I have been visiting Kew Gardens – like many people, I am sure – since childhood and since then at least once a year. As a professional gardener, I am now a multiple of it because it is doubly useful for my work (I really enjoy it too). With each visit, a small part of me regretted that I never had the opportunity to work there. I imagined researching plants and undertaking jungle adventures around the world to study plants and collect seeds in their various habitats. I have always wondered what the botanists are doing in their secret areas outside the public – although the public areas are of course houseplants that are used for research.
So when my friend Laura made sure I could take a quick look behind the scenes in areas that are not open to the public, I obviously took the chance. In January I was lucky enough to be led around by Greg Redwood, the manager of the glassworks. Greg has held various roles at Kew over the years and is very familiar with the process. There are several private laboratories, buildings and greenhouses. During this visit, we explored the tropics, cacti and succulents.
When I entered the large complex of greenhouses hidden in a corner of the garden, I immediately noticed a hint of seriousness about the place. On the left is a tempting glass room filled with lush greenery up to the roof. Then you turn into the main corridor, which is somewhat like a spaceship. Greg pointed to the computer systems that control the climate and which I can only call HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey (looks smart, it didn’t try to kill us or anything).
We started in the bromeliad zone before we met the orchid areas – as you can imagine, seeing the orchids was a dizzying dream for me. In contrast to public greenhouses, these are designed to grow rather than to be exhibited, so that many more plants are packed and the variety fluctuates. One orchid was the size of the meter, the largest I’ve ever seen, while others didn’t look like orchids at all. The real reason for the existence of Kew is on the one hand to study and understand the entire plant life on earth for scientific purposes and on the other hand to help secure this life for the future.
The people at Kew do not grow these plants for fun or to sell them in shops, but to study them, often for life-saving reasons – many plants like aloe have positive properties for humans for food, medication and more. A large number of drugs today are based on plants or come from things that we have learned from plants. With so many diseases that still exist today, who knows what answers these plants will have for us as new medicines are discovered every day. The problem, however, is that we are destroying most of the world’s habitats so that these plants can survive.
The teams that work in these greenhouses work every day with the important task of keeping all species alive, which often means multiplying them to keep the generations of plants going. This is a professional precision job that requires a high level of knowledge of the hundreds of thousands of different combinations. Each glass house is managed by a dedicated team that records every detail of watering, feeding, repotting, sowing and monitoring pests and diseases.
Really, I could have spent weeks in this place just to examine every plant. The greenhouse network is huge. With a comparable footprint to the temperate house, but with a lot more penned-in species. Countless plants that are found here are threatened in their natural habitat or are already extinct in the wild.
I’m a fool for carnivorous plants and always make a B-line for the small carnivorous plant room at the Princess of Wales Conservatory that is open to the public. It was exciting to see the main propagation area for them and I was surprised to see Drosera species (sundew) as small as the tip of a pencil. You can see them in the photos above next to pitcher plants, including nepenthes, whose flower heads are covered to prevent cross-pollination for later seed collection.
The huge blue water tanks, under which light rose, contributed to the vibrations of the space station. The world’s smallest water lily grows in Kew Gardens Nymphaea thermarum (as well as the largest) that is now extinct in the wild. Greg told me the story of how their only habitat, a hot spring in Rwanda, was turned into a clothes washing shop. Fortunately, Carlos Magdalena, who works here, found out the complicated germ requirements of the plant and saved the whole species. The tanks also contained tiny new plants from Victoria amazonica and hybrids – the giant water lily – that can be brought to public gardens in the summer.
Each plant is carefully labeled and cataloged, and it was exciting and sad to see so many with a red “endangered” label. Exciting because there was something rare in front of me, saved by the many people who cared for it, but sad because so many plant and animal species are in such a situation because human activities erase their homes.
We also visited the famous Kew Gardens herbarium with its 7 million plant samples, which has been used by the most famous botanists in the world for almost two centuries. It is a beautiful structure that is filled with more information than a person could ever learn in a lifetime. The entire catalog is currently being digitized to protect it for future generations. You can only imagine how big this job is and one of the reasons why Kew Gardens desperately needs more funds.
As an interesting little factoid for you, “new species” are often discovered in these herbaria or plant names changed when the scientists find something that Darwin and mate have hidden and forgotten in a cupboard. The system is then named or errors corrected. Of course, DNA analysis makes this process much more accurate and definitive these days.
All of this important work, from growing greenhouses to cataloging herbaria, ties in with Kew Garden’s most important mission, which was carried out at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, Kew’s second location. Here, in an underground bunker at low temperatures, is a living archive of seeds from most plants around the world. The mission is to involve them all for the future. This protects the entire plant life from all catastrophes caused by humans or by nature. There’s no reason to believe that habitat eradication is okay because we can only grow one plant – habitat loss is a much bigger problem – but it’s a safety net for a future that will almost certainly happen sometime is needed (these species are dying out in Europe) The savages now rely on them to keep them going.
The seeds grown in Kew Gardens are used to keep the plant species running. Plants don’t live forever, so new generations are grown in organized collaboration with the sperm bank. Seeds are also not kept forever, but are taken at the right time to grow new plants. The plant is then grown and pollinated to produce new seeds for the seed bank, and so on. Every plant is different, the organization needs incredible.
Food for our almost 8 billion and growing population, medicines that protect us from the worst viruses and diseases, and plants that contribute to ecosystems around the world with their subtleties that are hardly understood. Kew’s work is more than the garden we see in West London, and yet Kew Gardens has recently lost almost 70% of its funds due to government cuts, an action I can only see as blindingly short-sighted.
You can help by becoming a member, like me, and stopping by regularly – buying a lot of cake! Kew Gardens has an event program to lure more people into the garden, which is intended to make up for the huge funding shortage. Exhibitions such as the visually spectacular and popular 2019 exhibition by artist Chihuly all help make a difference by attracting the crowd.
For me, the trip behind the scenes was exciting and entertaining. Thank you very much, Greg and Laura, for your time to make this happen. It also helped me to see how the work of the different teams is linked. One team is growing to keep plants alive and to collect seeds to be stored for the protection of rare and endangered species, catalog others to share the information with other scientists around the world, while the team at Millennium Seed Bank monitors and stores valuable seeds.
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