Escape to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for an experience unbridled by London’s busy streets.
The Half-Hardy Herbaceous Garden at Kew.
Photographs by Joe Coca
Your European travels bring you to bustling London, with all its diversity, culture, history, and entertainment. You watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, enjoy the theater, and visit the vast array of museums, galleries, and monuments, and now you’re probably ready for a quiet side trip away from the crowds.
Head southwest from the center of London via automobile, subway, bus, or boat (in summer) to the 300-acre Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on the south bank of the River Thames. This research institution houses outdoor and indoor plant collections, including several gardens with herbs, as well as gift shops, restaurants, a bevy of greenhouses (or “glasshouses”), and landscaped trails for wandering and picnicking.
The tube, or subway, is probably the easiest way to get to Kew, about a thirty-minute trip from the center of London. Travel to the Kew Gardens station, then walk through the charming village of Kew with its shops, cafes, and inns. From the station, it’s a short three-block walk to the gardens’ Victoria Gate entrance, one of four entrances.
If you don’t have the entire day and are primarily interested in exploring those gardens or glasshouses with herbs, you’ll want to explore the East and North sections. The West section features a trail that rambles along the Thames, great for leisurely walking.
The Kew Gardens are open year-round (closed only on Christmas and New Year’s Day). The outdoor gardens feature seasonal plantings; however, the glasshouse displays stay relatively unchanged throughout the year. Especially noteworthy are the Palm House, with its exhibits of useful plants and rainforest species, and the Princess of Wales Conservatory, showcasing ten different climates and the plants that live there.
Kew offers guided tours, themed tours, concerts, and adult education courses. A visit to the Kew website (www.kew.org) will provide you with information about upcoming activities.
In the warmer months, you’ll be overwhelmed by the fragrant smells as you walk outside from garden to garden; the scents of the Rose Garden behind the Palm House are especially intoxicating. Informative signage identifies each plant in the gardens; however, you might want to bring a book that translates the plants’ botanical names into common ones.
According to the folks in Kew Gardens’ Living Collections Department, the areas in the list below feature herbs or other herbaceous plants. When you arrive at the botanical gardens, you’ll receive a “Welcome to Kew” brochure, which includes a trail map that marks the dozens of gardens.
• The Queen’s Garden, behind the Kew Palace, features mainly herbaceous plants whose roots, leaves, or flowers have been used in medicines. Part of the Queen’s Garden is the Nosegay Garden, which highlights remedies taken from Gerard’s seventeenth-century Herball and other old herbals. The rest of the garden is a parterre, with beds of different sizes and shapes.
• The Princess of Wales Conservatory commemorates both Diana, Princess of Wales, and Princess Augusta, the mother of George III, the woman who founded the gardens at Kew in 1759. Tiny orchids, cacti, water lilies, and fish are featured in this glasshouse.
• The Rock Garden, which resembles a mountain valley in the Pyrenees, features herbs that require lots of moisture.
• The Grass Garden, best visited in late summer or fall, features cereals and grasses, some exotic.
• The Woodland Garden, southeast of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, uses herbaceous plants to illustrate the change between forest and alpine zones.
• The Duke’s Garden is a walled-in area that contains informal beds. The Duchess Border runs along the wall just outside the Duke’s Garden and features the Lavender Trail, one of the newest features of the gardens. It displays lavender species from around the world.
• Between the Ice House and Secluded Garden, you’ll find one of Kew’s oldest trees, a Ginkgo biloba that was planted in the 1700s.
According to Kew literature, the land for the garden came from two bygone Royal Family estates—the Richmond Estate and the Kew Estate. In the mid-1700s, Augusta, George III’s mother, designated a portion of her estate as a botanic garden. Buildings such as the Orangery, the Pagoda, and the Ruined Arch were constructed then, and they still stand today.
After Augusta died, George oversaw the botanic gardens with the help of Sir Joseph Banks, who sent assistants searching for plants throughout the world. But in 1820, both men died; the gardens were ignored, so in 1840 the British government took over the gardens. The royal family donated surrounding land, and the garden acreage grew to nearly two and a half acres. Sir William Hooker was appointed as the first director.
In 1847, Hooker created the Museums and Department of Economic Botany; in 1852, the Herbarium and Library were created. The gardens continued to grow. In 1965, the Royal Botanic Gardens began to lease Wakehurst Place, a woodland garden in West Sussex that Kew still manages and leases today. Wakehurst is the site of the Millennium Seed Bank—where seeds from the world’s most endangered plants are stored.
Kew and Wakehurst have a total of 40,000 different plants. Kew is funded by government grants via the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, by income from commercial activities, and by visitor revenue and foundation fundraising.
Lee Anne Peck is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colorado, and is currently studying for a Ph.D in Journalism Ethics at Ohio University in Athens.
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