Old Lions Posted on February 8, 2015

Perhaps not everyone knows that the grand iron gates in Piccadilly are the entrance not only to the Royal Academy (Sir J Reynolds in bronze, brush poised, makes this pretty clear) but also to the botanists’ Valhalla, the Linnean Society. Valhalla seems appropriate for an institution with a Swedish patron saint.

I was there this week for meetings of the International Dendrology Society in the august Council chamber. On the walls and the staircase hang portraits of every canonized botanist, The Old Lions and many plant collectors, from Linnaeus on – with a particularly colourful one of the late Professor Willy Stearn cheering up the Council chamber. From the windows on one side you look down on the Royal Academy, from the other you survey Whitehall down to Westminster Abbey. It could go to to a mere gardener’s head.

The IDS holds its annual Winter Lecture here. This year it was Tony Kirkham’s turn. His subject: 250 years of Kew Gardens and gardeners, from Princess Augusta and poor Fred, Prince of Wales, down the long avenue of celebrated names: Bute, Banks. Hookers sr and jr, Thistleton-Dyer (Tony’s favourite, though a martinet. He wore a dashing uniform), Dallimore, WJ Bean….and Kirkham. Tony has been capo of the arboretum since 2002, totally immersed and most eloquent about his charges.The progress of Kew from a minor royal garden with a mere 5 acres of arboretum to its 300 acre splendour today makes a good story – especially since half a dozen of the original trees planted in the 1760s are still there, feted as ‘the Old Lions’ and propped and botoxed-up as necessary.

The most wonky, now lying on its side, is the original Pagoda Tree, recently relabelled Styphnolobium japonicum, though Sophora japonica to you and me. What an indignity, handing it a 5-syllable genus at its time of life. What tin ears botanists sometimes have – or in this case the Viennese publication that got in first with a name in 1830. Surely the label should at least acknowledge the name it bore for most of its existence here. There could be an acronym, FKA (formerly known as) or even TYAM (to you and me). The other Old Lions, considerably less mangy than the first, are the oriental plane, the original ginkgo, the huge Zelkova from the Caucasus and the Robinia or False Acacia, named for Jean Robin, director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (who presumably got in first).

Princess Augusta might be nonplussed to find some of her old trees growing where they do. Shifting them around has long been a practice at Kew. When the Duke of Argyll, another acquisitive dendrologist, died, his nephew Lord Bute took a gigantic horse-drawn wagon and helped himself (or rather Kew) to the best trees on Argyll’s Richmond estate – including the robinia.

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