After a month of social distancing measures in the UK, we have started to see the toll that this has taken on the plants and gardening industry, including the temporary closure of over 2,000 garden centres around the country. However, there is a positive side to this global issue, in that many people are beginning to appreciate the beauty of nature and the simple joy it can bring to the everyday.
Here, Richard Moore, Botanical Horticulturalist and Young Horticulturalist of the Year 2019, talks about the bustling life behind the gates of Kew Gardens. But it’s not human life that he notes here – it’s the plant life, as it bursts into action during the early weeks of spring…
A couple of months ago we were all going about our lives as normal, commuting to work each day, meeting friends, going to the pub, shopping and going about our usual routines. A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I were told that in a few weeks’ time we’d be in lock-down, only allowed to go out to do our food shopping and only when absolutely essential; that we’d be practicing social distancing, scared to get too close to each one another, wearing face masks and gloves to reduce the chance of catching the Coronavirus. I think everyone has realised how much we take for granted in our lives and really what’s important in life. I’m incredibly lucky to be a member of the horticultural team at Kew Gardens where we care for one of the most important collections of living plants in the world, providing an invaluable resource for scientific research. The world feels like a completely different place right now, but I always smile when I see the flowers begin to bloom, new fronds beginning to unfurl and buds breaking to reveal this year’s young, lush foliage; nature simply carries on.
I feel so fortunate to be at Kew at a time like this. As horticulturists looking after such an important plant collection we physically can’t work from home as the majority of people are having to do, and so those that live close enough, myself included, are continuing to work to ensure the health of our plant collections. The gardens really are a paradise, especially at a time like this. I’m able to escape amongst nature each day, surrounded by plants beginning to bloom, the sound of the birds singing and the fresh green air. I’m certain that at a time like this many people will begin to more greatly appreciate the natural world, and I’m sure that despite these difficult times the environment will surely benefit from the significant absence of cars and aeroplanes endlessly polluting the air.
The beauty and tranquillity of the gardens is something I felt should be shared with everyone, so here are just a few of the most wonderful plants locked behind Kew’s gates flowering right now.
I wandered into the incredible Temperate House the other day – the world’s largest ornamental glasshouse – and just two years after reopening its doors after a long restoration project the plants have settled in so well. They look as if they’ve always been there. There are so many things coming into flower within this glass cathedral, but this King protea, Protea cynaroides, stole the show! Native to South Africa, this incredible plant has the largest flowers in the Protea family and is the national flower of South Africa.
On the Rock Garden we have one of the largest collections of Peonies in the UK and the first have just started to bloom! One of my absolute favourites is Paeonia tenuifolia, the fernleaf peony. Before the flowers open you could easily mistake it for something completely different! The foliage is so delicate and finely divided creating the most beautiful soft texture. The elegant foliage is then transcended by vivid red, cup shaped flowers with a mass of yellow pollen smothered anthers within! This is an herbaceous species, completely hardy in the UK and one of the first to flower! I don’t know why it’s not planted more often!
This dainty little plant is the straight species, Primula auricula, with lovely yellow flowers which have just started to emerge, held tightly against the leaves before the flower stem begins to extend and the flowers rise upwards. It’s hard to believe that all those colourful, showy auricula cultivars originate from this humble little species.
Next are the incredible Regelia Irises. This subsection of Irises contains a variety of species native to Afghanistan and the middle east where they survive in very arid conditions going completely dormant later on in the summer. But right now, they have just started flowering, and the flowers are stunning! They come in a wide variety of colours, with streaked veining throughout the petals, and are some of the most ornamental of Iris flowers. This particular one is Iris afghanica with creamy white falls, heavily veined with purple-brown, with a white beard of hairs at the base contrasting beautifully with the upright pastel yellow standards.
I couldn’t help but include one of my favourite Narcissus, with the most pristine miniature flowers, and a rather amusing name; Narcissus assoanus. This plant produces the most perfectly formed miniscule flowers; it is just mesmerising! They’re native to France and Spain – and despite their fragile appearance, they produce a lovely, sweet aroma!
One of the most fascinating groups of plants in my opinion are the aroids. This is a very large, diverse family containing Arums, Anthuriums, Calla lillies (Zantedeschia), Monsteras, and many more! Many of the temperate species within this family are herbaceous forming storage organs known as corms or tubers such as Arums.
This evil looking flower is a Japanese species of Arisaema, closely related to Arums. This is Arisaema thunbergii subsp. urashima, which produces this incredible inflorescence composed of a creamy white spathe streaked heavily with purple, bending over at the top surrounding an incredible spadix with a long whip like appendage which you can see pointing upwards out of the spathe. The Japanese common name ‘Urashima’ refers to a fairy tale character, Urashima Taro who is a fisherman, and so this flower is named after him due to the long fishing-rod like appendage!
Out into the woodland areas of Kew, the Rhododendrons are just beginning to bloom. The Rhododendron Dell has got to be one of my favourite areas of Kew. It is one of the only heavily landscaped areas of the gardens as much of Kew is very flat, designed by none other than Capability Brown! The Rhododendron Dell is a treasure trove containing to this day many original collections from Joseph Hooker himself. When the plants begin to bloom the valley transforms into a mass of colour, providing a feast for pollinators as well as a feast for the eyes!
This is just one of the Rhododendrons that is flowering right now: a very pretty Japanese Azalea, Rhododendron ‘Kirin’, with lovely soft pink tubular flowers and bright pink stamens within. Originally introduced to the UK by plant hunter Ernest Wilson.
The display of flowering cherries at Kew is always exceptional with a very large collection of different varieties dotted around the gardens creating wonderful avenues of pinks and whites in the spring. This is a beautiful avenue of ‘Asano’ Japanese cherries leading from the Mediterranean garden to the north end of the Temperate House. Beneath the trees are hundreds of red and white tulips, creating the perfect balance with the bright double pink flowers of the cherries.
It really is a pleasure to share all of this with you all. I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to work in one of the most beautiful gardens in the world with the most incredible collection of plants, and it’s my aim to share my passion with others and to share as much of the beauty of these gardens with everyone who can’t be here right now. I hope you can all enjoy the beauty of the gardens from the comfort of your homes as I try to bring as much of what is happening to you via this incredible technology that we all too often take for granted.
I wish everyone well; stay home, stay safe, and when we all get through this the world will be an even better place. The gardens at Kew will be waiting patiently for your return!
Follow Richard Moore on Instagram here.
*All photographs taken by the author