Text by Mandi Keighran
From the world’s rarest orchids to carnivorous plants that devour rats and birds, enormous tropical water lilies with lethal spikes that can puncture a rubber gumboot, and towering plants that grow up to 3m in just a few months, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is a botanical wonderland. Set over 132 hectares in the picturesque borough of Richmond upon Thames, half an hour from central London, Kew Gardens was founded in 1840. Today it has more than 30,000 different plants in its living collection, encompassing flora from wildly different environments across the globe, whether woodlands, deserts or mountains. It’s the most diverse plant collection in the world, and attracts more than two million visitors each year. Many of the most interesting and rare species can be found in the recently reopened Temperate House – the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse – the labyrinthine Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Waterlily House. And almost all of these exotic tropical plants begin life in Kew Gardens’ Tropical Nursery.
The Tropical Nursery is a sprawling system of hothouses where plants are grown for the Kew display houses, conservation and scientific research. It is also where some of the world’s rarest plants are cultivated, including the protected Rothschild’s slipper orchid – which grows on the slopes of Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia and is known as the “Gold of Kinabalu” – and the titan arum, which produces every seven years a 3m-tall flower, nicknamed the “corpse flower” due to its stench, which lasts for just 48 hours. As a working nursery, it’s not generally open to the public, although guided tours are held occasionally.
“This is the most diverse plant collection in cultivation in the world,” says Lara Jewitt, Kew’s nurseries manager. “We have around 10,000 species and about 45,000 plants in 21 climatically controlled zones split into four groups – orchids, temper- ate, moist tropics and arid. Everything we grow in here is tender in some way so it wouldn’t cope with the cold and frost outside.”
Jewitt has been working at Kew for 17 years and is now the highest grade woman in horticulture on the team. “Before I started working here, I went to Costa Rica and the tropical plants in the cloud forest just blew my mind,” she says. “I came back and knew I wanted to work at Kew Gardens. It’s such an inspiring place to work, full of passionate people.”
André Schuiteman, Kew’s orchid botanist, is one of those peo- ple, collecting samples for Kew’s orchid collection, the oldest and most comprehensive in the world. Currently, Schuiteman is in Cambodia, working with the local government todescribe the country’s flora and collecting samples to study at Kew. “Some of those plants will possibly be new to science,” says Jewitt. “Countries like Cambodia are really exciting as they are just opening up to us. We’re also starting to work with Colombia, another country we haven’t been into before. We’re discovering new things all the time. It’s really exciting – but it’s even more exciting when we flower these plants and work out how to grow them. You can’t Google a new species and ask how to grow it.”
When a new, rare plant sample comes into Kew, the first thing the team does is get it to flower, pollinate it, collect the seeds and store them in the Millennium Seed Bank – the world’s largest and most diverse wild plant species genetic resource, home to more than 87,500 seed collections. “Once the seeds are banked, we know the plant is safe,” says Jewitt. “Our team can then conduct research and work with other organisations to see if the new plants have any scientific or medicinal properties. It’s a voyage of discovery.”
Jewitt holds up a pretty potted plant with pink flowers, known as the Madagascan periwinkle. “This plant, for example, is a great success story,” she says. “It was discovered in the 1960s in Madagascar and it now gives us two very important can- cer-fighting medicines, which have increased the chance of surviving childhood leukaemia from 10 per cent to 90 per cent. This is why plants matter, why they’re important. You never know what will be discovered.”
While most visitors to Kew will not be able to see the inside of this miraculous nursery, they will be able to see the fruits of its horticulturalists’ labour in the botanical glasshouses – particularly the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the Waterlily House and the reopened Temperate House. “Every day is a challenge growing these plants,” says Jewitt. “But, there’s nowhere in the world that has collections like we have here and that’s why so many people come to Kew.”