words and pixels

Kew Gardens, June, first sunny day for a while, first visit and one is weak-kneed and pea-brained at the scale and splendour of the place. We were drawn in by the re-opening of the Temperate House after its hugely ambitious restoration, but there was so much else to see and think about. Kew-phew. No wonder that UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Royal Botanic Gardens says the gardens have made a significant and uninterrupted contribution to the study of plant diversity and economic botany (since 1759 no less).

As a neophyte in these matters, I offer this post as a succession of photographs and accompanying text: what the minnow sees of the depths in which it swims. Don’t be too fooled by my joy, delight and joviality: I appreciate the debt the planet owes to Kew’s contribution to botany and horticulture. It is immeasurable - but this is a one page post and nothing else.

1/11 Kew's Palm House seen from The Botanical
Kew’s Palm House seen from The Botanical

The Palm House

The silhouette of the Palm House at Kew Gardens could almost be emblematic of the Victorian age or even the British empire, no less. Constructed just before the middle of the nineteenth century, the design of this Grade I listed-building was informed by marine architecture. Think of ships returning to ‘the seat’ of empire, bringing exotic plants and seeds to its very heart. As a building, it is arguably the world’s most important surviving glass and iron structure from that period. (See the note about Belfast’s Palm House, below.) It consists of 16,000 panes of glass and is heated by 12 thrumming boilers whose job is to feed radiators and mist-squirting nozzles. Without heat and moisture a tropical environment could not be maintained. Ascend the spiral stairs to the sound of escaping mist and enjoy high walkways up inside the canopy and one is momentarily away in the tropics. Only the absence of exotic bird song tethers one to south-west London.

Kew’s Palm House has undergone two separate restorations. The first, between 1955 and 1957, saw the cleaning of glazing bars and the re-glazing of the entire house. The second, between 1984 and 1988, saw the building emptied, dismantled and rebuilt, but with stainless steel glazing bars and toughened safety glass. Heat and humidity are not kind to a building made of iron and glass, especially one that is fully open to the public.

2/11 Kew's Palm House
Kew’s Palm House

At either end of the walkways that run around the main canopy of the Palm House are views into the two flanking wings of the building. Looking through the apex of these barrel vaults, a preposterous thought arose. Puffing out of the Victorian age in a glass-topped Pullman coach, a gaggle of giant, swaying aspidistras and assorted palms, grown huge with age, were conspiring with each other, preening yet imprisoned. Planning. Paragons of politesse, prim, polished and peacock-plumed, their chatter died to nothing as we encountered them. As we turned the walkway’s corner and left them to it, their conspiratorial chatter resumed. Every day since the Victorian age, even unnoticed by their keepers. Kew’s darkest secret. When we descended to the forest’s floor we were still giggling at the thought of it. What do they get up to after dark when the lights are switched out? Best not ask.

3/11 Up inside one of the flanking wings of the Palm House
Up inside one of the flanking wings of the Palm House

Down on the forest floor, for pest-control in the Palm House, meet one of the lizards, introduced through liaison with H.M. Customs and Excise who intercepted them as illegal imports and put them to properly-sanctioned use. Cockroaches were a problem at the time of their introduction. This one looked well-fed - and surprisingly tolerant of human proximity.

A lizard inside Kew's Palm House
Pest-control courtesy of a lizard in Kew’s Palm House
4/11 Up inside the main curved canopy of the Palm House
Up inside the curved canopy of the Palm House

With our destination being the Temperate House, for the moment just note the height of the growth inside the Palm House, above. This nearly reaches the full 19 metre height of the central upper vault.

I adore tropical forests, have walked in several and am always thrilled at the diversity and plain weirdness of them. In curating this stupendous collection, Kew’s Palm House is head-spinning … but too hot for my taste these days so a hasty retreat - outside to the cool of a sunny London afternoon - was indeed needed!

Carnivores, living stones and occupants of the arid zones

Kew occupies a 132 hectare site - expansive enough for perhaps 250-odd football pitches - and there are 38 listed buildings and more than 40,000 species of plants within its boundaries. Each speciality is the culmination of decades and in some cases the best part of 250 years’ worth of study, collecting and cultivation. It’s a process that expands and refreshes itself repeatedly. The wow factor abounds.

I had prepared a selection of photographs showing extraordinary delights captured during a day’s visit, but it would be trite to strew them out across the page with superficial commentary - and too heavy for any single web page. So here’s a sample of the parade, in words alone:

  • a cluster of tall, vibrant-green trumpet pitcher plants, utterly unblemished by insect nibble or dropping thanks to their carnivorous nature;
  • a dangerously-looking jagged-edged hechtia argentia specimen that was exhibited in Brussels in 1864 (not a descendant, but the actual plant);
  • weird plants that look like stones, their slit ‘mouths’ gaping upward like miniature nestlings silently and motionlessly demanding food from their parent birds;
  • an exquisite coelogyne dayana orchid dangling a pair of long limbs, each sprouting alternating left-right yellow and dark-brown, insect-imitating flowers;
  • a carpet of Peruvian fittonia plants, smothering the ground in hundreds of red and green convex mini-leaves;
  • a visually not very interesting plant with the wonderfully honest label of “1999-3271 WONR 118 Species unknown”;
  • an unreal orchid, with hand-sized, five-petalled flowers threaded with vivid lilac on cream, almost luminous in its ability to separate itself visually from the surrounding vegetation;
  • a palm tree with a foot as large as a young elephant’s, dark and wrinkly like the bole of an old pear tree, rising up to a thin ghostly-pale trunk topped with three leaf-burdened branches …
  • … right next to a family of geometrically spiky ground-hugging cacti, bulbously dark green with lines of yellow spines, ten or so of them leaning into each other, flowerless - for the moment - and dangerously close to the footpath …

… and on and on, wonder after wonder.

The Temperate House

Unlike the Palm House, the Temperate House was designed to house frost-tender plants from the sub-tropical and warm temperate regions. It has therefore been a heated glass house and over the years had developed the same pressing need for restoration as the Palm House.

As with the Palm House today, before the restoration of the Temperate House, dense vegetation crowded right up to its apex. For the recent restoration to proceed, all plants and trees - and the soil in which they grew - needed to be removed.

5/11 Tree ferns in Kew's Temperate House
Tree ferns in Kew’s Temperate House

Fifteen thousand panes of glass were replaced and 5,280 litres of marine-grade paint were applied. Five years later, 10,000 plants were introduced - many being younger and smaller specimens - and several ‘elder statesmen’ were brought back in from their temporary nurseries. The Temperate House was re-opened to the public on May 5th 2018.

6/11 Kew's Temperate House
Kew’s Temperate House

The result is a dramatic contrast to the Palm House, a wide-open space which everything will grow into and fill up in time. For some plants, that may mean 20 years. For others, it might be 70 years. For the moment, everything has room to breathe and the beauty of the building’s architecture can be more fully appreciated.

7/11 Kew's Temperate House
Kew’s Temperate House

Maybe we should try to imagine foliage filling the space now, reaching right up to the top of the newly-painted structure, the two fresh in combination in a way that they never will be in reality. By the time the foliage will have pushed its way towards the building’s apex, the paintwork will by then be looking shabby. This double perfection - of the newly-painted container and the fully-grown contained - is for the mind’s eye only.

8/11 Kew's Temperate House
Kew’s Temperate House

These views - both in the flesh and through the lens - almost contain more detail than can easily be processed. I am trying to imagine what a botanist’s point of view might be: distress that old growth has been culled (albeit without species loss) or relief that the life of a safe environment for these precious plants has been extended. I’m a bystander in this and take the scene visually first, then with some of the underlying science that I am able to grasp.

On the visual side, because I enjoy the way that straight lines and curves sit together, seeing more of the architecture here (than in the Palm House) feeds that appreciation. I admit to there being an over-abundance of parallel glazing bars for my taste and on a sunny day the addition of parallel shadows falling on the green almost doubles the busy-ness of the place. But it emerges as a meticulous restoration that pays homage to Decimus Burton and the building’s Victorian originality. I admit that I was almost whooping with delight.

9/11 Kew's Temperate House
Kew’s Temperate House

These high-level walkways must be necessary for access to the building’s maintenance and the plants’ care, but they also enable the public to get up top as spectators to a truly spectacular experience.

10/11 Kew's Temperate House
Kew’s Temperate House

There is too much here at Kew to take in in one visit. A first visit can only be a sort of reccy to help you decide what you should see in greater detail during the next visit - and so on.

Two further observations

Too many aeroplanes

It is profoundly shocking to find that a site of such global importance is over-flown by so many aeroplanes coming to and from Heathrow. The site of these behemoths at low altitude right above the Palm House is shameful. Seeing their vast shadows darkening Kew’s vibrant display of colour was dissonant in the extreme. I write this on the day after parliament debated - and allowed - the addition of a third runway to Heathrow. You could not make it up.

Not enough insects

After the best part of a day at Kew I can safely say that on a good day there are more insects in our tiny seaside garden than I saw outdoors at Kew Gardens. There were four or five bees, several unrecognisable - to me - ‘flies’ and no butterflies, not one. Kew may well display an extraordinary richness of insects in some of its houses, and do valuable educational outreach and research on pollination and the development of insect-rich ecosystems, but the borders and outdoors gardens there were, to my eyes, bereft of insects and in that regard sterile. You could not make that up either.

(To avoid ambiguity: this observation is not to say that Kew is in any way failing in its work. Quite the contrary: it highlights the very urgency of it.)

Belfast’s Palm House

It’s interesting to discover that Belfast’s Botanic Gardens’ Palm House - which we were lucky to visit earlier this year - and Kew’s Palm House share the same builder, Richard Turner. Turner, an iron-founder from Ireland, built Belfast’s Palm House between 1839 and 1840 and then went on to work on Kew’s Palm House between 1844 and 1848. Richard Turner’s competition entry for the design of the new London International Exhibition of 1851 gained second equal place out of 233 entries, losing out to Joseph Paxton’s The Crystal Palace, the eventual winner.

11/11 Belfast's Palm House
Belfast’s Palm House

Turner’s expertise at forging the exacting curvilinear shapes of Victorian glasshouses was the perfect complement to the visionary designs of Decimus Burton, Kew’s Palm House’s architect and designer. Had Turner not been there to breathe life into these designs, who knows what shape this exceptional flowering of Victorian creativity would have taken.