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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.