May 27, 2018
Our guide, Elizabeth took us on the Temperate Treasures Tour at the extraordinary Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London, England on a bank holiday in Great Britain. So proud of the five-year restoration of the biggest Victorian Temperate House ever built which was just reopened two weeks earlier, we took a walk as a group around Kew Gardens to arrive at the Temperate House. It seemed all of London was there with us!
As a historically designated architectural and historic structure, the renovation was complex (grade 1 listed for historical designation).
Elizabeth instructed that temperate referred to the outdoors in the UK--any plants with season. Pointing to the grasses as we walked through the green acreage to arrive at the Victorian Temperate House, she said, butter weed and cork weed…Ah, England in May–is a Treasure!
Now take yourself back to the 1840s…and imagine, the original entrance of the Temperate House which was along the cedar-lined path that led to this view. Decimus Burton designed the entrance to Wow the visitors! and it did just that when it opened in 1863!
Flora, the goddess of flowers and Sylvania, the god of the woods were examples of the hundreds of urns and statutes. Elizabeth pointed to the intricately carved flower designs in the concrete exterior pillars that she said she can now see clearly after the restoration. Having volunteered at Kew Gardens for twenty years, she was delighted with the transformation and preservation and the continuation of the international conservation projects.
Heating was originally installed at the exterior perimeter of the 4,880 square meter sized building and has been replaced with a more efficient heating that extends into the interior, with more effectiveness for the plants. Forty tons of soil was distributed over a month and a half to a depth of 1/2 meter, as the plants were returned to the space. The renovation included 15,000 panes of glass and 10,000 plants that were uprooted.
Plants are distributed by continents with Asia at the northeast and so on. Elizabeth shared with us her favorite plant, Quercus bambusifoila, which she followed carefully during the restoration (above). The evergreen oak tree has held her heart since she began volunteering, and when she asked the botanists of the whereabouts of her tree, she was delighted to find it had made the move successfully and is now thriving. She then took us to a crowd favorite the fern tree, Jacaranda mimosifolia, that was able to withstand placement in the Victorian shade house as the renovation was completed.
Plants from St. Helena were shown to us as well. Trochetiopsis ebenus (common name: St. Helena ebony) was believed to be extinct for 100 years. When two tiny ebony plants were found, the Kew Conservationists began an active propagation program and now have thousands of plants. The plant is still considered extinct in the wild. Also Cylindrocine lorincai from the Cayman Islands had a story to tell with only three seeds remaining in 1980, and although many early attempts at propagation even with the color identification process in the seeds to determine the living parts of the seeds, germination was just not happening. Later Carlos Magdelena was successful in propagating the plant, and Kew who worked with Brest Botanical Gardens in France, is hopeful. Some have actually been returned to their native habitat and others are in a botanical setting.
From the Andes, we heard of Paya raimondii (common name: Queen of the Andes). It flowers every one hundred years and is an excellent example of a plant that has adapted. Pollinated by the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) in its native area, Elizabeth believes it would easily become a victim of climate change.
Poignantly, Elizabeth leads us to a large stone planter that is empty and says, this is Nesiota elliptica, an olive tree from St. Helena that is no longer with us. We have photos of it here at Kew as well as dried specimens in the Herbarium but unless there is a stroke of magic, this is a plant that is gone.
Another conservation effort was on a shrub, Erica verticillata of South Africa. It was extinct in South Africa but botanical specimens remained at Kew and they were able to reintroduce it to South Africa where there are now 2,000 plants back in their native environment.
Proud of the Strelitzia reginae, the bird of paradise from South Africa, Elizabeth shared that it was named after a royal family member when a specimen was brought to Great Britain from South Africa–a common naming practice in the 19th century. Next time you see a Bird of Paradise, think Kew Gardens, quipped Elizabeth.
The story of Eccephalartes woodii, a rare cycad is yet to be determined. An example of being on the edge of extinction, this cycad is the last living make cycad and Kew is still in hopes of finding a female for propagation. They are considering propagation with a closely-related cycad if a female is not found. Elizabeth is still hopeful!
Yes, lots of plants are in danger but the good news is that we are aware of this and documenting, so we may be able to make a difference to plants that provide food, fuel, medicine and sort out our precious air, said Elizabeth.
Ernie I enjoyed the Cistas xcanescens as we walked to the top of the Victorian shade house and watched the aerial performance of the Cirque Bijou with musical background. Korri Aulakh and Aislinn Mulligan performed with cellist, Rob Lewis playing cellist in the magnificent Victorian Shade house at Kew with a background of 10,000 plants, some of which are the rarest in the world.