Protecting the world a seed at a time

The Kew Gardens in London are much more than just a park. They’re at the centre of efforts to protect the world’s plant species.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Kew Gardens, London, England

In the world of conservation, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the survival of endangered animals. The idea of an entire species being wiped off the planet forever because of the actions of humans makes most people feel an impotent meld of despair and anger.

But, of course, animals are not the only living things at risk from the destructive nature of humans.

Hundreds of plant species have been made extinct in the past few centuries and thousands more are at risk. It’s why the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London established the Millennium Seed Bank Project.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

The Millennium Seed Bank is the largest off-site plant conservation project in the world. The aim is to collect the seeds of all the world’s wild plant species and protect them so, if something gets wiped out, it can be brought back to earth.

The bank (housed in West Sussex) currently has about 30,000 species – just ten per cent – and the aim is to have 25 per cent by 2020.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

The idea of a world where plant species are disappearing is hard to imagine when visiting Kew Gardens, in southwest London.

The 300 acre botanic site is more than a peaceful green lung in the large polluted city. For more than 250 years it has been the heart of research and conservation work into the world’s flora.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

It’s a lush green expanse where an oak-lined boulevard can quickly turn into a meadow of bluebells or a Mediterranean-style garden. If you follow the flight of the birds through the woods you might appear at a lake or a Chinese pagoda.

And set amongst the well maintained but naturally wild park are the beautiful buildings with special collections.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

Palm House

Palm House replicates the conditions of a tropical rainforest and is home to thousands of palms collected from all around the world.

Different sections have plants from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The building itself is considered to be the most important surviving iron and glass structure from the Victorian period.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

Princess of Wales Conservatory

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is temperature-controlled so it has ten different climatic conditions on the various sections which are separated by glass doors.

You can walk from the cacti of the desert, through carnivorous plants, to the rainforest and mangrove swamps. It was named after Princess Augusta but opened in 1987 by Princess Diana.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

Temperate House

Temperate House is the largest Victorian greenhouse in the world. It has thousands of species inside and some of them are on the endangered list are being grown so they can be introduced back into their native lands.

A special boiler is used to keep the temperature at a minimum of 10 degrees Celsius the whole year round.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

Waterlily House

Waterlily House is one of the smallest buildings in the gardens but contains one of the most beautiful plants – the Victoria cruziana which is native to the Paraguay basin and is very similar to the giant waterlily.

The pond it is in is coloured by a black dye which keeps down the amount of algae but also produces a stunning reflective mirror.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

Kew Palace

The collection at Kew Palace is not of plants but of history. This is the smallest of Britain’s royal palaces and was home to King George III.

It’s a modest building and not what you would expect from a palace. But it’s interesting to see how the royal family once lived with their gold eggcups and decorated dressing rooms.

Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England
Visiting Kew Gardens, London, England

It was King George III who first saw the merits in having a place like Kew Gardens to study and care for plants. For more than two centuries it has influenced the way botanical research has been done in Europe and has always moved with the times.

Joseph Banks, who is known to most Australians as the botanist who travelled to the Southern Hemisphere with Captain James Cook, became director of Kew under the King in 1797.

Since then, some of the world’s best botanists have worked or managed the research at Kew. The Millennium Seed Bank Project is just another example of the importance of places like this.

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This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
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10 thoughts on “Protecting the world a seed at a time”

  1. Wow – this place seems interesting! I’ll definitely have to check it out when I make my way back to London. It’s so true that you usually hear about conservation efforts in connection with animals, but conserving plants is just as important!!

    Reply
    • I guess you don’t hear about plant conservation very often because it’s not very sexy… but animals need plants to survive and the extinction of flora can set off a chain reaction in the ecosystem!

      Reply
  2. What beautiful gardens! We’ve actually been to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard where seeds from around the world are also being stored just in case. It’s kind of scary to think it may ever be needed…

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    • It’s a bit like some futuristic movie where the whole planet (or another one) has to be repopulated after some cataclysmic event. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, though… 😉

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  3. Very cool. It is very science fiction-y to think about storing all of the seeds. An arc for terraforming other planets (or reterraforming the one we screwed up).

    I like the palm house. I have been to the one in Vienna and loved it. The shape and the mix of glass and steel is just cool to look at. As well as the plants inside. Also a nice place on a cold windy day.

    Reply
  4. My parents live close to Kew Gardens so I often go there when I’m visiting them – there’s pleanty to keep you there for a day if the weather’s good, but when you visit regularly it’s fun to see the changing seasons through the plants

    Reply
    • The changing seasons would be one of the most interesting things. They even have an app you let you know what’s in bloom at the moment. I missed the daffodils but the tulips were nice.

      Reply

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