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The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew


The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew or simply Kew Gardens near London is one the oldest and most important botanic gardens in the world. Lots of plants were discovered and described for the first time by British botanists, so many of the oldest planted specimens of a large number of plant species can be found in Kew. In biological circles Kew, with its world leading botanic research, is a well-known institute. In Kew living specimens of species that are critically endangered or already have become extinct in the wild, are grown and so Kew can be seen as a true Ark of Noah.

Apart from the scientific importance of Kew, it is also just a nice garden to visit. Every time of the year different plants are flowering and different details are highlighted. Kew Gardens is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and in my opinion it is a must-see for everyone who has the slightest interest in plants, strange species, or English gardens.

On this page, I talk about some details of Kew, that I find personally interesting. The image above shows an arcadian scene with on the left a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and on the right a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). On the right you can see a view in the tropical Palm House. In the background you might notice a white, iron spiral staircase, going into the canopy of the tropical forest inside the Victorian greenhouse.


This is a plant I've wanted to see for quite some time now: the notorious titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum). This tropical plant grows deep in the rainforests of Sumatra and has the largest inflorescence on earth. The "flower" can grow almost three metres tall!
This plant is pollinated by flesh-flies and the like, so the flower of this plant, that flowers only a couple of days once in so many years, does not smell very pleasant. To attract the insects, it smells like a rotting corpse.

An aged couple that was standing beside me when I was looking at it (that is still "green" on the image and will only flower a couple of years from now), still remembered the flowering plant vividly. "You remember this one, dear, a couple of years ago when he flowered?", he asked, after which the lady said: "Oh yes, I remember that one", while she was holding her nose, "the smelly one..."

The beautiful chestnut-leaved oak (Quercus castaneifolia) of Kew. This is the oldest European specimen of this relatively rare species, that is native to the mountains of the Caucasus and Iran. Planted shortly after the discovery of the species in 1846, this tree is now the biggest and finest tree of its kind in the world. It's an extremely vigourous grower, even more so than in its native range, and is now already more than 30 metres tall with a full, powerful crown.


Redwood grove
Of course also Kew has its redwoods, even an entire grove (of which a part can be seen on the image on the right). Although they are not that big according to British standards, they are nice examples of the species. While it's geographically impossible to see both Californian species, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) growing together in their native range, here they are standing brotherly next to each other.

They are taken really well care of. Because redwoods always grow taller than the other trees in the near neighbourhood, they often loose their top due to lightning strikes. That's why they have put a steel cable in the trees from the bottom to the very tops of the trees, so that when lightning hits the trees, they do not suffer severe damage (image on the left). And it works: all the redwoods still have their top.


You are standing in the middle of a giant redwood
In the middle of the redwood grove, a round plaza of cobbles was constructed, of which the diameter is comparable to that of the trunk of a typical old-growth Californian giant redwood. A nice way to point out to which size giant sequoias can grow and to show that the Kew redwoods still have a long way to go!


The Palm House
During the Victorian era it became possible for the first time to construct big glasshouses. New exotic plant species were discovered in all the corners of the British empire so, from 1840 to 1844, a large greenhouse was built in Kew: the Palm House, the mother of all glasshouses. Ever since I visited the Belgian museum of Natural History in Brussels when I was a kid, I admire Victorian architecture, with all that curly iron and glass. So the Palm House of Kew was been on my todo list for quite some time.

The image in the centre shows a plant that I find at least as fascinating as the Californian redwoods, namely the famous coco de mer (Lodoicea maldivica). On the tropical islands of the Maldives, for centuries strange, double coconuts washed ashore once in a while. Nobody knew where they were coming from. Nobody knew of the existence of palm trees with such seeds, so people assumed that they must be the fruit of a water plant, growing somewhere in the Indian Ocean. That's why they are called coco de mer, which is French for "seacoconut" or "coconut of the sea". When during the first big explorations a group of uninhabited islands, the Seychelles, was discovered, the mystery was resolved: deep in the valleys of some of the islands palm trees were growing with such strange, big seeds. They have a shape that resembles one the most beautiful things in the world: a woman's buttocks. But before we start to become lyrical, we swiftly and subtly go to the next images....


Exotic species
On the left you can see a nice example of an exotic animal that is pushing away the native species: the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). In Great Britain a lot of these animals can be found, and this is the case too in Kew. This North American species is more competitive then the common red squirrel that is, sad to say, being pushed away in certain parts of Europe. Another exotic animal that is doing very well in London and all other big Western European cities is the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri).

The botanic gardens of Kew contain specimens of 1 out of 8 known plant species. The majority of these plants that are not native here, are kept alive with a lot of love and care (for example because they are very rare or extinct in there native range). A small number of plants does not need any help: they are doing well here, too well, and have already left the English gardens. A good example of this is the rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), that has been planted quite extensively because of its marvellous flowers, and of which there are lots of cultivated varieties (image on the right). The undergrowth of a number of western European forests and most of the castle gardens are being suffocated by this strong and quickly spreading species.


Some day I will travel trough the damp forests of the southern island of New Zealand, where the tree fern the wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa) is dominant. For quite some time now I've been growing such a relict from a past millions of years gone by on my terrace, and it's doing very well. The image shows its Tasmanian brother Dicksonia antarctica, in the Temperate House of Kew.

A typical spring sight in Kew can be so enjoyable! A group of little bluebells (and some spurge) grows in the cool shade of an English oak: paradise does really exist.

And oh, there's still so much to tell about for example the Wollemia, the toromiro, the café marron, ...
I'll probably return one day to see the flowering Victoria cruziana or Victoria amazonica.


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