I’ve always wanted to visit The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew even before getting into horticulture. I was fascinated by the Victorian glasshouses, spiral stairs, romantic architecture and many tales that I read from my history books. For years, I romanticized the idea of visiting the gardens and added it to my bucket list as one of the top places to visit in the world. I’m incredibly blessed to be able to step foot here, it is truly as magnificent as I’ve imagined it to be.
With more than 50,000 different species of living plants, more than 8 million pressed and preserved plants and over a billion preserved seeds inside this 250 year old former palace complex turned UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London, England is the most biodiverse place on Earth.
History of Kew Gardens
Photo from britannica.com
Kew Gardens date back to the early 16th century. It started out as a privately owned garden acquired from the Capel family in 1731 by Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales and Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, who established a garden for exotic plants in 1759. By 1769, it contained more than 3,400 plant species including specimens from all over the world.
Photo from kew.org
Notice how Kew Gardens is plural and not singular? In 1772, King George III, the son of Princess Augusta, inherited the Kew estate and joined it with the royal estate in Richmond which made two gardens become one.
By the 1800s, Kew Gardens became a centre for scientific research and the international exchange of plant specimens. In 1840, the gardens were made known to Britain and were expanded to the present size of 300 acres (120 hectares) by the early 20th century.
Did you know that Malaya’s (formerly a British Colony) rubber industry can trace its roots (literally) from Kew Garden? With rubber trees sent from Kew in 1877, the Malaysian rubber plantation industry was established through the expertise and encouragement of Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanic Garden from 1888 to 1911. Today, most of the worlds rubber comes from plantations in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Kew still plays an important role in plant introduction and as a quarantine station.
In 2003, Kew Gardens was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Kew Gardens covers 300 acres (120 hectares) and there is just too much to see in such a short time. Hence, I will be covering the main attractions of the gardens, there are still many areas that are not mentioned in this post however, should you decide to spend more than a day here, find more with the map provided.
The Palm House
The Palm House is an indoor rainforest housing tropical plants from some of the most threatened environments in the world. Many plants in its collection are endangered in the wild, some even extinct. Rainforest plants cover only 2% of the world’s surface but make up 50% of species – vital to sustaining life on earth. Kew scientists rely on the Palm House collection for research into medicine and sustainable cropping.
Photo from kew.org
The Palm House is home to this record-breaking Eastern Cape giant cycad. Weighing more than a tonne and measuring over four metres in height, this cycad is the oldest pot plant in the world. It first arrived here in 1775 after Kew’s first plant hunter, botanist Francis Masson, brought it back to the Gardens from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
The Palm House is my favourite part as it holds sentimental memories. I finally got to walk up it’s spiral stairs and admire the view from the top like I imagined all those years ago. Not only is it a living laboratory, it’s one of my dreams come true.
Temperate House is the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse that is home to 1,500 species of plants from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific Islands. Despite being the foundation of much life on Earth, many of these plants are under threat.
As temperate plants, all the species contained within its walls need to live in conditions above 10oC to survive.
Temperate House has spiral stairs too where you can view the plants from above as well as the architecture of the glasshouse.
Princess of Wales Conservatory
With 10 computer-controlled climate zones, the Princess of Wales Conservatory leads you through a series of fascinating ecosystems.
The Victoria Amazonica Water Lily captured the imagination of Victorian botanists, plant hunters and Queen Victoria herself. In 1837, the inaugural year of Queen Victoria’s reign, these giant water lilies were discovered in a new British colony in South America, British Guyana. Having been identified as a new genus, it was described as growing an inch an hour and its flower was a foot in circumference. It was named Victoria Regia, the Queen of Aquatics, after the new British queen.
Photo from kew.org
Sir David Attenborough buried a time capsule in the foundation of the Princess of Wales Conservatory in 1985, during its construction. The capsule contains seeds of important food crops and several endangered species. It will be opened in 2085, when many of the plants it contains may be rare or extinct.
Photo from kew.org
Kew Palace is the oldest building within the Gardens, serving as the summer home of King George III and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage in the 18th century.
Constructed in 1631 for a wealthy Flemish merchant, it was originally known as the Dutch House. A century later, George III received his education at Kew Palace where new ideas on science, art and manufacturing influenced his reign. After Queen Charlotte died in 1818, Kew Palace was closed off. The residences were acquired by Kew in 1898 and are in the trust of Historic Royal Palaces.
Note: The Kew Palace is closed for the winter months.
The Great Pagoda
Photo from kew.org
The Great Pagoda was completed in 1762 as a gift for Princess Augusta, the founder of the Gardens. It was one of several Chinese buildings designed for Kew by Sir William Chambers who spent time travelling and studying the architecture of East Asia. You can now climb the Great Pagoda and marvel at spectacular views across London.
Note: The Great Pagoda is closed for the winter months.
Photo from kew.org
If you’re not afraid of heights, take a walk through the Treetop Walkway. Towering 18 metres above the ground, you can observe the complex ecosystem of the trees with birds, insects, lichen and fungi and have a bird’s eye view of the forest.
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Christmas at Kew
Since we visited Kew Gardens around Christmas, we bought tickets to Christmas at Kew. We were lucky to experience Christmas at Kew‘s 10th Year Anniversary!
Kew Gardens celebrates Christmas annually with a magical winter trail after dark as you walk through sparkling tunnels, witness dancing lakeside reflections and trees covered in colourful lights! A great experience for the whole family.
The trail will take you over an hour, depending on your speed and how much time you spend per location. It’s a long walk and do not under-estimate the cold of London’s winter after dark! It was 4 degrees the night we were there! Make sure you wear comfortable shoes and layer up with warm inner and outer wear.
Note: Tickets to Christmas at Kew are separate from the general Kew Garden tickets.
Things to Note
- This place is huge! It was impossible for us to cover everything. So if you only have a day for Kew Gardens, pick the areas and things you would really like to see first and plan out your route. We managed to visit The Palm House, Temperate House and Princess of Wales Conservatory in the time we had.
- If you are visiting during winter, take note that the opening hours are shorter as it gets dark by 3pm in London. Best to be there at opening time.
- If you are visiting during winter, do also take note that Kew Palace and The Great Pagoda will be closed and that most of the flowers outdoors will be hibernating as it’s not the blooming season. However, you can experience the beauty of fall!
- You are allowed to pack food and have a picnic in the garden! As long as you clean up afterwards of course.
- If you plan on going for Christmas at Kew, take note that it’s crowded and, just like most places in London, it’s impossible to take photos without a bunch of photobombers. So you have to be fast and not be fussy about the outcome.
Peak (1 February – 31 October)
Child (4-15 years old): £5.50
Off Peak (1 November – 31 January)
Child (4-15 years old):£4.40
Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew Road, Richmond, TW9 3AE, London, United Kingdom
Tel: +020 8332 5655
Check Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as operating hours may vary.
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Royal Botanical Gardens
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