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The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew

From the cover of Cutis' Botanical Magazine 1865 depicting the Palm House at Kew

The original garden at Kew was an 11-acre pleasure ground within the larger Richmond Gardens; where members of the Royal Family maintained residences. King George III had a great fondness for gardens and used Kew as a residence for much of the week during the 1770's, and sought out the best gardeners and designers of the day to improve the grounds and buildings. This included the ubiquitous Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, who in the late 1760's removed all traces of the old formal alleys, decorative buildings, and ridged plantings in favour of his landscape of rolling lawns, lakes and strategically placed clumps of trees, and thus created the foundation for the future botanical garden.

Musa sapientum var. vittata by Walter Hood Fitch

Queen Charlotte had developed a great interest in botany, and sought out unusual new plants and exotic flowers to complement her collections of native British flora. This would prove to be the foundation of the Garden's vast collections, gathered from the farthest corners of the earth.

Joseph Banks, recently returned from his travels with Captain Cook, was a great favorite of the King, as he saw in him a kindred spirit interested in a wide range of subjects. Queen Charlotte's collection of exotic plants also drew the attention of young Banks, and soon Banks was being consulted on all aspects of the royal grounds, and by 1773 had created for himself the unofficial role of superintendent. By the turn of the century he was the de facto director of the garden, organizing almost all aspects of its planting, maintenance, and operation.

It became something of a personal challenge for Banks to obtain for Kew all the latest botanical discoveries, before any other garden in Europe did. To this end he arranged for, and even helped to sponsor, collectors to ensure a supply of new and exotic material for the garden. His close working relationship with the King's Head Gardener, William Aiton, was an important factor in the smooth operation of the practical aspects of the garden, while his connections with the Royal Society (he was president for 41 years) helped to secure Kew as a centre of scientific and even economic research.

Cereus pterogonus by Walter Hood Fitch

The King purchased additional property to extend the grounds where he wished to add glass houses for the more exotic specimens brought back from the rapidly expanding Empire and beyond. Archibald Menzies journeyed with Captain George Vancouver on his survey of the North American west coast, and returned with a remarkable collection of new plants. Captain Bligh, on his second voyage to the South Pacific to transfer breadfruit trees to Jamaica also collected over 1,200 different plants from Tahiti, Timor, Tasmania, New Guinea, St. Vincent, and Jamaica - although less than ten percent of these survived the long sea voyage back to England. Francis Masson continued his collections on the African Cape as Kew's first official collector, and Franz Bauer would become the garden's first botanical painter in residence.

Even the death of William Aiton was not enough to disturb this wonderful momentum, as his son William Townsend Aiton was chosen as his natural successor in 1793. When John Haverfield retired as Head Gardener of the Richmond Gardens in 1795, William Townsend Aiton took over, and the two main gardens were finally under the same management.

Grevillia Ferdinand Bauer, brother of Francis BauerThese were heady days indeed, and the future of the gardens seemed assured. However, after the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820, the gardens slowly fell into a state of disrepair and were threatened with destruction. The last visit Banks made to the garden was to view the flowering of one of Francis Masson's South African treasures, a rare cycad, Encephalartos altensteinii.

When William Jackson Hooker was appointed director in 1841, the glass houses had been slated for conversion into vineries and their precious contents moved out into the cold to be disposed of at a later date. When Hooker took control of the garden, and later in 1845 the adjoining Deer Park, he used his connections, charm and influence to gain more property and buildings for the gardens, and truly secured its place as one of the great botanical gardens of the world. His son Joseph Dalton Hooker would continue devolping the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, employing numerous plant explorers to collect for the gardens, and maintaining the garden's role as a centre of botanical research while allowing the public the opportunity to visit this magnificent Royal pleasure garden that grew into so much more.

*Based on the original at The Natural History Museum, London



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