Kew Gardens: A Garden for All Seasons

Kew is very much a garden for all seasons; long after flowers have faded and herbaceous plants died down, there is always something of interest in the glasshouses, as well as the specimen trees throughout the grounds. Briefly, late winter to early spring is a time when witch hazels, Hamamelis spp. And mahonias flower; the first bulbs, as well as frost and snow-resistent perennials such as Christmas roses, appear.

Snowdrops, followed by wild daffodils, carpet the ground beneath the pleached hornbeam alley in the Queen’s Garden. But the most spectacular bulb show, in terms of sheer numbers, has to be the crocus carpets planted in 1987 on either side of the path which leads from Victoria Gate to King William’s Temple. Depending on the weather, the peak time for this display may be in the latter part of February (as in 1990) or well into March (as in 1991). Spring is also the season for magnolias, camellias, forsythias, flowering cherries and lilacs, as well as the spring bedding displays.

May – when the native deciduous trees leaf out and azure drifts of bluebells enrich the Queen’s Cottage Grounds – is a glorious month at Kew, as it is in almost any garden in southern Britain. It is also the best time to see the Rhododendron Dell, as well as the Laburnum Tunnel in the Queen’s Garden. Wisterias are in flower then too, and an old gnarled specimen of Wisteria sinensis is worthy of mention. Now growing over a gazebo, beside one of the oldest trees at Kew – a maidenhair tree – it once covered the east end of the Great Stove glasshouse, built in 1761 and dismantled in 1861. The Great Stove was used for growing delicate plants which flourished in the humid heat created by the fermentation of pieces of oak bark (a by-product of the tanning industry) packed into a bed in the centre of the glasshouse.

By midsummer the Rose Garden, the Grass Garden, the Queen’s Garden and the summer bedding displays are at their peak. During Victorian times bedding displays, including carpet bedding, were popular in gardens throughout Britain. Nowadays such labour intensive displays are much reduced at Kew, although the beds which line the Broad Walk and the bi-coloured formal parterre in front of the Palm House are changed twice a year. After Canada geese damaged the Palm House beds in both 1986 and 1987 (when they devoured the lobelias and trod on the busy lizzies) a low fence had to be erected around the beds.

Walking through the central transept of the Palm House from the Pond entrance out through the opposite doors leads to the formal Rose Garden and the extensive Syon Vista beyond. Both old and new varieties of cluster (floribunda) and large-flowered (hybrid tea) roses are grown in the main semi-circular garden, while the ancestry of modern roses is explained on display panels in beds of old roses planted in an area to the south. In autumn, many of these old roses develop attractive hips.

Summer is also the prime time for the Order Beds in the Herbaceous Ground, which was a walled kitchen garden when Kew was a royal estate. A design for a parterre in this area, made by Decimus Burton in 1847, was passed over in favour of regular rectangular beds. Here a huge concentration of annual and perennial dicotyledonous plants from temperate latitudes, and some tropical annuals, are grown. As was the custom in old physic gardens, the plants are arranged systematically, with those from one family sharing one or more beds. Thus plants from the mallow family (Malvaceae) will be found in adjacent beds. This aids the appreciation of the botanical relationships of plants and how they have come to be classified into distinct families and genera within the families.

Anyone who is familiar with British wild flowers will recognize many widespread, as well as rarer, species growing in the Order Beds; plants such as sea campion, soapwort, deadly nightshade, silverweed and cornflower, to name but a few, share beds with relatives from Europe and North America.

In late summer the Compositae (daisy family) beds are worth looking at for the pink stems and flower clusters of dodder, Cuscuta – a plant that lives as a parasite. Because dodder lacks green chlorophyll, it is unable to manufacture starches and sugars; instead it lives as a parasite on green plants. Britain’s two wild species of dodder normally parasitize stinging nettle, hop, gorse and ling, Calluna vulgaris, but at Kew dodder grows well on a variety of composites from Europe, Japan and Asia.

Dodder can invade cultivated areas via seeds in topsoil or in mud carried on the soles of shoes. Belonging to the convolvulus family, dodder plants have thin pink (or sometimes yellow) stems that entwine around the host plant.

Where the dodder stem makes contact with the host stem, it produces peglike structures that penetrate inside so the host’s food supply can be tapped. Broomrapes are another group of parasitic plants which also appear in the Order Beds at Kew. While ivy broomrape grows on ivy outside the School of Horticulture building.

English: Greater Dodder (Cuscuta europaea), cl...

As the day length shortens with the onset of autumn, so tree fruits ripen and leaves of deciduous trees begin to change colour. Much of the planting around the Banks Pond is especially attractive in late autumn. Most conspicuously there is an extensive stand of sea buckthorn. Hippophae rhamnoides, bearing clusters of orange fruits atop the silvery-grey foliage. Nearby, a display of the Chinese shrub, Callicarpa bodnieri var. giraldii, carries spectacular purple fruits on bare twigs. There are also plantings of British shrubs noted for their colourful fruits; the guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, and dog rose. Rosa canina.

In the Temperate House the Cape heaths and proteas begin to flower, while the Heather Garden is worth a visit at this time of year and on throughout the winter. On either side of the path leading to the Ice House, on the west side of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, is an interesting area planted with winter-flowering shrubs and plants with colourful barks. Indeed, winter is the best time to appreciate the varied colours and texture to be found among barks of both broadleaved and coniferous trees.

The Australian House should not be missed in December and January. When the air is heavy with the scent of flowering acacias. These bring welcome colour at a time of year when the grounds are lacking their floriferous displays and the birds have stripped most of the fruit from the trees.

27. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Conservatories, Greenhouse Gardening, House Plants | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Kew Gardens: A Garden for All Seasons

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