Kew Botanic Gardens and the intrepid Victorians

As my iMovie shows, the Palm House at Kew is an extraodinary edifice. It was designed by Decimus Burton and built in response to early Victorian plant collectors who needed somewhere to accommodate the exotic plants that they were were bringing back to the UK.

Armed with little more than pencils, notebooks and “wardian cases” (terrariums), explorers such as Joseph Hooker in the mid-19th century brought back to London many of the plants that we now take for granted, such as rhododendrons. These originate in the Himalayas, which Hooker explored for four years (1847–51). A letter to his father, William Hooker, written in 1849, gives a flavour of the difficulties he faced:

“I staid [sic] at 13,000 feet very much on purpose to collect there seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever.”

That’s just a taste. Joseph’s letters and many more fascinating documents may be explored in Kew’s archive.

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