph the plants or the steel ribs of the greenhouses that are so incredible. I took hundreds of photos and it was very hard to pare down just a handful to share with you. In the depths of winter I’m sure I’ll revisit the resplendent greenhouses of Kew with you again. So let’s go on tour… we can have tea and refreshments later.
We first went to the palm house (pictured in first photo) and then to the nearby waterlily house, which turned out to be one of my favorite greenhouses. It was tiny but had a lovely display of many different waterlilies … and a magnificent Chihuly glass sculpture.
Kew was hosting an exhibition of Chihuly’s work and had 14 different installations throughout the garden. We were first introduced to his art at the Denver Botanic Gardens a few years ago, so this was a pleasant surprise for us. This was my favorite piece on display – it was just perfect with the waterlilies.
We wandered through woodland gardens and the science gardens before exploring the alpine gardens. This appears to be a newer area of the gardens but once it establishes further it will be lovely. I was impressed with how well Kew manages the wide variety of plants that they have growing outdoors – all with different preferred environments, temperature, and moisture conditions – and keep them all so healthy
The alpine house (in the dome building above) houses some of the more fragile and younger plants. While most of my post will be about the plants in the greenhouses, I should point out that Kew has an impressive arboretum as well. Trees from all over the world have found a home here, many as gifts to the government or gifts from the monarchy to the people. One of my favorite trees was Turner’s Oak, planted in 1798.
After some lunch, we headed to the tropical greenhouses. Here was where I suffered my only disappointment. I had read several books about the extensive orchid collection at Kew, but alas, there were not many on display in the greenhouses… leading me to wonder about the mysterious collection… another reconnaissance mission will be in my future. However, there were other glorious plants to explore, including the famed Amazonian water lily (Victoria amazonica).
The genus was first described in publication in 1837 and quickly became coveted among British gardeners. Intense rivalry erupted as botanists vied to be the first to discover its growing conditions and coax the water lily to flower. Joseph Paxon (head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire – you’ll be hearing a lot more about him) was the first to successfully achieve a flowering lily and the Duke presented it to Queen Victoria. It was thrilling to see one in person – in their own special room of the greenhouse!
Another treasure of Kew that I was delirious with excitement to see was the Marianne North Gallery. I’ve blogged about her before, as some of her botanical paintings were source material for my jewelry challenges. She is another fascinating traveling botanist/explorer/artist of Britain. She first visited Kew at age 13 and it fueled her passion for botany. Decades later after she had gone on several world-wide journeys, she contacted then-director of Kew, Joseph Hooker, and offered to build a gallery to house over 800 of her paintings. Hooker agreed and the beautiful gallery was open in 1882. Photography was not allowed inside the gallery, but I did manage to take one outside the entrance way when the doors were open.
I was vibrating with delight at seeing all of her magnificent paintings! I thought it would look like a traditional gallery with lots of open space and some of the paintings on display: I was not prepared for the glorious way that all the paintings perfectly fit on the walls like puzzle pieces. Marianne framed each of them herself and decided their placement. Underneath the paintings are wood samples that she collected on her travels and fitted together. Oh, for a ladder and to live in here for at least a month!
Our last great greenhouse to visit was the Temperate House. Not only is it Kew’s largest Victorian greenhouse – it is the largest in the world too! I could have spent so much more time in here! This may have been the most beautiful greenhouse, and it was certainly the one with the most Chihuly glass in it!
There were so many rooms to this greenhouse that I felt like I was wandering in a dream. It was so incredibly beautiful, as this collage of photos attests. Here’s another unique glass sculpture from Chihuly.
It was delightful to just meander about the flowers and the ponds and waterfalls. Everywhere you looked was a picture-worthy scene.
The whole garden was a perfect amalgamation of the art of God and the art of men blended together seamlessly in a never-ending conversation. Being at Kew was a dream come true. I will hold all the treasures I saw and experienced there in my heart always and I’ll hope that it will be as beautiful in my dreams as it was on that sunny summer day.
Blessings to you,
Your post about Kew Gardens is so fascinating. As a horticultural therapist, I love all the plant photos, and the gorgeous greenhouse settings are incredible. Dale Chihuly grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and there is a great museum there that features his glassworks. He teaches several of the high schools there how to do his creative glass sculptures. There is also a great Chihuly museum at the base of the Space Needle in Seattle–that one has a great garden too.
How wonderful to scratch Kew off your bucket list, Sarah. I’m a bit envious, I must admit! 🙂