Kew’s species and stories

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Kew Gardens, 2005

When I used to live near Kew Gardens, I took my baby son, Jonathan, there with his friends countless times. We loved all the space, the endless pathways and the warm glasshouses to nip inside when it was chilly.

Climbers and Creepers opened, giving us additional fun things to do, and one particular highlight of visiting during his toddler years was the Dale Chihuly exhibition, which Jonathan recorded soon afterwards in a rather charming artwork.

But an interesting aspect of Kew’s approach at the time was that the vast majority of its plant and tree species were not labelled, other than with their scientific name on a small tag.

Chihuly at Kew by Jonathan

Chihuly at Kew by Jonathan

For expert visitors, these tags were ideal as a confirmation of where the plant fitted into their existing mental landscape. But for interested people like me, who couldn’t distinguish between anything much more exotic than an oak and a holly, I always felt I would like to know more. Even though I’ve sporadically developed an interest in gardening – and even been to the Chelsea Flower Show on several occasions, goodness! – the question of what makes each plant significant is something I struggled to recall.

It’s therefore been a joy to work with Kew on a series of new plant and tree labels, tellingP1440532 stories about more than a hundred of their key species. My role as writer was to work with interpretation manager Justine Quinn to identify suitable species from the botanical experts, and then interview Tony Kirkham, the head of Arboretum, to find the best stories for each plant and write them in 40 words or fewer.

Kew has the largest collection of living plants in the world. To interview Tony about the species and create the story text was wonderful (not only because of his mellifluous accent, heard on TV and radio). We worked on stories about plants’ particular appearance, scarcity, uses or history, depending on what would help create a realisation of the variety and importance of Kew’s collections.

I was down at Kew a few weeks ago and saw some of the labels in place, although I understand these are in a temporary format. Unobtrusive but located in areas of high P1440493footfall, the new stories should help visitors have an even better time at Kew than they already do, discovering, for example, that:

  • the spiky fruits of the liquidambar tree are called bommyknockers, conkleberries and pinkleponkers
  • while the rare paulownia tree is prized in the UK, it’s considered a weed elsewhere. Its soft, furry seed pods were used for packing porcelain, spreading the species far and wide
  • that witch hazel’s magical name actually comes from the Old English word wice meaning bendy
  • Kew planted 28 young Chinese tulip trees in 2001 to help preserve the species, now rare in its homeland
  • you can tell the native hornbeam and beech apart because of the former’s jagged-edged leaves
  • in autumn, the katsura tree’s falling leaves smell like candyfloss, caramel or strawberries
  • a particular Corsican pine, planted in 1814, has since been hit once by a private aircraft and twice by lightning. It’s now protected by a lightning conductor
  • Kew’s avenue of holly trees traces the ancient route of Love Lane, once part of the main public right of way from Kew to Richmond.
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Witch hazel sizzles with colour in the depth of winter