Kew must be a surprise whatever time of year you visit. In late summer, when the sun is strong and the trees are in full and darkened leaf, the palm house shouldn’t be as much of a shock as it is. The very air drips; the moist leaves shine; fleshy blooms flirt from across the walkway. A jungle, in south London, locked away in a house for almost two hundred years. Put that way, perhaps it’s no wonder it beguiles.
Kew is a bit of a magical land. It is the botanical world in miniature, a microcosm of the planet’s plants, a snapshot of natural history. A day’s stroll will carry you beyond the jungle to the deserts, where carnivorous plants wait to trap small beasts in their pitchers, and other plants pose as stones. Amazonian giants patrol the warm ponds with a lazy flick of the tail, and rare orchids are common as weeds. Then on, to a walk through the trees, looking into their crowns as an equal, seeing the London skyline as they do. It was a little lesson in botany, given that the leaves and the seeds were out in force, and the children could name them all. We strolled through a rose garden and chose the sweetest smelling. We lingered by full flowerbeds. And all the time our little host, at just four years old, was naming flowers and trees for us: agapanthus, oak, plane, aquilegia. What a garden to have on your doorstep. What a playground. What a school.
It was in the arboretum that we spread our picnic mat. We were visiting dear friends – friends who John has known for many years – and their children, and spent a few days in London, doing London things. Windsor Castle. The site of the signing of the Magna Carta. A special shop or two. But best of all was Kew: the Royal Botanical Gardens, founded in 1759 and forming the most fascinating 300 acres in London. This is the place to which plants have been carried from all over the world: periwinkles and peonies, hibiscus and hostas. And in response, the place was humming with visitors, wandering from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, tree to tree. Gathering the sights and smells, new things to know, and the feeling of sun on their backs. It was wonderfully, gloriously, and appropriately alive – with all sorts of people enjoying all sorts of plants in all sorts of ways.
Of all the attractions though, one stood out for me – and I suspect many people would choose the same. The waterlily house, hot with red and orange blooms without, steamy and green within, was the highlight of my day. A pool full of great lilypads, some flat and smooth, others with upturned, serrated edges. We saw the daytime blooms and read about those which rise from the water at night to set a trap for unsuspecting beetles. Wild plants, exotic plants, floating green and calm on a mirror-smooth pond. And in the water, if you look carefully, you can just see the wrought iron framework of their protective cage, amplifying the English sun. To me, this house was Kew Gardens in miniature: the essence of a curated botanical world. And the joy of it is that we have three more seasons to see it in, and much more besides to explore. We will most certainly be going back to Kew.