Kew Royal Botanic Gardens’ Director. Richard, can you describe the nature of your job?
My job is to lead this extraordinary scientific and horticultural institution, and is very varied. It involves science, fundraising, the visitor attraction, and a lot of work communicating with all the different groups of people that Kew touches. Then there is the very important security and safety for people and rare plants; and finance is a big challenge, ensuring Kew is financially healthy. It’s a challenging time.
Why did you move from the BBC to the gardens?
I did science at Cambridge University, I have always been interested in science and conservation, and I was a trustee at Kew for 6 years. So it’s an organisation that has always interested me and I think what it does is very important. So it was a very easy decision to apply when the opportunity arose.
Are you happy with your choice?
Oh completely. Yes.
In the UK gardens and gardening are not a sinecure, and so I guess many people are watching you?
Yes. English people are passionate about gardens and plants – and dogs (he laughs). Kew is a very historic site, one of the national institutions in Britain, and people are very proud and protective of it. I get a lot of feedback, particularly when you make a difficult or controversial change you get a lot of feedback, and some people are very critical. So you have to work very hard to communicate what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Have you changed many things during the two years of your appointment?
Yes, we have made many changes. We have a new senior team of Directors, there is a different structure so for example we now have a single science department, we are revising our science strategy which we are going to publish next month, and we are also trying to rejuvenate the gardens for visitors. So, for example, we are creating two huge 300 metre herbaceous borders either side of the Broad Walk, the main avenue of Kew. It will be a horticultural wonder, it will look absolutely magnificent and is in the busiest part of the garden. We are creating a new children’s garden, especially for younger children.
Do you have any competition?
People in London have a choice of many amazing institutions and they choose whether to come to Kew or go to the British Museum or the Natural History Museum. Britain also has many beautiful gardens to visit, with the National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society, but the thing that is different about Kew is the focus on natural biodiversity, on wild plants.
Are you the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Which other gardens do you think are among the best in the world?
Kirstenbosch is amazing in Cape Town, with its natural setting and Table Mountain as the backdrop, and in that part of Africa they have extraordinary biodiversity. Missouri Botanic Garden in St Louis is very impressive. Singapore Botanic Garden is a beautiful old colonial equatorial garden with wonderful orchids, and in Singapore they need the glass houses to keep the temperate plants cool not hot! Those three gardens are all very different, in great contrast to one another.
What is so magic about Kew Gardens, which is famous all over the world?
Without doubt it is a very beautiful place, the plants, the landscape, the buildings. So the beauty is very important. There are layers of history here. Kew was originally two separate royal estates, that’s why it’s called the Royal Botanic Gardens, one belonging to the Hanoverian King George II and the second to his son Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta, the parents of George III, in the mid-18th Century, the 1740s and 1750s. Prince Frederick died in a terrible bizarre accident involving a cricket ball, so he never inherited the crown so his son George III became king from 1760-1820. He was monarch for 60 years, and in the early 19th Century he bought the two gardens together. The two gardens were very different, one was formal with many follies, lawns, Greek temples, Chinese pagoda, the Roman arch; the other was landscaped by Capability Brown and was a very natural landscape. In 1841 the gardens were transferred from being a royal estate by Queen Victoria to become the national botanical collection.
Queen Victoria didn’t want it? Why?
It had always been associated with the madness of her grandfather George III and the king was incarcerated at Kew. And she had other estates. So in 1841 it was transferred, still as royal land but then funded by the government.
Today it is a charity?
It is still royal land, Kew today is a charity, the National Botanic Collection, a Non-Departmental Public Body which gets about 40% of its money from government.
And the other 60%?
60% is self-generated, by which I mean visitor related income, charitable fund raising, science grants, licensing and other commercial activities.
But what is so important and made the garden perhaps the most famous in the world?
Three things made Kew special, and continue to do so. One is the scientific research that is conducted here by 200 scientists engaged in fundamental plant and fungal research. The second thing is obviously the gardens, it’s a world heritage site, it’s a 330 acre garden with about 30,000 different species of living plants within it. So an extraordinary treasure chest of botanical diversity. Our aim with the garden is to inspire the public with the beauty and the importance of plant biodiversity; what it is and why it should be protected.
The third thing that makes Kew special, and these all interconnected, are the many different collections we have here, obviously the living plants I just mentioned, somewhere between 7-8 million dried plant specimens to help you identify plants and to understand plant distribution, we have the world’s largest collection of fungi and we have the world’s largest collection of plant DNA. Also botanical art and books. So we have this extraordinary resource of botanical and fungal knowledge, and that is the foundation to the science on the one hand and also on the other hand to the visitor experience. When you boil it right down, Kew is about scientific research, the gardens to inspire and educate the public and the collections that we maintain on behalf of the nation.
Is it very expensive to keep going?
Yes. The total budget of Kew is about £55 million pounds each year.
Do you break even?
At the moment we have some quite testing financial challenges, the income we get from government is declining so we are having to some make financial changes to Kew. So we are trying to grow self-generated income and secondly we are having to reduce costs.
Reduce the costs of what?
Wherever we can. About 60% of our costs are staff costs, so we have to reduce staff costs, hence we are reducing the number of people we employ.
Gardening has changed a great deal because of machines, computers, the modern age?
Yes. We have about 180 gardeners across our two sites, one of which is Kew and the other is at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. Gardening is less labour intensive than it was when the gardens were first set up. The biggest group of staff we employ is about 220 scientists. We have had to reduce them to 220, and we have lost about 45 scientists. So last year was a very difficult year for Kew, reducing costs and also being successful in growing self-generated income.
What are all these scientists doing?
One of the things they do is they maintain the science collections, they curate the collections and they research the collections. Another department is about the identification an naming of plants, so for example Kew scientists for two centuries have produced Flora, encyclopaedic books of botanical knowledge, either for an area like China, where Kew collaborated with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, or for a genus, a plant family like orchids. The core skill of a botanist is the ability accurately to identify plants.
Do you create new plants?
No, we are more into researching and understanding wild plant diversity. There are about 350,000 flowering plants in the world, and that doesn’t include the lichens, mosses, conifers. Fungal diversity is even greater than that, no one really knows how many species of fungi there are.
To go back to what the scientists do?
Another area where Kew scientists work is on conservation, and we are actively involved in conserving rare or endangered plant species and contributing to conservation science. We run the Millennium Seed Bank, which is a project that aims to gather and store – in dry, cold conditions – 25% of the world’s flowering plants as seeds. We currently have about 17% of the world’s flowering plants, that’s about 2 billion individual seeds and about 35,000 species.
Then there is natural capital and plant health, they go together. That is about the economic uses of plants, crop plants, medicinal plants; the useful attributes of plants. Plants provide medicine and food and clothing and they have all sorts of useful molecules that can be used in medicine for instance, things we need to understand. The wild relatives of coffee might be much more heat tolerant or drought resistant than the commercially grown Arabica you would drink in a coffee shop and protect their health. Economic plants need to be kept healthy and as the climate changes plants are being subject to new pests and pathogens, and fungal infections which can affect their wellbeing. So, with climate change, for instance some of the coffee cops in Brazil are possibly suffering as a result of changing climate. You have trees in the UK that are being subjected to different pests as a result of climate change. So this is another area for Kew scientists.
The last area is systematics, which means understanding the evolutionary relationships between plants. So what that means is that you understand the different family relationships between plants, the closeness of these relationships and how plants evolved, and a lot of that work is done through genetics to look at the degree of relatedness between plant A and plant B and work out their family trees.
Are you linked to other institutions?
Yes, we have a network of partnerships in about 80 countries around the world. Many of those relate to gathering and banking seeds. Most of our partnerships relate to our science and conservation work. So for instance we have collaborated with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in Scotland on the flora of China, we have a very good relationship with colleagues in China, in the botanical institute in Kunming. These are our partnerships, rather than with visitor attractions.
But how many visitors do you have?
About 1.4 million a year at Kew and at Wakehurst, our second garden in Sussex, about 200,000 on top of that.
Are they mostly foreigners?
No. About one third are day paying visitors and about two thirds are members who live locally or in London who buy annual membership and can visit as many times as they want.
Is this an exceptionally well kept English garden?
It’s one of the biggest botanical gardens, 330 acres, about 140 hectares. The formal areas are very well kept, other bits are wild and natural with woodlands, bluebells and a conservation area, so the garden varies enormously as you walk around it with different standards and different approaches to the many different areas.
Then you also have special buildings?
We have 43 listed buildings here of special architectural and historic interest, seven are Grade 1 listed, the top designation. And overall the site is a world heritage site. The most famous building is probably the Palm House, the first of the big Victorian greenhouses that was built in the 1840s. When it was built it was the largest span glasshouse in the world, its very beautiful and that lovely curved shape houses a collection of very rare, and in some cases endangered, plants. The Pagoda is also Grade 1 listed, it’s a Georgian folly built in 1761; with ten stories, it is 53 metres high. Designed by Sir William Chambers, this building is the most striking remaining feature of Princess Augusta’s original mid-18th Century garden, and the idea with her garden was that you could see all the wonders of the world in one afternoon. The Roman arch and the Greek temples are still here, but the follies no longer there include a mosque, an Alhambra and a Gothic cathedral. About one third of the original follies remain, the Orangery is still there, and two thirds have gone. So the original idea was, before TV and before international travel, that you could see the wonders of the world.
We also have the Georgian royal palace where the royal family lived. The royal family had a cottage in the gardens for afternoon tea, Queen’s Cottage, a sort of faux rustic cottage. The Temperate House is the largest Victorian glasshouse on site; it is also Grade 1 listed and is currently closed for a major restoration.
What are you star celebrity plants in the garden?
We have a very a beautiful old Ginkgo tree which was planted in 1761, one of the original trees in the Princess Augusta collection. It is a living fossil, a tree that used to be prevalent around the world and ended up being found in only two locations in China. In the autumn the leaves go a bright yellow briefly and then all fall. We have a very old Eastern Cape giant Cycad, a pot plant in the Palm House, believed to be the world’s oldest pot plant, and that one came to Kew in 1775.
We have 14,000 trees here and we have the world’s smallest water lily, now extinct in the wild, and we also have the largest, Victoria amazonica, in the water lily house.
Why are gardens so important in your judgment?
A garden is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of plants and to learn about the importance of plants for humans and to do so in a tranquil environment. It should affect your head and your heart.
13 January 2015.
Alain Elkann: Carolyn Seymour Hanbury Botanic Gardens, Ventimiglia
Alain Elkann: Luciano Giubbilei, RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Gold Medal Winner 2014