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England’s Kew Gardens Celebrates 250 Years
Historic color drawing of visitors at Kew Gardens with the Palm House in the background.Photo ©2009 Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Richmond, Surrey, of the United Kingdom, considered by most botanists as one of the world’s premier botanical gardens, is celebrating its 250th anniversary.1 An omission in Kew’s archives prevents anyone from knowing the exact date that Princess Augusta (mother of King George III) entrusted her 9-acre garden to William Aiton—the Gardens’ first official superintendent—meaning that Kew’s staff only knows the year that the Gardens was founded. So all year they’re going to party like it’s 1759.

“The main goal of the year, besides the celebration of the 250 anniversary, is to educate the public about Kew’s global conservation efforts, the role plant-science has to play in dealing with the environmental challenges we are facing, plus remind people of our rich history and heritage,” said David Yard, the travel trade manager for Kew (oral communication, March 10, 2009).

Historically, it was Princess Augusta’s goal to create a garden that would “contain all the plants known on Earth,” according to The World of Kew (BBC Books, 2006) by Carolyn Fry.2 With advancements in the collection of various plants from all over the world made by past directors such as Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) and Sir Joseph Hooker (1817–1911), Kew has certainly gotten a head-start on this goal.3

“Of course, neither Kew, nor any other botanic garden, is anywhere near to containing all the plants known on Earth. Many more plants are known since the days of Princess Augusta,” said Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, director of Kew from 1988–1999 (e-mail, April 17, 2009). “Nevertheless, Kew’s collection of some 40,000 taxa is probably one of the largest in the world.”

The idea to celebrate the anniversary-year all year long was a collective decision of the Kew planning committee, which includes staff from various departments of the organization, according to Yard. This committee was also behind the creation of a smorgasbord of events, which can be attended at no additional cost outside the usual Gardens entry fee of £13 ($19.24 US dollars). This large array of events includes several art exhibits at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, 10 artistic sculptures of seeds added to the Main Gate entrance to symbolize the Gardens’ conservation efforts through Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) partnership, and the restoration of the Marianne North Gallery (Marianne North was a Victorian artist who created botanical paintings inspired by her travels).1

“Kew is the leading botanical garden and institution of its type in the world. It was turned over to the Crown (made public) in 1841 and has had a huge influence on the conduct of botany throughout the world ever since,” said Peter Raven, PhD, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MoBot) in St. Louis (e-mail, May 1, 2009).

Dr. Raven explained that MoBot’s founder, Henry Shaw, consulted Sir William Jackson Hooker, a previous director of Kew, in 1851 to get advice about how to organize MoBot. “It was that correspondence that changed our garden—the oldest that has operated continuously in the United States—to a partly scientific institution from pure display, and that’s the way Henry Shaw set it up in his will after operating it himself for 30 years, 1859–1889,” said Raven. He added that the 2 gardens closest in size and scope to Kew are the New York Botanical Garden, which was established in 1891, and MoBot. Though he said that MoBot doesn’t necessarily emulate Kew, since the 2 gardens specialize in different areas and have gone different directions, MoBot does often cooperate with Kew. “As a model, Kew has influenced all botanical gardens, and especially those for which science and conservation are components of their programs, and it continues to influence them now.” Roses from the Kew 250th Anniversary Rose Garden. Charlotte Rose Rosa spp.Photo ©2009 David Austen Roses

Kew’s Conservation Efforts

Conservation is one of the main focuses of Kew during its 250th year, just as it has been throughout much of Kew’s history. Currently, Kew is a leader in several efforts to conserve orchids native to the United Kingdom. Some of these endangered orchids include the fen orchid (Liparis loeselii, Orchidaceae) and the lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus, Orchidaceae), one of the UK’s rarest orchids, according to Bronwyn Friedlander of Kew public relations (e-mail, March 10, 2009). The event that kicked off the 250th anniversary celebrations was the Tropical Extravaganza—a celebration of orchids. This took place February 7–March 8, 2009, in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, with a turn-out of 115,000 people for the 4 weeks it ran, according to Yard. This event featured various types and colors of hybrid orchids.1 Visitors also had an opportunity to view Kew’s species orchid collection. Kew is involved in the conservation of orchids in Madagascar4 as well as various other conservation projects, including a venture to preserve the world’s meadows. According to Yard, a large color-coded map that pin-points the exact locations of all of Kew’s conservation efforts around the world was installed near the Victoria gate of Kew in April 2009.

“Conservation is the most important thing that a botanic garden can do today,” said Sir Ghillean Prance. “If we don’t, there will not be plant species to study, to feed us, to decorate our gardens, and to supply medicines. We need to conserve all plants—not just orchids—and this is certainly what Kew is doing.” Prance was knighted in 1995 for his many services in conservation, many of which involved Kew.

Kew’s Herbarium, Library, Art, and Archives

Another exciting development is the opening of a new wing to the herbarium, scheduled for 2010. This will add even more dried specimens to the herbarium, which is already the largest in the world with a current count of 7,000,000 specimens. The original building, first built in 1877, has already been extended 7 times, according to Bronwyn Friedlander. The new wing will extend the capacity of the herbarium by about 40 years, meaning an additional 40 years-worth of herbs can be collected and stored in the new space. This area will also feature climate-controlled storage and adjacent study areas for an additional hundreds of thousands of plant specimens. This expansion will further provide a new space for Kew’s library, archives, and art collection.

“The move is excellent as it will give us a further 30+ years of storage space and also the opportunity to re-arrange the collections according to a modern system based on DNA studies,” said David Mabberley, PhD, keeper of the herbarium, library, art, and archives and author of the recently revised and world-renowned Mabberley’s Plant Book (e-mail, April 29, 2009). “We incorporate ca. 35,000 new herbarium specimens every year.”

Interior view of the Waterlily House. Photo ©2009 Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Kew also has the world’s largest and most comprehensive library of botanical literature, said Christopher Mills, head of the library, art, and archives (e-mail, April 29, 2009). “It is international in its coverage and contains some 300,000 printed titles, over 4,000 journal runs, some going back over 200 years. It holds 200,000 items in its Art and Illustrations Collection and 7 million manuscript items in its Archives.”

Kew on BBC

Another event to honor the Gardens’ anniversary was the creation of a television program by presenter Dan Cruickshank, titled “Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World,” which aired in the United Kingdom on BBC 2 on April 28, 2009, and was replayed on May 6,

“The BBC Wales has a long association with Kew Gardens, thanks to several series about its work, including the acclaimed ‘A Year at Kew,’” said Jenny Walford, communications manager for BBC Wales (e-mail, March 16, 2009). “As the 250th anniversary was coming up, we thought it was time to tell the history of this fascinating place and how its purpose had changed through the years.” Directed by Sam Benstead, there are currently no plans to air this program outside of the United Kingdom, nor will it be available on DVD.

The main theme of the film is to show that Kew Gardens is “more than a perfect picnic spot or place to browse through blooms,” according to a synopsis of the film.5 In fact, “Kew has shaped the course of Britain and its empire, playing its part in scientific discoveries, serving the economic cause, and continuing to push the boundaries of plant research into the 21st century.”

Author Carolyn Fry contributed to the film by providing her opinion of Kew’s importance during the time of England’s far-reaching empire. Fry was asked to respond to the validity of the following comment from William Thiselton-Dyer, director of Kew from 1885–1905: “We at Kew feel the weight of the empire more than they do in Downing Street.”6 (Downing Street is the term frequently used to refer to the residence of the Prime Minister.)

Fry confirmed that this estimation was not an exaggeration: “Towards the end of the 19th century Kew was acting as a hub, corresponding with some 30 or so gardens around the world—[with] the idea that these gardens could support the British empire by growing plants that could be of economic value in the places where the climate was most suitable,” said Fry. In fact, “the scale (of the operation) was immense. If you think when the British empire was at its great extent, it was holding sway over a quarter of the world’s population….At the beginning of the 19th century much of the world was untouched, with its plants unknown. By the end of the 19th century it had been pretty well ransacked.”6

The Millennium Seed Bank

Today, as opposed to merely collecting plant species from all over the world, Kew focuses on preservation. A major event occurring during the 250th anniversary celebrations is an exhibition about Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) partnership (which takes place April 4–September 13, 2009). This exhibition—Banking on Life—is housed in the Nash Conservatory and showcases the work of the MSB and its partners around the world.4 The MSB is located at Wakehurst Place, a 465-acre satellite of Kew. According to Sir Ghillean Prance, since Kew is on very poorly-drained sandy soil, Wakehurst Place is home to the seed bank as well as a useful horticultural addition, due to the area’s higher quality soil and rolling topography.

Kew’s MSB was conceived and built at Wakehurst Place during Prance’s time as director and began in 2000 to collect seeds from plants that are (1) rare and endangered, (2) from areas of the world most impacted by climate change, and (3) medicinally and economically useful.7

“The seeds are the answers to problems mankind has not yet begun to encounter,” said Cruickshank in “Cruickshank on Kew.”6 “In time of mass habitat destruction and shifting weather patterns, this is the last ditch safeguard against extinction of all plants for the benefit of the future of mankind and the world.”

According to the program, Kew’s MSB contains bomb-proof bunkers, with inside temperatures as low as 40° below Celsius, where a human cannot stay for more than 30 minutes without risking a slowing of his or her metabolism to a dangerous level.6 Twenty-three thousand plant species are housed inside these vaults, as 1.3 billion seeds. In October 2009, the MSB partnership conservation project, a combined collection effort of organizations all over the world, plans to celebrate hitting its target of collecting and banking seeds from 10% of the world’s ca. 300,000 wild plant species.7

“We believe that Kew’s MSB partnership has an important role to play in providing plant-based solutions to environmental problems and in enabling humanity to adapt and innovate,” said Paul Smith, PhD, head of Kew’s MSB partnership (e-mail, April 30, 2009). “We can do this only by working with plant scientists in both government and industry. Our next milestone is to collect and conserve 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020 and to do all we can to enable their use for the benefit of the planet and people.”

“Ultimately, this work also contributes to the battle of mitigation against climate change,” said Nigel Taylor, Kew’s curator (e-mail, April 29, 2009). “In the future it is clear that we are going to need to be the gardeners of nature, having modified it so comprehensively that it will not recover unaided. This will be Kew’s contribution as we enter the next 250 years of the Gardens.”

At this rate of collection and preservation, one day Kew may indeed achieve the goal Princess Augusta set for it—to “contain all the plants known on Earth.”2

More information about Kew’s 250th anniversary is available on the Web site: A full list of Kew’s 250th anniversary events is available at:’s_250th_year_ahead.pdf.


  1. Kew celebrates 250 years [press release]. London, England: Kew Garden; January 27, 2009.
  2. Fry C. The World of Kew. London, England: BBC Books. 2006.
  3. Kew’s History and Heritage, People. Kew Garden Web site. Available at: Accessed April 10, 2009.
  4. Kew’s work with orchids. Kew Garden Web site. Available at: Accessed April 6, 2009.
  5. Unpublished synopsis of Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World. BBC 2. May 22, 2009.
  6. Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World. BBC 2. May 22, 2009.
  7. Banking on Life: The story of RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank partnership [press release]. London, England: Kew Garden; March 23, 2009.