London is famous for not only its historic buildings but also its beautiful gardens. On the south bank of the River Thames lies the largest and most beautiful of all. This botanical garden is one of the most visited attractions of the city.
Kew Gardens is also known as the Royal Botanic Gardens, because the property once belonged to the royal family. Importantly, they initiated the creation of this landscape garden. The history of the garden began in the 18th century, when Queen Caroline created the gardens at Richmond Estate, while her son Prince Frederick and his wife, Princess Augusta, parents of the future King George III, began working on their own gardens at the Kew Palace, which they used as their summer residence.
After the death of her husband, Princess Augusta continued with the plans they both had for the garden. In 1759, she commissioned the Scottish botanist William Aiton, and a small botanic garden was established. Later, her son George III, with the help of Joseph Banks, enlarged the garden by joining the gardens of Richmond and Kew estate, and Kew Gardens was formed.
Joseph Banks was a British botanist who had just returned to England from the expedition led by Captain Cook. Traveling the world, Banks had collected many exotic plants and brought them to Kew Gardens. He was the first to enlarge the collection of plants, which would continue to grow over the years, today numbering approximately 50,000 different plant species.
Although the focus was on the diversity of plants, the royals had also entrusted prominent architects such as William Chamers for constructing buildings around the garden. Among the oldest is the Pagoda, inspired by the Eastern gardens and completed in 1762, the Orangery, built in 1761, and Queen Charlotte’s cottage, constructed for the wife of George III in 1771.
However, after the deaths of Banks and George III, the garden was neglected, because more attention was dedicated to the other royal gardens. It remained so until 1840, when the Royals gave it to the British government, together with some surrounding land that was in their ownership. The government appointed Sir William Hooker as the official director of the garden and soon famous architects were entrusted with creating the iconic buildings that are among the highlights of the garden.
Part of the additions were the greenhouses, of which the most recognized is the Palm House, completed in 1848 by Decimus Burton. The design of the impressive glass and iron building with a characteristic cast iron staircase would serve as a model for constructing the Crystal Palace. Inside the hot and humid conditions are grown exotic flowers and other plants from the tropical rainforest. Among them are the oldest potted plant in the world, brought to the garden in 1775, Encephalartos altensteinii, and a bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, from the Sumatran rainforest, notorious for its unpleasant smell. Another popular creation of Burton’s is the Temperate House, which at the time was the world’s largest greenhouse. And not that large, but nonetheless captivating, is the Waterlily House with its enormous water lilies.
Other important additions were the Arboretum, the Herbarium, the Museum of Economic Botany, and the library, which includes photographs, drawings of plants, articles, and books written in more than 90 languages. After the Second World War, the garden was restored and once again enlarged. Followed new improvements and successfully completed projects, such as the Princess of Wales Conservatory opened by Princess Diana herself in 1987, the Xstrata Treetop Walkway opened in 2002, and the Davies Alpine House from 2015.
Throughout the garden, there are also structures inspired by Ancient Rome, such as small temples and the “Ruined Arch,” as well as more details from the Orient like the Japanese Gateway. Nowadays, Kew Gardens occupies an area of(326 acres) and was listed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 due to its great importance.