Thursday, 31 January 2013


After a rather mild old time of it, winter recently took hold at Kew with freezing temperatures and delightfully snowy landscapes! There have been some truly wonderful sights to behold, but surely the highlight at this time of year is taking joy in the detail; for example the beauty of some standing dead or the colours of a tiny flowering bulb, which may look like the most delicate thing in the garden but is in fact the hardiest. Tulip stems have cheerfully poked through the parterres in front of the Palm House, offering hope and the chance to dream of an early spring! Doubtless another cold snap is lurking just around the corner, lead pipe in hand and waiting patiently to smother such optimism, but until such time we shall proceed blissfully in a haze of positivity and glorious sunshine!

The old Palm House seen over the pond, thankfully it’s warm inside!

Snow settles on the unheated Alpine House, with the Rock Garden coated below

This is Syon Vista I was jabbering on about earlier, leading away from the Palm House to the River Thames

The snow begins to melt…

The snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, is one of the most welcome sights at this time of year!

Over in the Apline House, Narcissus papyraceus var. polyanthos, forms one of the many potted bulb displays

One of the best displays this winter in the Alpine House has been Scilla maderensis! Seen here in the Alpine Nursery, these beauties are somewhat more imposing than the little blue chaps that self-seed around English gardens

Out on the Rock Garden, Cyclamen coum subsp. coum

The Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is amongst the most colourful of the tiny winter bulbs

Out in the Arboretum, the Helleborus orientalis cultivars are flowering away, as always, the stoical blighters. What wonderful plants!

Helleborus argutifolius is an outstanding species, with excellent, spiny foliage

The Grass Garden is admittedly looking rather tatty compared to its late-summer glory, but nevertheless is still jolly exciting!

The witch hazel bed is undoubtedly the most colourful area of the Kew Arboretum, with a huge array of Hamamelis species flowering their socks off! H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ seen here

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Barmstedt Gold’ is another cultivar. ‘Cheese-string jewels!’

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Raworth Garden

So far my time as a student has been damn good fun, the magnitude of the place is like nothing I’ve seen before and the collections of plants are utterly glorious! The grand era of Victorian gardening still holds some sway here, and this sense of history is both exciting and charming. However, over the course of my three years at Hidcote I developed an obsession with a wild, rambling style of horticulture that suits me to a ‘T’, and that I intend to pursue for the rest of my gardening career. This style is not entirely catered for at Kew, but as of this month I shall not be losing any sleep over that fact as I have taken a Saturday job at the Raworth Garden, just across the Thames at Twickenham. This garden was created by Jenny & Richard Raworth some 40 years ago, and is strongly influenced by Hidcote and several of my other favourite gardens. The planting is informal, dense and luxurious, and surrounded by a formal structure of mature hedging and topiary. The main peak of flowering interest explodes in early-summer, but the garden remains intriguing throughout the seasons. Perhaps best of all, a Bengal cat called Benny reigns supreme here, and is the most entertaining and cheerful character I have encountered since old Buster at Hidcote! From here on in, I will be splicing my Kew adventures with tales from Raworth; I hope this new arrangement will be agreeable. Please see here for an introduction to the garden and a large collection of delightful images!

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Palm House

The Palm House is one of the icons of the Victorian era, and is to this day a landmark of British engineering. Built between 1844 and 1848, it was at the cutting edge of technology and was a major event in the ‘Age of Iron’, begun in the late-1700s by  the pioneering Victorians who were shameless in their strive for advancement and progress. One man, Richard Turner, typified that character, almost bankrupting himself developing the light but strong wrought iron beams used in the construction of the Palm House. Iron was previously used in the building of grand glasshouses at assorted stately homes and botanical gardens in Britain, but it is the curved design and sheer size of the Palm House that makes it such an important structure. The building is 20 metres high and a 100-odd metres in length, with the iron frame holding 16,000 panes of curved glass! This incredible design was realised by the ambition of Turner, who’s understanding of shipbuilding and ‘deck beam’ technology made it possible for the huge expanse of the Palm House to stand with very little internal support. Earlier designs submitted contained far too many columns and pillars which would have hindered the spreading crowns of the magnificent palms; the open structure we see today is both innovative and immensely practical! Turner later claimed to have lost £7,000 during construction, and at the time did not get the credit he deserved for his work. Happily though, the old boy went on to create one of the finest Victorian railway stations in England, building the huge expanse of iron and glass that curves over the platforms of Lime Street Station in Liverpool.

Turner’s ironwork

The Palm House mostly contains palms (more revelations to follow), but fortunately upon opening the house, Kew had an entirely insufficient amount of specimens available to fill the cavernous space! This, fortunately, led to a tradition of a more mixed planting within the house, with an assortment of tropical specimens being grown and displayed here alongside the palms. Victorian families thronged to the house to see the vegetation of the expanding British Empire being cultivated under the curved glass, and this exotic and unusual array continues to this very day! The planting around the house is rather formal, reflective of those Victorian days, with the great landscaper William Nesfield responsible for much of the setting within which the Palm House is placed. Syon Vista and Pagoda Vista radiate from the site on the west side, with both of these tree-lined avenues nearly 1000 metres in length! Syon Vista leads down to the River Thames and affords excellent views of the imposing Syon House on the opposite bank, while Pagoda Vista inevitably leads to the giant Pagoda which is another of Kew’s iconic structures. The Campanile is perhaps the most interesting building in the Palm House environ, an Italianate tower to the south of the pond. This is in fact a chimney, connected to the house via an underground tunnel, and designed to remove any soot and smoke that could smother the glass!

The Campanile, the underground tunnel, and its exact path revealed in the melted snow

Historically, the Palm House has been a rather difficult place to work as a gardener. 10 hour days, endless labour, and not to mention the stifling heat, have all contributed to the infamous legend of working in this great glasshouse. New employees would be ‘tried out’ here to see if they could hack the pace, before being moved on to a permanent position elsewhere in the garden. A gardener found to have committed a misdemeanour was liable for boiler duty; lugging a coke wagon backwards and forwards along the 150-metre underground supply tunnel. A small railway track assisted the repentant egg, but it was dirty, back breaking work! Fumigating the Palm House certainly must have seemed like a punishment, with nicotine pyres lit throughout the house, and the staff actually staying inside for two and a half hours to keep the tobacco parcels burning! One chap, who left Kew in 1910, vaguely recalled being dragged outside by a fellow gardener, after keeling over from the toxic fumes! Thankfully such folly came to an end years ago, and the Palm House is a much safer place to work. A reduced working day and some protective clothing when using chemicals are just two of the perks! I will post more highlights from the Palm House over the course of my placement, but for now here is an introduction to this grand house!

Inside is a controlled jungle, with palms blocking the view and vigorous climbers scrambling overhead! There is a constant balancing act between the display of specimen plants, and creating an overgrown tropical atmosphere

Pandanus is one exciting new species I’ve discovered here, with branching growth and huge strappy leaves! The common name is Screwpine, due to the spiral arrangement of the leaves and pineapple-like fruits

Pritchardia schattaueri is just one of the many incredible palms to be had here. Pritchardia is a tough old species, and makes a good candidate for a houseplant in a well-lit room

Many of the trees in the Palm House harbour epiphytic orchids such as Cattleya deckeri. Epiphytes are plants living on another; not in a parasitic way, just hitching a ride to get closer to the available light and moisture!

Pavonia multiflora is one of the most free-flowering of the plants displayed here, in Malvaceaea family

The foliage of tropical legumes is mesmerising! This is Cojoba arborea

Clerodendrum splendens, a vigorous climber with these incredible blooms! Best grown in a container as it will creep around all over the shop in open soil

Solandra maxima is another glorious climber, native to the tropical Americas. The blooms are night-scented, smelling similar to coconut and pollinated by bats!

The top balcony allows a unique view of the tropical canopy, this is the spreading palms of Ravenea moorei

The delightful iron stairwell leading to the balcony! The spinning disc foliage is Cecropia glaziovii

The very centre of the house is the tallest point, 20 metres, and unfortunately any palm finally attaining this glory is liable to be given the chop! Pruning is impossible, as due to the way palms grow any cut to the central stem results in the death of the plant

More detail of Turner’s handiwork! The large-leaved climber scrambling up the pillar and arch is Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum’

The west of the house looks to Syon Vista, the long avenue leading to the river. The evening light on this side of the house is quite special

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Tropical nursery

My time in the Tropical Nursery has come to an end; unfortunately the three month placement system means that just as you are coming to terms with the floral glory it is time to move on! I have now started working in the Palm House so, happily, there is plenty more excitement to come, but I wanted to end my first placement at Kew by sharing some of the wonderful plants that are grown and maintained in the nursery at large!

Over in the Orchid unit, Vanda hybrids hang from the ceiling with their thick aerial roots dressed in the Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides. This plant has no roots, and simply ekes out a living hanging off a suitable branch or trunk

Ramosmania rodriguesii is one of the gems in Zone 9, native to the island of Rodrigues near Madagascar and famous for being saved from extinction by Kew. With one native plant remaining in the wild, Carlos fathomed how to pollinate the flowers and the resulting seeds have ensured the survival of this beautiful species!

The paintbrush heads of Haemanthus albiflos

Dorstenia christenhusz is a curious beast; much of the genus displays these unusual star-shaped blooms

The snapping jaws of Dionaea muscipula! Passing flies beware!

Drosera regia is another carnivorous gem, trapping unfortunate blighters on these graceful sticky hairs. No insect is safe, including butterflies!

This is the almost comically tropical inflorescence of Billbergia distachia var. distachia. Billbergia is a Bromeliad, and one of the legendary plants from this family is the gigantic Puya raimondii which has been known to kill sheep!

One of the most famous plants growing at Kew is the Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanum, this beast taking years to flower from a tuber below ground the size of a small child. The flower is enormous, I will be posting it here later this year, and this incredible seed head follows after pollination by the nursery staff

The curious sea shell flowers of Dalechampia aristolochiaefolia

Another of the glorious climbers in Zone 9, Thunbergia togoensis! This has a similar colour to the arresting Tibouchina urvilleana

Carlos has raised a new Hibiscus hybrid with these glorious blooms, glossy leaves and repeat flowering. Unnamed as yet, unfortunately my suggestion of H. bertioides was rejected out of hand

A fellow student and myself created this temporary piece of Victoriana for the recent Tropical Nursery public open day. What ho!