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A British treasure, Kew Gardens deserves a full day to explore

King George III didn’t particularly like opening his Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, southwest of London, to the general public back in 1776. Although only open once a week, the king said he could notice the difference the next day.

“They seem so dirty,” he quipped of visitors.

But with a bunch of revolutionaries across the Atlantic making his life miserable, he had other things to think about. It would be hard to imagine what King George would think of this emerald jewel more than 230 years later, with its thousands of commoners — Just think of it! Commoners! — walking the gardens solo, in couples, in families, in school groups, every day, enjoying more than 300 acres of flora, both native and foreign. The king wouldn’t like it. Tough luck. Kew Gardens, as it is known, might not be the biggest botanic gardens in the world, but it is one of the oldest. And for those interested in natural beauty, it is one of England’s must-see destinations.

If you do plan to include Kew in a trip to London, consider making a day of it. The trip out to the Kew Gardens stop on the Underground takes about 30 to 45 minutes from Central London, the walk to the entrance about five minutes, and time to fully explore the gardens? Factor in a lot of walking.

A tour uncovers the many levels of history at Kew, as it passed through several owners — the oldest building goes back to the early 1600s —and expanded each time, leaving behind the fingerprints of kings, curators and architects. This piecemeal assemblage of attractions and gardens gives Kew its particular flavor. There is no set path on which to follow, and one finds many surprises along the way to any location.

If one were to choose a centerpiece of Kew, however, it has to be the two Victorian-era glasshouses. Built by architect Decimus Burton and iron maker Richard Turner, the first glasshouse towers over the grounds, looking like the bleached white bones of a gigantic animal. The glass in between the iron frame is all hand-blown. The Palm House contains an international selection of palm trees and tropical plants first imported into England during the 19th century. Coming from California, the sight of palm trees is not unfamiliar, but the sheer variety and height of the specimens still amazes. Plus, the oddness of seeing such tall trees inside a humid, enclosed structure speaks to the ingenuity of the architects and curators at Kew.

Mr. Burton followed this structure with the nearby Temperate House, twice the size, and still one of the biggest Victorian iron and glass structures in the world. It too contains soaring trees that tickle the ceiling, as well as a selection of plants from warmer climates. Walking the ground level reveals cocoa trees bursting with pods — you can almost smell the chocolate — along with green tea, tobacco, coffee and many other plants everybody consumes but rarely sees. Amazing tropical flowers peek out from hiding places in the greenery.

However, take any one of the several spiral staircases in either house and you will find yourself high above the floor on a walkway that rings the structure, affording a radically different view of the plants. One can almost reach out and touch the palm fronds. Take the Palm House’s spiral staircase in the center down to the basement and one can find a small aquarium, showing off underwater plants and interesting sea life.

Nearby is an equally fascinating iron structure, though much smaller. The Waterlily House was designed in 1852 to house the huge pads and giant flowers of the Amazonian water lily, and the center of the house is a large, 36-foot-wide pond. A path traces the perimeter, with tropical flowers of purple, red and orange hanging down, demanding visitors stop and admire the pure variety. The House is one of the hottest in Kew Gardens, and requires a minute or two of acclimatizing. Otherwise, those with glasses will be walking around blind from steamed lenses. (The same goes for camera equipment.) No matter what the weather outside, these journeys into the greenhouses transport the visitor to another world. Rumor has it that the root structure of the water lily inspired the half-dome iron work of Crystal Palace.

Other structures have continued the glasshouse tradition, including one highlighting alpine habitats, one demonstrating the evolution of plants, and the grab bag of climates that make up the Princess of Wales Conservatory, built in 1987. This dramatically angled building contains the delightful butterfly house, where hundreds of butterflies of all different colors and species flutter about the paths, coming close enough to touch. Good luck in photographing them, however, as they like to keep on the move. The gasps and shrieks of delight from both children and adults fill the air, making this one of the must-see buildings in the gardens.

Kew Gardens is so engaging that one can forget its original purpose as a place of scientific study. Explorers (often with botanists onboard ship) brought back their treasures from the British Empire to study and grow here. A fine example of science and history is the herb garden behind the Dutch Palace, one of several mansions located on the grounds. The Queen’s Garden, as it is called, is an orderly and manicured garden of geometric paths in the 17th century style (however, it was constructed in 1959.) But look close at the plants and you will see that they have been chosen and tended for their medicinal ways, with a sign for each to inform the plant’s 17th century common name, along with its healing properties and a supporting quote from a herbal book of the time. Some of these quotes make for good reading and show that, like now, people have always been looking for cures for indigestion and ways to keep regular.

The garden has also attracted a series of illustrators from the beginning, including Francis Bauer; Joseph Hooker, former director of Kew; Lancelot “Capability” Brown (also one of Kew’s landscape architects); and Beatrix Potter, who made important and detailed paintings of fungi before she illustrated children’s books. But the most prolific artist represented at Kew is 19th century artist Marianne North, whose hundreds and hundreds of colorful paintings of plant life take up the gallery named in her honor. The gallery, designed by Ms. North herself, features her works slotted together like mosaic tile, and is a wonder to behold all at once.

For a dramatic outside view, visitors should also check out the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway. A safe metal walkway some 60 feet above the ground allows a stroll through the treetops made up of dramatic oaks and cedars, with tiny hints of London peeking above the green. The walkway is accessible by stairway and elevator.

The best time to visit Kew Gardens is late spring and summer for the obvious reasons: better chance of sun and warm weather. In July, the gardens host five days of music and dance for Summer Swing, where one can sit on the lawns, have a picnic and listen to top music acts. And unlike most days, one can stay after sunset for a dramatic firework display.

But don’t discount Kew at other times of the year. The gardens look magical in winter, and the glasshouses stay warm and tropical while the entire outside world is shivering. Guided tours are available year-round, and the gardens offer occasional festivals and children’s days. A photographer’s paradise, Kew Gardens also offers several workshops on photographing trees, flowers and plants.

Lunch and high tea is available inside the garden at several cafes, the biggest being the cafeteria at the Orangery, once a hothouse for citrus trees. However, for a real treat, don’t miss a stop at the Original Maids of Honor (288 Kew Road), which visitors will pass on the way to or from the station. The bakery/restaurant is 150 years old, but the custard tart pastries known as Maids of Honor have their origins in the court of Henry VIII. The high tea offers a delicious selection of sandwiches, pastries and, of course, scones, clotted cream and jam, along with a pot of tea on classic china plates. A perfect end for a day surrounded by nature’s beauty and human ingenuity.

WHAT: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB
WHEN: Open 9:30 a.m. daily, closing hours vary depending on time of year. Closed Dec. 24 and 25.
TICKETS: Tickets $21.50 (U.S.), $18.50 (U.S.) students; free to children
INFORMATION: www.kew.org

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