Entering Kew Gardens in London, the first sight that hit me was the iconic Victorian Palm House, looking like a half-buried, upside-down transparent Zeppelin. Made from glass and iron, it was designed by Decimus Burton and engineered by Richard Tanner to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times.
Walking inside the Palm House, the overwhelming tropical heat hit my lungs and instantly fogged up my camera lens. While exploring the botanical delights, I came across the enigmatic subtropical Lollipop Plant (Pachystachys lutea) It has brightly coloured orange leaves and dainty pale white petals sprouting out like tiny wings. The majority of the plants inside the Palm House are dug into beds to form a miniature tropical rainforest.
Today, the tallest palms that need the most room are located beneath the central dome. These include the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), babassu (Attalea speciosa), queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), and the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera).
Throughout the day I kept coming back to the Waterlily House, built in 1852. It’s a warm, peaceful sanctuary filled with giant Victoria cruziana waterlily plants, named after Queen Victoria and originally from the Amazon. I was told these floating bright green discs could support a small child. Underneath the leaves of the V.cruziana there are protruding ribs, which trap air keeping them buoyant. The wonderful variety of sweet-smelling waterlily flowers on the surface of the 36-foot pond only last for 48 hours. They start out white then darken to pink and purple before disappearing underwater – short-lived but majestic life.
Accompanied by a plant hunting team in Western Australia, Carlos Magdalena – Kew Gardens’ resident tropical plant and waterlily expert – recently discovered a brand new species of waterlily. He said: “After years of wondering about this plant, it was a huge surprise to make this discovery. Finding the first population was a shock, but then we found creeks filled with just this species – it was breathtaking.”
As the discovery took place in crocodile-infested waters, Carlos said: “It was also extremely scary at times. Ultimately, if you are attacked by a crocodile there is nothing you can do but accept your fate as waterlily fertiliser!”
Even though an identical plant had previously been collected in the Northern Territory and subsequently grown at Kew, it had been thought that the lily must be a hybrid – a cross between two different plant varieties to acquire the attributes of each. However, this new location was thousands of kilometres from where the original lily had been discovered, and there was no trace of the suspected parents in the surrounding area. Carlos realised it was in fact a well-defined and separate species. “It is vitally important that we have a thorough knowledge of how many species there are out there,” said Carlos. “Without it, it is impossible to protect them. Where they are, how many, which threats they may face – all these factors must be established. Plant conservation of this nature is at the very heart of what Kew exists to do.”
Encircling the Palm House lies Kew Gardens’ famous Rose Garden. Here I watched a bee climbing petals to collect the sweet nectar and pollen from the vivacious rose. Kew Gardens is spread across a vast area. To explore the 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, I would need a number of visits. I look forward to going back.
Kew Gardens is open daily from 10 a.m., closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Temperate House is closed until 2018 for restoration.