Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Irony of Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is a world-class establishment. In its more than 250 year history, quality is everywhere. Although winter is perhaps not the best time to visit, there’s still so much to see. Plants from every corner of the globe mix with native species. Shrubs sprout young light-green buds ready to burst, whilst most trees are still in deep sleep. At every turn there’s clear educational information; the first label I read tells me there are 20 badger setts within the grounds and that I’m in London. Modern sculptures sit well with the greenhouses and the typical yellowish London brick Georgian buildings.

Snowdrops hide in a border by an old wall, but there’s little else in flower outside; inside the glasshouses it’s a different story. The small Alpine garden, half outside, half a glasshouse is a delight and leads to the quite exceptional Prince of Wales Conservatory. I enter a desert with perfect cacti and succulents, so unlike the sad individuals I used to grow. A glass door takes me into tropical rainforest, with displays of orchids to die for. Another door leads to temperate ferns and I exit via carnivorous plants with the message of how endangered and important these environments are and the vital part Kew plays in saving them.

I’m never far from birds. The early spring song of robins and dunnocks follows me and Canada geese sit on every lake. A jackdaw mobs a male sparrowhawk, but screeching ring-necked parakeets high in the trees gives the gardens an extra appeal.

The new Sherwood Gallery is magnificent, with superb botanical art from all over the world. Perfectly displayed in modern style, the experience is top drawer. A truly great painting by Alan Singer of a cactus wren on saguaro stands out, as do several quotes on the walls. One from The Origin of Species arrests me; ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved’.

The great Palm House is a miracle of Victorian ingenuity and a legacy of Empire. I sit and marvel at the structure with coffee plants by my side. I’m here to give a talk entitled ‘Birds, Rainforests and Coffee’; it’s perfect, I’ve just seen parakeets, entered a rainforest and am sitting in front of coffee.

In the Temperate House, I share an intimate moment with a robin feeding from my hand and am struck by the irony of Kew. Fighting to save the planet from the consequences of climate change, every 45 seconds immediately above, a plane on its final approach to Heathrow dumps carbon onto those very plants vital for its survival.

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