Renewal at Kew Posted on January 14, 2019

Kew: reordering the Order Beds

Pink has taken over in the garden. They’ve all come out a once: Daphne odora, Prunus ‘Autumnalis’ (second go round), Camellia ‘Top Hat’ with the near-perfect colour match of the perpetual Parson’s Pink China growing through it, a bizarre double hellebore and our neighbour’s enormous Viburnum x bodnantense. Only the Sarcococca declines to blush, and at ground level the ravishing wide-open flowers of Iris unguicularis , a shade of warm violet that has no peer in any season.

Why the unison? Pink seems to come before yellow in the chromatic calendar. Soon the yellows will be unavoidable. Already there is winter jasmine (not in this garden) and forsythia (over the wall). ‘February Gold’ is almost upon us; the yellow tide is coming in. A single primrose leads the way. One reliable marker of the season is Hardenbergia violacea, which my invaluable index tells me I last recorded on February 6, 2013. In another season you might overlook its tiny bright purple racemes of pea flowers, but in early February, in the shelter of the cold greenhouse it brings a little message from Australia I am happy to read.

I always thought it sounds a bit preachy to say you prefer natural species to the catwalk versions that are often all one finds in nurseries – certainly in garden centres. But then you see, in all its purity and innocence, a parent of an all-too-familiar nursery favourite. The little alpine house at Kew is my favourite excursion at this time of year. I missed my special pin-up today: there was no Scilla maderensis, the exquisite over-sized squill. Squill, they tell me, has been used as a tonic for fluttering hearts; perhaps it was a visitor to Kew who discovered its properties. The plant that moved me this time was a cyclamen of heart-stopping purity and grace. The label was hidden s so I couldn’t see which Mediterranean country it comes from, put it makes the florists’ ‘Persicum’ look like what a Victorian would call a fallen woman.

Kew has been in a state of radical renewal now for several years. Last year alone we were treated to the restored Temperate House and the pagoda in its party dress again. The year before it was the Hive and the Great Borders. Now the Order Beds are under radical revision; they earth is bare, the pergola bereft of its roses. The Director, Richard Deverell, was a  force for positive change at the BBC, especially in being inclusive to children. The same spirit seems to be energising Kew. And I am happy to see that the revised walled garden will be given the name of the proactive chairman, Marcus Agius.

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Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

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Rosa ‘Chapeau de Napoléon’

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The Garden Museum