With a remarkable variety of plants, Kew Gardens is a fascinating day out. And by visiting you'll help support vital work to protect biodiversity across the world
Photographs by Izzy Bunting
Kew Gardens, in west London, is home to an astonishing variety of plants – with over 8.5 million items, Kew houses the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world.
With a team of more than 350 scientists, Kew plays a vital role in scientific research that helps tackle climate change, protects endangered plants and fungi, and supports communities around the world – as well as discovering and identifying new species.
Kew Gardens is also a wonderful visitor attraction. With many different habitats to explore, from glasshouses and flower borders to woodland walks, you need at least a few hours to do your visit justice – and it would be easy to spend a whole day here.
One of the highlights is visiting the stunning glasshouses – and the first one you see as you enter the gardens via Victoria Gate is the Palm House.
Inside the Palm House, we found ourselves in an indoor rainforest, surrounded by tropical plants from some of the most threatened environments in the world.
One of these is Dioon spinulosum, an endangered cycad from Mexico, which produces the largest cones of any known plant. These cones grow up to 55cm long, contain hundreds of seeds, and can weigh as much as 13kg. This endangered plant has been propagated at Kew, with the resulting seeds sent to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.
Many other plants in this collection are endangered, and some are even extinct in the wild. There are also examples of plants that provide valuable resources – fruit, timber, spices or medicine – for societies around the world. Kew scientists rely on the Palm House collection for research into medicine and sustainable cropping.
Spiral staircases wind up to a high walkway near the Palm House's arched ceilings. From here, there's a fantastic birds-eye view of the lush vegetation below.
Cacti, orchids and ferns
The Princess of Wales Conservatory is one of the main attractions at Kew. This huge glass structure contains cacti, orchids, and ferns, with paths weaving through arid and tropical areas.
It's a fascinating journey through different ecosystems, featuring intriguing carnivorous plants, leafy ferns, spiky cacti, and succulents of all shapes and sizes.
We were lucky enough to visit during the preparations for Kew's Orchid Festival. Many of the blooms were already in place, with archways decorated with spectacular colours, and pots of flowers lined up ready for planting.
Near the Princess of Wales Conservatory we found a pretty woodland garden.
One of the focal points here is the Leaf Spirit sculpture by Simon Gudgeon. Designed to represent the tranquility experienced by spending time in nature, this bronze face, composed of dozens of interlocking maple leaves, appears to emerge organically from the surrounding landscape.
In the woodland garden, carpets of crocuses and snowdrops brought colour to the ground beneath the birch and oak trees. We found more of these flowers in profusion throughout the gardens – spring bulbs like these are a lifeline for struggling pollinators emerging early from hibernation.
We saw lots of other winter-flowering plants too, including early-flowering rhododendron, mahonia and hellebores. All are nectar-rich and good for pollinators – and in fact, as it was a sunny day, we spotted our first bumblebee of the year!
Trees are an important aspect of Kew, with the Arboretum covering two-thirds of the gardens and containing some 14,000 trees – including rare and ancient varieties.
There are native trees as well as species from around the world, many of which are endangered or at risk.
Some of the oldest trees date back to the 18th century. You'll also find magnificent giants in the Redwood Grove, with the tallest redwood towering to 40 metres.
To get a unique perspective of all these trees, we climbed up onto the Treetop Walkway. At 18 metres above ground level, the walkway loops high up through the uppermost branches of the tree canopy, giving you fantastic views of the gardens.
The remarkable biodiversity supported by these trees and the woodland habitats includes birds, insects, lichens – and, somewhat surprisingly, badgers.
There are more than 20 badger setts in Kew Gardens – and although you're unlikely to see the animals themselves (badgers are nocturnal, coming out of their setts at dusk to hunt for their favourite food, earthworms) some of the entrances to the setts are clearly visible from the paths around the gardens.
Rare and endangered plants
The final attraction of our visit was the Temperate House – the world's largest Victorian glasshouse. Reopened in 2018, following a five-year restoration, it's home to many species of plants that are rare or endangered.
One of these is the bright red kaka beak, or glory flower – a vulnerable plant from New Zealand. The flowers of this plant resemble the beak of an endangered New Zealand parrot, known locally as a kaka – hence the name.
Other endangered plants in the Temperate House include the feather-leaved banksia, from Western Australia. This plant has been listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, as it is only found in two population clusters in the wild – only around 1,000 plants remain. Disease, bushfires and over-harvesting by the cut flower industry are three major causes of its decline.
Like the feather-leaved banksia, many plant species worldwide are faced with an increasing risk of extinction – due largely to threats caused by humans, such as climate change, habitat loss and over-harvesting.
This is bad news for humans, and bad news for biodiversity. Plants and trees provide us with oxygen, food, clothing, fuel and shelter. We need them to survive – and plants support life for all other species too.
Maintaining the Temperate House is just one of the ways that Kew plays an important role in the conservation of plant species around the world. And the plant collections at Kew can help scientists to find solutions to issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and loss of food security.
By visiting Kew Gardens, not only are you getting a fantastic day out in beautiful surroundings, but you're also helping to support this vital work.
Way to go
It's a five-minute walk from Kew Gardens station, on the District Line, to the main entrance at Victoria Gate.
Admission to Kew Gardens costs from £16.50 for adults, and from £4.50 for children aged 4-15 years. Free admission for children under 4 years.
For some events and attractions – such as the annual Orchid Festival and access to the Children's Garden – you need to book a timeslot in advance.
Within Kew Gardens there are several different cafes and restaurants where you can get a coffee, a light lunch, afternoon tea, or a three-course meal. There's also a superb gift shop.
Where to stay
Clayton Hotel Chiswick is one of the closest hotels to Kew Gardens – just one stop away on the District Line, or a pleasant 25-minute walk.
This eco-friendly, Green Tourism accredited hotel is modern and luxurious, with spacious rooms and a superb buffet breakfast. The hotel is currently offering a special Kew Gardens package, including bed and breakfast and admission to Kew Gardens for two people, for £149 per room.
Green Adventures February 2020