In the gardens of Kew, exotic dreams come tru

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 07, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Kew Gardens is one of London's great amenities. It is also a monument to the British inclination for scientific rigor, and to the nation's venturesome spirit. It reflects the permanence in the culture of the belief that things will turn out all right. The very trees are suffused with optimism.

England's trees, the Czech playwright Karel Capek once wrote, are "ancient, generous, free, venerable, vast." They "preserve the aristocratic instincts, the historical sense, Conservatism, tariffs, golf, the House of Lords, and other odd and antique things."

They salute and acknowledge the value of the old and enduring.

But Kew is more than the sum of its trees, more even than a celebration of English stability. And definitely it is more than just a park.

For one, it is a last refuge for the doomed flora of the world. There are 3,000 plants living here that no longer exist in the wild; there are 2,000 endangered species. In all, Kew's 300 acres hold 38,000 living species of plant.

Kew is a laboratory.

"We have come across a thing we think inhibits AIDS," says Derek Lewis, a spokesman for Kew Gardens. It is the Morton Bay Chestnut from Australia (the wood of which the Speaker's chair in the House of Commons is made), which contains an element with anti-HIV properties.

Kew is a museum of plants.

The park's Herbarium holds about 6 million dried plants from all over the world. Forty-five thousand new ones arrive every year to swell the collection.

One specimen that took a half-hour to find here, probing cabinet after cabinet, floor after floor, was the opuntia darwinii. These are samples of a shrub and berries from Chiloe Island in southern Chile brought back by Charles Darwin in 1837 following his circumnavigation of the world on the HMS Beagle, the experience from which came "The Origin of Species."

Kew keeps a collection of 72,000 species of plant that are regarded as useful to man; it maintains a registry of all known poisons, to which the police make reference.

There are vast collections of ocean-born drift seeds, edible seeds and grasses, all plants with medicinal qualities, such as arrowroot and dragon's blood.

It has a library that holds current and back copies of virtually every botanical publication in the world. Among them is a hometown first:the Baltimore Cactus Journal, published at 213 E. Pratt St., the first journal just for cactus published in the world.

It closed before the current century dawned.

Kew is a quiet Victorian garden, redolent of that age; it reflects the Victorian taste for the exotic and foreign, its inclination for creative adventure.

Thus, classical Greek and Roman temples are spotted here and there in the gardens; the Great Pagoda rises 10 stories at the end of an avenue of plane trees; and the magnificent glass Palm House designed by Decimus Burton for the growing collection of tropical plants. They were sent here by Victorian adventurers such as Clements Markham and Richard Spruce, who, with a sense of high-minded patriotism, pilfered from Peru the cinchona seeds that produced quinine, and by Henry Wickham, who smuggled the Hevea brasiliensis out of the Amazon and thus broke the Brazilian monopoly on rubber early in this century.

Kew received them both, and many others for recultivation and transplant. During the Victorian years, Kew's role was "economic botany for the development of empire," says Roger Joiner, marketing manager of the gardens.

Now, with the empire gone, or shrunk to tiny bits here and there, it is returning to that role, but in a more global, less aggressive sense.

Its main mission now is to preserve those botanical species that are fast disappearing. Kew's Seedbank facility at Wakehurst, near Gatwick, for instance, holds 1 percent of the world's known plant species, alive and growing. The Herbarium, which has only dried plants, holds all the known plant species.

"The grand dream there," says Mr. Joiner, "is eventually to be able to revive them."

Such is the high mission of Kew, which gives the lie to the following lines by an unknown poet:

The wildest dreams of Kew/

Are living fact in Katmandu.

In fact, there are more exotic dreams come true in Kew than ever grew in Katmandu.

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