Queuing for Kew…

Just to set the record straight…there was no queue. I just could not resist the fun title. On the topic of titles let’s this garden’s right straight off. My visit was to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Dave left early for his meeting venue and I followed shortly heading to the London Underground. Kew is quite far out from the Central London area, requiring a line change and a total travel time of about 45 minutes. The last few stops are above ground with simple station platforms reminiscent of a bygone era. When you alight at Kew Station you have clearly left the hustle and bustle of the city and entered a quaint English village  like those we have all seen on PBS and BBC for years. It was very much a sigh of relief for me after several days on the run, trying to figure out how to get where we wanted to go and not get run over by a bus or taxi in the process!

Kew Station

A brief walk takes me to the Victoria Gate of this world class botanic garden. This 326 acre park offers more attractions and highlights than anyone can cover in a single day. After consulting with a docent I decide to buy a ticket for the Kew Explorer, a hop-on, hop-off land train which circles the garden and offers me a solution for seeing some of the more outlying areas without my legs falling off and sort of get a peek at everything before I commit my brief time here to any specific part of the garden.

I was able to get a sense of the Woodland Glade, Holly Walk, Berberis (Barberry) Dell, Redwood Grove, Conservation Area, Oak Collection and Rhododendron Dell while on the train and did not feel the need to explore them on foot. These are all very large scale plantings and were better viewed from a distance, freeing up more time to focus on other garden areas.

I hopped off to spend a bit of time at the Japanese Gateway and Pagoda. The Pagoda, one of many follies in the garden, was completed in 1762 at the height of the 18th century craze for Chinoiserie. The ten story octagonal structure has lost its elaborate detail after so many years and is undergoing a two year restoration project. Its neighbor, the Gateway of the Imperial Messenger, is a 4/5th replica of the Gate of Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto, Japan. The gate was created for the Japanese-British Exhibition held in London in 1910, then dismantled and reconstructed near the Pagoda in 1911. A small Garden of Peace offers an area of tranquil respite and completes the Japanese landscape.

My next stop was Kew Palace to see the Queen’s Garden and the Royal Kitchens. The Queen’s Garden sits between the palace and the banks of the River Thames. However they are fully walled and you do not even recognize that the river is there until you view the formal garden from the Palace’s upstairs windows. The house started its life as the home of a Flemish merchant. It was purchased by King George II for Queen Caroline and their children in the late 1700s and will always be associated with the illness of their son, George III. The Kitchen Gardens bear witness to the never-ending search for a cure for his ‘madness’ with all manner of medicinal plants being grown in addition to the edibles for family meals.

Queen’s Garden

Leafy allees lead to the Kitchen Gardens, also formally laid out with a center axis. The garden’s medicinal plants are well labeled, including information about the ills for which each plant was believed to have curative powers. The source of George’s supposed madness remains elusive.

Edibles are planted closest to the entrance to the kitchens

I had signed up for a 2 pm tour of the newly completed Great Broad Walk Borders and had just enough time for one more hop-off the Explorer, this time at another new must-see at Kew-The Hive. Artist Wolfgang Buttress was commissioned by the UK Government to create this multi-sensory installation which formed the centerpiece of the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo. The structure rises to almost 65 ft. and highlights the importance of pollinators to the world’s future food security. The Hive allows visitors to step inside the life of bees in hopes of inspiring us all to join in the battle to save the bees.

The Hive

The research of Dr. Martin Bencsik (Nottingham-Trent University) on bee vibration and communication patterns inspired the artist to create the structure which stands in stark contrast to the many centuries-old buildings at Kew. You enter The Hive from a circular path set into a wildflower meadow. The installation is made from thousands of pieces of aluminum which create a lattice effect.  It is fitted with 1,000 LED lights that glow and fade as a unique soundtrack hums and buzzes around you. The lights are in fact responding to the real-time activity of bees in a beehive located near the Orangery in another part of the park. Vibration sensors called accelerometers have been place within the beehive The sound and light intensity within The Hive changes as the energy levels in the real beehive ebb and flow.  It is a surreal experience to stand inside the hive and experience the life and energy of bees. The Hive’s honeycomb structure weighs 40 tons yet seems light as air.

To stand inside with the floor almost disappearing below you and the hive rising high and open to the sky above is an experience not to be missed. To add to the experience, bone conductors have been installed in the space beneath The Hive. These convert the sound into vibrations which, when touched with the wood stick provided, travel directly to your skull, and represent the secrets of bee communication through vibrations.

Feeling the bees’  vibrations through bone conduction

Kew’s Year of the Bee offers many Hive activities and educational opportunities to learn about Britain’s bees and the plight of bees worldwide, how to be bee friendly, the power of pollination and creating wildflower meadows.  There has even been a special opportunity to experience The Hive at dusk–so sorry I missed that!

NEXT UP: KEW #2 The Great Broad Walk Borders, a little Kew history and MORE!

More of London’s (and my) past…

We started our day by spending a few hours in the British Museum so Dave could commune with the ancient Egyptians for a bit. Our hotel is only two blocks from the museum’s gate so it was an easy journey on a day forecasted to be unseasonably warm for London in mid-September. Not so much a gardener’s dream but pretty impressive nonetheless.

Our plan was to next travel to the Tower of London on the city bus–new territory for us as we have only ridden the Underground (tube) until now.  We made a small walking detour in search of a small garden behind St. Giles Church called the Phoenix Garden. I discovered this garden listed on the website TimeOut London in an article called Secret Gardens of London. Described as a small walled garden reached by walking down an almost hidden alley beside the church it was a bit challenging to find! Unfortunately a sign posted told us it was closed starting just the day before for some hardscape restoration and the addition of a new, larger and more easily seen entrance. Drat!

Back on track for the Tower we took 2 buses as the day warmed considerably. My desire to see this piece of England’s history stemmed primarily from a 1954 photo I have of my older sister and I holding hands with one of the Tower’s guards. That’s me on the left!


We took the tour which was lead by a Yeoman Warder (often called a Beefeater), saw the Crown Jewels and walked the walls of the Medieval Palace. I then approached one of the Yeoman Warders and showed him my photo. I learned several things–the first being that my mother incorrectly identified the Yeoman in the picture as a Yeoman of the Guard when he was actually a Yeoman Warder like the gentleman I was speaking with.  A Yeoman Warder is a full-time  job working only at the Tower. There are only 37 Yeoman Warders at any time and they must have 22 years distinguished English military service and have achieved a certain rank to be considered. They are part of the Queen’s bodyguard service. A Yeoman of the Guard is only called to service a few times a year for ceremonial purposes.

The Yeoman Warder I was speaking with immediately noticed something unusual about the uniform in the photo and asked if he could show my photo to the Yeoman Warder Archivist, David Coleman. I agreed and he was called. Mr. Coleman was very excited about the photo, asking for permission to copy it.  He told me that the uniform was from a period for which they have almost no photographic record. He pointed out that the crown on the uniform was still the King’s Crown but the letters below E II R are that of Queen Elizabeth. When the Queen was crowned a new style/shape of crown was designed for the uniforms (see the difference in the photo below.) My parents had arrived in England only a few months before Elizabeth’s coronation in June 1953. Mr. Coleman surmised that probably due to post WWII financial restraints only the letters were changed from G R (for King George) to E II R for Elizabeth with the old crown remaining until until it was financially feasible to replace. He shared that he was developing a project on the Yeoman Warders of the post WWII era and thought my photo could be an addition to that documentation. What fun! And really not a shrub or flower in sight!


Here a just a few other photos from our Tower experience.  The first was taken in about the same spot as the one from 1954. You can see in the first two the interesting juxtaposition of the centuries old Tower architecture with the modern glass building. The final two smaller photos are of the Tower Bridge which crosses the River Thames just to the east of the Tower walls.



Oh, by the way…later the BBC News told us the day had been the highest temperature day in September in over 100 years–I guess we brought that Central California heat with us as a gift.!


Stepping into England’s story…

Not every sight we take in on this London adventure will have a landscape rich with Penelope Hobhouse cottage beds or trees and houses hundreds of years old–not sure why but it seems my husband has a few venues he wishes to see in his few free days before work calls him back.

We board our bus (called a coach on this side of the pond) early in the cool morning air for the 2-1/2 hour ride to the English Heritage site of Stonehenge. It seems to take remarkably long to get from our central London hotel to the point where the city meets the countryside. From there it is open road with only broad, flat fields to the right and left. Rolled hay, sheep and cattle dot the fields which are so green they almost look painted.

Stonehenge, also a Unesco World Heritage site, is an ancient temple aligned on the movements of the sun.  The stones were raised 4,500 years ago by sophisticated prehistoric people. I was amazed to learn that archeologists believe that there is just as much stone deep in the ground as we see above ground and that much of the site remains unexamined for burial remains.

There is a pathway to follow all the way around the stones and an excellent audio guide giving you historical and cultural information at designated spots. Access to the site is somewhat controlled by holding back groups to not overcrowd the perimeter at any one time. Visitors are remarkably quiet and respectful as they view the stones. The stones and their story inspire quiet reflection and awe at the feat it was to get them there. The gray sky and strong breezes intensify the spiritual nature of the site.

English Heritage and the National Trust’s (managing the surrounding landscape) restoration and transformation of the site from earlier ‘improvements’ return a sense of context and dignity to this marvel of human endeavor, leaving Stonehenge surrounded only by grass and reunited with its ancient temple approach called the Avenue.

Note to my fellow Fresno gardeners–I can’t help but believe that if we had these marvelous stones in our midst that we might lay them on their sides, bring in a mature olive tree to plant behind them and just scrape the ground around them raw with a hula hoe.  What do you think?

The pharmacist and the physic…

Less than 24 hours after our plane touched down at Heathrow we are visiting our first true London garden–not quite a record for me in a foreign country, but close.  I just could not see enough of the Buckingham Palace garden to call it a true visit.  Dave and I walked the 1.7 miles from Queen E.’s turf to take in the beauty of London’s oldest botanic garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden. While the green stuff is more my passion than that of my pharmacist husband he could not help but admit he was intrigued with the history and purpose of this 4 acre walled garden which was establish in 1673.

The Worshipful Societies of Apothecaries purchased this plot of land on the River Thames for the purpose of training apprentices in the identification and use of medicinal plants. It would also serve as the base for their extensive livery services which moved goods up and down the Thames. The proximity to the river allowed the Apothecaries to moor their barges, collect plants in the surrounding areas and take advantage of the river’s warm currents which contributed to the location having a very favorable microclimate for growing a wide variety of useful plants. The establishment of the garden also allowed plants from other parts of the world to be introduced to Great Britain through the garden’s Apothecaries. In the 1700s the garden’s establishment of a global seed exchange system called Index Seminum solidified its international reputation. This seed exchange still exists today!

In 1680, a physician trainee named Hans Sloane apprenticed at the Chelsea Physic Garden and would eventually play a pivotal role in the life of the garden. As other transportation forms emerged and the monopoly of the barge livery service declined, business slowed and the Apothecaries were no longer financially solvent. Hans Sloane, now a successful physician, purchased the 4 acres and the surrounding land, called Chelsea Manor. Dr. Sloane then leased back the garden area to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for the sum of 5 pounds per year. This business arrangement remains intact–the non-profit organization called Chelsea Physic Garden pays 5 pounds per year to the descendants of Dr. Sloane and the garden has flourished for 300 years as London has developed around it. It remains a hidden gem behind brick and stone walls and serves not only as an educational resource but also as a place of respite from a bustling city.

Our docent, Zoe, started our tour in the shadow of this statue of Dr. Hans Sloane which stands in the garden’s axis. We found that we were the only visitors in our group who were not residents of Great Britain!

There are multiple sections of the garden and the contents of each is organized differently.  For example, in one section of small formal beds each represents a different part of the world and its medicinal plants as they were known in the 1600 and 1700s. The star of this area as you see below is an interesting built up rock garden, some rocks having come from the Tower of London and others from distant Polynesian volcanic islands. This area had been spruced up a bit in Victorian times with the addition of a pond water feature accented by a giant clamshell–the vignette tips its hat to the plant crazed late 1800s when British adventurers traveled the world procuring specimen plants to add to both public and private collections.

The Pond Rockery

Also of note tucked in a corner of the Garden of Medicinal Plants is the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in England and the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree–both of which thrive in the garden’s warm microclimate.

Not such a big deal to a sunny California girl but a pretty big deal in cool, moist England!

The Garden of Medicinal Plants features formally ordered small beds highlighting plants deemed to cure various ills–many of which were the precursors to modern medicines. This area was especially interesting to Dave and by the time we were halfway through Zoe was looking to him for interesting information to add to her talking points.  Each small bed featured an exhibit citing the general medical arena in which the plants were thought to be useful and historical information of how those plants, in fact, do yield curative substances used today.  I am not sure you can read the titles on these but they are ENT & Lung Diseases, Analgesics &  Anesthetics and Oncology.

The Poisonous Plants Bed featuring a huge Castor Bean lurks behind the Medicinals. Behind the skull and crossbones section I saw the Abhorrent Arbour vining up on the side  of the Glasshouses (what Americans call greenhouses.) As its name suggests, vines with nose wrinkling qualities entwine the structure. Zoe noted that most plant material is left to its natural life cycle in the garden as the medicinal capabilities may be found in the roots, stems, leaves, seeds or mature pod casings at various points of development.

We wandered through the Atlantic Islands Border, featuring many rare and endangered plants of the Canary and Madeira Islands and Crete and the Garden of Useful Plants in which we saw plants grown for their fibers or other parts used in making needed household goods.

The Historical Walk introduced us to several people whose contributions to the world of botany and association with this garden are noteworthy.  I was especially interested in the story of Robert Fortune who was the garden’s curator when he left in 1848 on a trip to China.  He traveled on behalf of the East India Trading Company to collect tea plants for cultivation in the northern hills of India, then a British colony. He also perfected the Wardian Case which was a sort of mini greenhouse designed to transport seedlings successfully in the holds of great sailing ships through voyages many months or even years in length.

Wardian Case

This intensively cultivated 4 acres also includes a World Woodland Garden, a Garden of Edible Plants, Sweet Pea Avenue, a Fernery (unfortunately closed for renovation) and many other delights. They offer lectures and classes throughout the year along with Family Days focused on child friendly activities. On our Sunday afternoon visit the lawn area bordering the cafe was full of families still dressed in their church clothes with “packed lunches”, blankets, books and bubble wands.

Our tour ended at a pair of gypsy style caravans used in educational programs.  The one pictured below features the life and pursuits of Dr. Sloane, the garden’s benefactor. The other, unfortunately in too much shade to photograph well, introduces the work of Dr. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist who formalized the modern system of binomial nomenclature. I was humbled to know that I have been writing scientific plant names improperly all my life. I learned that in the two name system of genus first, then species, the genus and species are always either in italics or underlined, the genus is always capitalized and the species is not. I stand corrected and will endeavor to do better!

Learning about Dr. Hans Sloane

I’ll close this post with a few more photos of this lovely not quite secret garden. As always, there is never enough room to share every photo. I hope you’ll enjoy those I have selected and give a thought, if ever in London, to step away from the glitz and glamour of Kensington and Kew to see this tiny tribute to Great Britain’s contribution to the botanic world.


Wanted: stone cottage with a modest backyard…

Here is my first of several posts from gardens afar! Dave and I are in London for a bit over a week’s time. In a couple of days he will be off to attend his conference and I will, alas, STILL be on vacation.  After a stressful hiccup with our hotel arrangements we focused on  seeing the sights, deciding we could always sleep on any one of many very lovely park benches if need be.

We rode the London Underground from our temporary housing in Kensington to the Green Park station on our way to see what the other Queen has been doing in her house and garden.  Green Park is a lovely tree shaded city park with a well worn path leading right to her front gate. Even at 9 am the park had a number of family groups with their blankets spread out enjoying the start of a beautiful sunny day.

Clearly Queen E. was not expecting us as she had decamped to her summer residence in Balmoral, Scotland.  Luckily for us her absence from the palace during August and September each year gives the rest of us a chance to peek into the royal life.  Our tour was to include the Buckingham Palace State Rooms and a special exhibit called Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe. Although her interior decor is bit heavy on the gilding for my personal tastes, I can’t fault her taste in art and furnishings.  Great area rugs and lovely upholstery throughout! The exhibit of her clothing, which included a generations old christening gown (the one worn by the most recent royal baby), her wedding gown, coronation gown, and selection of special outfits from each decade since the 1920s, was captivating. Especially fun was the millinery collection featuring favorite looks over the years and introducing us to the designers who have served her under what are called Royal Warrants–in other words, hatmakers to the Queen. So sorry, Buckingham Palace allows no photography inside.

I was disappointed to learn that the Garden Highlights tours sell out within days of the new season’s ticket availability.  I did learn that Queen Elizabeth hosts over 8,000 of her countrymen/women at a series of garden parties each year in her 40 acre backyard. The Buckingham Palace gardens were not open to the public until 2008 when the August and September tours were initiated to raise funds for their upkeep. The gardens include a lake, a helicopter landing area and over 350 species of flora. The State Room tour ends in the the Bow Room which overlooks the broad back lawns so we did get a few glimpses of the south side of the garden as we exited. Have a look:

Looking back as we were walking down the south side exit
Small view of the 3 acre lake–a serene spot
Wide swathes of ten foot tall Oak Leafed Hydrangeas
Gigantic mop-head Hydrangeas finishing their summer

Can’t help but think the huge colonies of anemones and ferns were just a teaser as to what the larger herbaceous borders would look like.  I’ll leave you with this last photo–maybe a glimpse into a side of Queen E. we just don’t hear about.  This was taken on the edge of the lake which is quite close to the path leading to the exit.

How do I get an invitation to one of these garden parties?

NEXT UP: The Pharmacist and the Physic