Love in a Cold Climate - World Gardens in London

Kate Smith | 30 July 2008

The Chinese garden at The British Museum

To see the world's flora in London , Kew is the place tohead for – with greenhouses adjusted to every climate and vast acres of hardier plants representing the remotest places on earth. But, staffed by passionatebotanists, the emphasis is generally on plant types rather than garden design. Gardens are a meeting of plants with style and form - and you often need to goelsewhere in London to complete the picture and begin to imagine the idealgardens of the world.

London has a history of borrowings and exotica stretching back as far as theRomans. Some of these, like the London plane, have become utterly identifiedwith the city. Others - like grape vines - have been repeatedly re-introduced,clinging onto the edges of viability in a cold climate.

Plant ownership

The eighteenth century was the pivotal moment for British gardeners. As futurecolonialists began their first forays to America , Australasia and elsewhere,their hunger for territory was matched by a more benign obsession with botany. Calmias, rhododendrons and azaleas were all first brought back from America bycollectors who gathered seeds throughout the autumn to feed the wealthy English gardeners and later a big market of green-fingered Londoners.

The politics of modern plant-hunting closely follows the evolution of attitudesto museum collecting. In recent years a US a drug company’s attempt to patentturmeric was first allowed, and then thankfully seen off by Indian scientists. Nowcountries draw a careful line between plant sharing and biopiracy. Kew hasbecome a sort of zoo for world plants that may be threatened in their currenthabitat, but they are careful to participate in conventions that ensure the benefits of plants are shared with their country of origin.

The urge to build gardens in a city is always countered by the urge to make very large sums of money from real estate. Many of London’s most luminous gardens have been eaten up by time and concrete. Still new, albeit mostly smaller, gardens have risen in their place. Cultural institutions have brought complete world gardens to London - often as symbols of what is best in a culture. Museums are also experimenting with gardens as extended exhibitions - with the frailer components often packed away at the end of a long summer.p>

Ten kinds of London garden

1. The vanished gardens of Central London

There’s nothing left of the gardens built by the Romans in central London, although some of their farming and gardening tools can be seen in the Museum ofLondon. (Look out for an iron handsaw dug up at the site of the Bank ofEngland, used for trimming long-ago fruit trees, shrubs, and for cuttingplants). The Romans brought box, lime, sycamore and sweet chestnut to Londonand probably mulberry, quince, peach, plum, medlar and fig. After the Romansleft London only the stronger trees would have survived untended. Futuretravelers re-introduced the species centuries later.

For 300 years a famous garden flourished at Holborn. Vine Street commemoratesthe site of a vineyard, and there were also grapes grown at Smithfield . The NormanConquest seems to have brought wine and vine specialists in its wake, bringingimprovements to the vineyards and new kinds of grapes.

2. Dutch ideas

Though Hampton Court Palace is seen as a monument to Tudor style, its gardensare a reflection of the Dutch ideas that William of Orange brought in 1688. He added more and smaller fountains, and astonishingly moved about some of the 30 year old lime trees to suit his taste. The most lasting and famous innovation though was the Hampton Court maze – mazes being common in many Dutch gardens.

3. Chinese gardens

Rock in the Chinese garden at The British Museum

In the 18th century Sir William Chambers constructed a number of Chinesebuildings at Kew .The only survivor is the Chinese pagoda - rather too heavily set for a properChinese building and now stripped by time of its colour and dragons. Thebuilding was once flanked by a ‘mosque’ (which was taken down before itfell down in 1772) and an ‘ alhambra ’. Viewed at the time as a bit of a tacky theme park, these innovations were still one of the earlier attempts to create the look of extremely remote places in an English setting.

The British Museum is hosting a Chinese gardenthis summer – with most plants coming from Sichuan province in South WestChina. The plants have been chosen for their utility and cultural significance– including gingko bilboa, bamboo, the lacquer tree and the handkerchief tree. For the full Chinese garden experience though, head for Room 91 of the museumwhich will be full of Chinese nature paintings while the garden lasts.

4. Japanese gardens

photo shows farmhouse

A minka, or Japanese farmhouse at Kew Gardens.

There are several Japanese gardens in London andthe South East, in various states of repair. The garden on the roof of theBrunei Gallery centred around rocks only sparsely planted, but offers an unexpected meditative space in the middle of the city. You can get access to it whenever the gallery is open.

A tiny Japanese garden sits in the back of the Fan Museum in Greenwich –completely hidden by other houses it can only be seen by people visiting themuseum. Kew Gardens contains a complete minka, or Japanese farmhouse next toa bamboo garden. Minka are disappearing in Japan , and being replaced by moreecologically damaging and less resilient housing. The minka preservationsociety are dedicated to retaining some of these warm, compostable, flood- andearthquake-proof homes. They donated Kew ’s minka in 2001.

Our favourite though is the Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park, a beautifulmixture of water features and carefully tended plants.

5. Islamic gardens

Credit - Emma Clark

London is not without Islamic gardens, but as we write, the gates of Paradise are firmly shut. A transitory oasis existed at London Olympia in mid July as part of the Islam expoexhibition. Islamicgarden designer Emma Clark tried to include many of the facets that aretypical: geometric form, trees, brightly coloured scented plants and waterfeatures. As Clark comments, Islamic gardens come from countries where water and shade are valued – it’s an act of translation to make them work ina climate where both of these are common, and not all the plants they would typically containcan survive. But the beauty of the form can still be applied and Clark has created two permanentgardens in London, both in private hands.

The Ismaili Centre has a garden on its roof complete with trees and waterfeatures. Photographs are forbidden, but it is occasionally open during June OpenGarden weekends during thesummer.

The Roof Gardens

The other gardens in London with some claim to Islamic form are The RoofGardens based on theAlhambra in Spain, and sitting 100 feet above Kensington High Street. Createdin the 1930s, and part of a one and a half acre aerial complex, they are nowowned by Richard Branson. If you want to get in, though, you apparently need to be organising a very posh wedding.

6. Buddhist gardens

photo shows buddhist monks in red robes gazing at bronze carved mandala

Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan Lama in the Kagyu tradition, blesses the Tibetan Peace Garden. Courtesy of the Tibet Foundation.

The Tibet Foundation maintains the Tibetan Peace Garden which is next to theImperial War Museum. It was opened by the Dalai Lama in 1999. Since then theFoundation has had the garden blessed by Tibetan spiritual masters wheneverthey get the opportunity. At the centre of the garden is a mandala - anelaborately decorated circle representing wholeness. These often appear inBuddhist art and are sometimes constructed from different coloured sands. Thegarden mandala, slightly more permanent, is bronze.

The remarkable Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon is surroundedby four acres of gardens with winding paths through trees and over ponds.

7. African gardens

photo shows the african garden at the horniman museum

The new African garden at the Horniman Museum, featuring a banana plant. Photography: c. Horniman Museum

In 2005 the British Museum planted an African garden on its forecourt for thesummer. The garden has now been transplanted to the Horniman Museum in SouthLondon . Obviously a seasonal garden, much of it is stored for the winter andthen replanted in the summer months. Gardener Gordon Lucas tells us that themuseum has been able to hold onto the African statues that decorate the gardenfor at least one more year – so visit this summer to see the marryingtogether of plants and design.

8. A Latin American glasshouse

One of London’s newest gardens is under glass at Brockwell Park.

Hundreds of seeds have been collected from right across Latin America in thelast few years. Corn, twenty kinds of tomato, chilli and all sorts of flowers fill the space,which is being used for children's art events and poetry classes. Theproject is being driven by the Latin American community in London but all arewelcome.

9. Surviving trees

Some of the original international trees imported by 18th century enthusiastsstill survive in London, especially at Kew . The 1775 Cycad in the palm house is comparativelyyoung; its genus lives for up to 2,500 years. Still, like the 1760 Japonicaoutside in the park it's been more interested in growing horizontally thanvertically for some centuries - both are supported by arboreal zimmer frames. Kew Gardens offers a trail of some of its oldest and most interesting trees –just ask for a leaflet at the Box Office.

Syon Park in West London contains some mulberrybushes imported from Persia in 1548. In the early fifties Gladys Taylor wrote‘we are accustomed to see mulberry trees, but here are dome-shaped bushes,higher than a man and of great circumference.’ It’s privately owned by aDuke, but open to visitors from March to October. (Mulberry trees seem toinspire a rather obsessive passion – this websiteattempts to list every specimen in the country.)

10. Secret gardens

The Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture helps some ofLondon's most vulnerable refugees. Often living in marginal accommodationand dealing with the asylum process, they work on gardens belonging to MF atFinsbury Park as well as allotments in outer London . The gardens are forobvious reasons never open to the public. These most recent arrivals in Londonare quite often former farmers. They don’t yet know the language, how tonegotiate this city, or cope with the past. So they dig.

Further reading

Old London Gardens by Gladys Taylor (out of print)

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by AndreaWulf

The Art of the Islamic Garden by Emma Clark

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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