Kew Gardens is a kind of plant zoo. What you see are living things (plants) plucked from their environment and exhibited for the ‘oo..ah’ response of the viewers. Just as zoos were constructed for exotic animals from the furthest corners of the world, so Kew garden’s glass houses were erected by the Victorians for the plant booty of the British empire.
Does this mean I am advising against a visit? No, not at all. It is an amazing school holiday excursion, especially with children. These days, when even the children have phones with excellent cameras, most family visitors are moving from one photogenic spot to the next, smiling human face next to spectacular plant. Incoming visitors, many having booked online, file through the entrance with the QR codes of tickets checked on their phones. Then they can pick up a one-page pull-out colourful map and guide, which lists the key attractions and the seasonal highlights. Mid-April catches the seasonal highlight of the flowering cherries, and also the tulips.
So much to see…and world-class research
There is, of course, too much to see on a one-day excursion with children. We moved around the highlights: the Palm House, the tropical area, the desert plants, the orchid rooms, the water-lily pond, then on to the temperate house. All this is fine, so what has changed since my own childhood excursions? The Princess of Wales glass house was constructed in the 1980s (opened in 1985), replacing some 26 other buildings housing diverse collections like the cacti, bromeliads and orchids. Now these are to be found in the one glass house that contains 10 computer-controlled atmospheres.
Who pays for all this? One-third of the budget is from the government (DEFRA), and the rest is from research grants, membership and visitor tickets. Behind the scenes, Kew Gardens is a world-class centre for plant research. It also runs a horticulture diploma, which ensures that the gardening industry and the best of British show-gardens are under the care of well-educated horticulturists. Kew Gardens runs the Millennium seedbank too, at Wakehurst in Sussex.
Scientists from Kew are at the forefront of the genetic research (at DNA level) that is now revealing so much about the evolution of the plants of planet Earth. At the lily-pond, one can admire three species of South American lily (formerly, until the DNA research was done, it was thought there were only two of this genus). Plants used to be classified by similarity of shape and function. But now, DNA research is causing many to be reclassified. Apparently, roses and nettles are related in the plant family tree! This kind of science is deep post-graduate research, not really accessible to the visitors, but deserving of grants.
Why not themed tours?
What bothers me is that I think Kew Gardens is missing out on a lot of income by NOT monetising different types of tours. They probably think they are working at capacity anyway, with enough customers filing steadily through the one gate in season on sunny days. What they are delivering is a two- to three-hour experience with lots of photo opportunities, which is exactly what tourists these days expect. But why dumb down to just this one offering? They might argue that once visitors are through the gate they can branch out into what interests them. There are plenty of different paths and marked attractions on the map.
But they could deliver different tours. For example, there is an enormous variety of trees across the park. They should mark out a tree trail. My daughter wanted to see an elm tree (most in this country have died of elm disease, but she had read there are still some at Kew Gardens), but there was no indication where these are to be found. They could do a plant evolution tour, from the earliest plant forms to the more recent. Cycads thrived with the dinosaurs, but the species at Kew are shoved in with many other types of tropical palms, so their unique associations are not exhibited. But dinosaurs are big attractions for children, so why not make the link?
They could make much more use of visual technology. This would answer my concern about plants out of their environment. They should have short, minute-long video clips showing the environment where the plants come from. Everyone is wielding phones on the trail, so they could just get these from a QR code near the plant. It would be a further source of income if these were available to buy on the internet outside the Gardens, too. For example, in the temperate exhibitions there are many plants that come from mountainous areas like the Himalayas, which have different climate zones. One would like to see the plants in their mountainous niche via video clip.
There is also a lack of information about how they achieve the micro-climates in the glass houses. Is it from underfloor heating powered by gas? or by ground heatpumps? How much does it cost each month to power Kew Gardens? The public are now getting much more interested in energy costs and technology – even children might ask questions about this. How has this changed through the years? Did they formerly use coal stoves or wood?
Trees are vital
Where they have improved on the public education lately is the information about the value of trees in the environment. This information is mainly to be found on the Tree Walk and in the exhibition wall nearby. There I spotted the sad-glad news that this nature-depleted country used to have only 4% tree cover, but this has now risen to 12%. Also that London now has 1.5 million trees. And that trees can lower the temperature in urban heat-traps by 11%. So, there are parts of Kew Gardens that display good public education. I assume the Wakefield centre, with its display of native wild plants, makes a similar impact. It is vital that today’s children become better educated than most of their parents about the value of local trees and wild plants.
That is why I think Kew Gardens should be well resourced (money and staff), not only for the plant science, but for ambitious public education about plants and the environment. So, not just a plant zoo.