Tropic Of Kew

18th February 2011

Depressed by the endless winter weather? Then head to Kew, where the Royal Botanic Gardens are currently celebrating all things warm and wonderful (and, indeed, all things bright and beautiful), in their month-long Tropical Extravaganza festival.

Jill Glenn went to check it out.

The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests, so Kew’s annual tropical festival, this time focusing on ‘the wonder and importance of the tropical rainforest’ is particularly appropriate this spring. Much is promised by the Press Release inviting Optima Magazine along to the Princess of Wales Conservatory to experience Tropical Extravaganza… ‘Exotic orchids… tropical flower displays… the lush landscape of the rainforest… reams of stunning foliage…’. How could I not be tempted?

The wind whistles across Kew Gardens at the best of times, so while early February is not the ideal occasion to visit for a leisurely stroll it should certainly be ideal for a trip that promises to plunge you into ‘an entirely different world’. You do have to brave the elements, of course, but once you’ve blown your way across to the conservatory, the indoor/outdoor climatic contrast is delightful. It’s a veritable tropical oasis.

The 1980s-built Princess of Wales Conservatory (named after Princess Augusta, who founded the Royal Botanic Gardens) is vast, covering an area around the size of 19 tennis courts. Beneath its contemporary, angled glass rooflines, visitors can experience ten different climatic zones – from the desert to the dry and wet tropics – and in scale alone a sense of the rainforest should be almost immediate. Sadly, though, despite the warmth in the air, there’s definitely something lacking. Atmosphere. There’s an unexpected formality that takes me quite by surprise. In the opening section there’s a predominance of orchids, artfully arranged, with a distinct emphasis on the popular Phalaenopsis, and none of them look as though they’re in harmony with their surroundings. The impression is of a run-down garden hastily tarted up for the estate agents and potential purchasers. Their regimentation is at odds with their behaviour in their natural habitat; most tropical orchids grow on tree branches, where their dangling roots can catch moisture from the air.

Even this year’s central display representing the annual flooding of the Amazon rainforest is, to be quite honest, something of a disappointment. Kew has indicated that we will see an abstract representation of nature at its most dramatic, when the ‘very tops of the trees become accessible by boat and fish can even pluck fruit from the tree canopy’. It’s supposed to be truly breathtaking: I’m sure that in reality it probably is, but the mock-flood falls far short of the promised ‘rare and exciting opportunity’. The flowers are beautiful, of course they are, but the effect is very contrived, very municipal gardens, c1972. It doesn’t make me feel as though I’m in the rainforest.

Perhaps I’m looking for an emotional experience, an earth-awareness that, realistically, I’m not likely to find in a glasshouse in south west London. I switch to my left brain. What can I learn?

Miltonia

Another disappointment. Very little. The plants that are in the permanent collection here are well-labelled, but the temporary introductions are less so. It’s frustrating. I see – or smell – something glorious, and I can’t find out what it is. Fortunately I’ve had the forethought to take with me a tame plantsperson, who’s able to answer all my questions and reel off intriguing names like Medinilla magnifica and Guzmania lingulata. My inquisitive side is satisfied; others might not be so lucky. There are, in Kew’s defence, volunteer guides patrolling the conservatory, ready and able to answer questions… although chances are that when you want one they’ll be busy explaining the intricacies of repotting your Bromeliads to Mrs X, or trying to convince Mr Y that the Chinese Water Dragon on the rocks isn’t plastic… Look, he’s breathing. I’m all for adding a human element, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some basic written info too, in addition to the thematic interpretation boards.

Kew is keen to include an educational element, though, with an emphasis on the vital importance of maintaining tropical rainforest landscapes, and the interdependency of the plants within them and all living things. The north end of the conservatory has been remodelled to represent the rainforest under threat. Sit here for a moment, and the sound of logging against the aural backdrop of the natural rainforest world is very sobering; so too are the visual representations of the scorched forest. When the noise stops, temporarily, it is both a relief and a surprise: how quickly we become accustomed, on a local and global scale, to what is happening. There are displays here that illustrate Kew’s international work protecting rainforests, and that prompt visitors to think about the influence of the expectations and habits of the developed world on wildlife habitats. Fascinating and challenging.

The UN’s theme for the International Year of Forests is ‘forests for people’, encouraging sustainable management, conservation, and sustainable development of all types of forest. Forests provide shelter for people and habitats for biodiversity; are a source of food, medicine and clean water; and play a vital role in maintaining a stable global climate and environment. All of these elements taken together reinforce the fact that forests are vital to the survival and wellbeing of people everywhere.

Kew accepts, according to its Director, Professor Stephen Hopper, that deforestation will continue to happen due to a demand for resources, but does believes that it can be significantly reduced, stopped, or reversed through science-based restoration wherever possible. The aim of Tropical Extravaganza is to encourage visitors to admire the beauty of the rainforest environment while also considering the dangers that the habitat faces.

Zygopetalum

Maybe this two-pronged goal is too demanding. For me, Tropical Extravaganza fails on both an emotional and a cerebral level. There are some absolutely gorgeous plants, certainly, but it all feels just a little half-hearted, with none of the intensity of a real rainforest.

The most effective areas, surprisingly, are those where artificial birds (sculpted from strange rough materials in shiny reds and purples and golds) nestle among the foliage. Clearly they’re false; there’s no attempt at realism, but with an appropriate soundtrack – the birds calling, the frogs croaking – the idea of the rainforest is more real here than anywhere else. There’s a sense of exoticism that’s missing in some of the main sections.

What was it that Press Release promised me? ‘Exotic orchids… tropical flower displays… the lush landscape of the rainforest… reams of stunning foliage…

Well, yes, they’re all there, although for me the overall experience doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. You might disagree; I hope you do.

Tropical Extravaganza continues at Kew Gardens until 6 March.

Opening hours: 9.30am-5.30pm

Admission to the Gardens:
Adults £13.90, Concessions £11.90, under 17s free (with an adult)

More information: www.kew.org or call 020 8332 5655

For an entirely different look at the rainforest take a stroll back past the Victoria Gate to the Marianne North Gallery.

Newly refurbished, this Victorian gem honours the work of one of the 19th century’s great travellers, and houses almost 900 of Marianne North’s botanical and landscape paintings.

Read her fascinating story, That Damned Woman…

Click here

Find Your Local