Herman Melville summed it up in his book Moby Dick : "Nowhere in all America…
In the history of the English garden the Royal Garden at Kew has played an important role.
Kathy Willis and Carolyn Fry in their book Plants from Roots to Riches tell the story of Kew.
Willis, a Professor of Biodiversity, spent several years at Kew.
Fry is currently Kew’s Head of Science.
The authors have pooled their training and experience to give us a book that is filled with the history of gardening from a more scientific perspective.
They have done a superb job with this book.
Kew and its Role
Since William Hooker became director at Kew in the nineteenth century, he played an important role in the evolution of Kew.
Was he creating a beautiful show garden, or did he want plants from around the world to come to Kew so that botanists could study them?
The Herbarium became an important vehicle for Kew.
Kew’s Herbarium dates back to 1840 when the Garden’s ownership passed from the Royal family to the govenment. Today it is made up of 7.5 million specimens.
As you learn in the book, “A herbarium is a collection of plant specimens that have been pressed, dried, and either attached to a sheet of paper or preserved in spirit in glass jars.”
So many plants were coming into Kew in the nineteenth century that a system of classifying them became essential.
The authors show splendidly the importance of Kew as it evolved from the early 1800s to the present day.
Kew became a important resource for learning about plants.
In its first years Kew became a collection of plants, many from around the world. Identifying and classifying became its responsbility.
By the mid twentieth century Kew had become an active participant in the international discussion of climate change and the environment.
Plants, for Kew, became not just beautiful specimens of nature for us to enjoy, but signs of our connecton to nature.
To the credit of the book that idea is brought home again and again.
That to me, too, is the book’s greatest contribution at this moment in time as the international communnity faces the question of global warming.
Every year,as the authors discuss, over 30,000 specimens are sent back to Kew from all around the world.
The questions Kew raises today center on the what Joseph Hooker, son of Micheal Hooker, Kew’s founder, once said,
“Kew’s primary objects are scientfiic and utilitarian, not recreational.”
Aesthetics of Gardening
I understand the book’s argument to position Kew at the center of the movement to see plants as our link to nature. We are so integral a part of the natural world, and not separate. Thus the demand of our age to protect and foster a natural world where we do not dominate but cooperate with and sustain.
In the process of dealing with the science of plants in the garden, I guess I am, at the same time, still a fan of beautiful gardens.