As it turns 250, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew arouses conflicting feelings in the heart of the horticulturalist. Its 300 acres, looped by a bend in the Thames which Caesar forded on his way east to what wasn’t yet London, are verdant with world-leading conservation work and collections of flora. Its borders represent almost any planting style you can name—cottage, grass, waterside, scented, woodland—each executed with masterly professionalism. Its arboretum is exotica personified: skyscraping giant redwoods, once-elusive handkerchief trees, Himalayan date plums and a 248-year-old false acacia planted by Princess Augusta, Kew’s founder. A tour of the tropical nursery—huge, moss-smelling sheds filled with quiet ranks of triffids-to-be—is thrilling proof of the vital scientific work that goes on continually backstage.
And yet...is Kew a little bit too theme-parked? Its 18m-high treetop walkway and underground “rhizotron” are hyped like new rides at Alton Towers; a silly road-train circles the grounds; in winter there’s an ice-rink, in summer a petting zoo. Never mind the wood, it can be hard to see the trees. Still, now that it is finally spring, go late, at dusk, when the crowds are gone and a cool million crocuses bloom in a shimmer of purple and saffron, or the Lilac Garden’s 150 species scent the air, and you’ll be properly thankful that an 18th-century princess was keen on that new-fangled thing: botanical science.
Picture credit: Addictive Picasso (via Flickr)