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Kew Botanic Gardens - approaching 250 years -

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Nigel Taylor: I mean that Kew Gardens is the first place in Europe where kangaroos were found after
they were brought back from Australia. We have the bones to prove it, and we also in the royal
archive has correspondence from George III saying to his courtiers, 'Would you please accept a
kangaroo for your estate, sir?' And they replied, 'No, Sire, we have no fences high enough to
contain them.'

But perhaps the more interesting thing from an Australian context is that at least a part of the
Australian sheep industry had its origin in Kew because in 1810 Sir Joseph Banks was ordered by
George III during one of his bouts of madness to auction off his livestock, including Merino sheep
that had been acquired from Spain, probably under rather dubious circumstances, for the king. And
these were then auctioned off around the pagoda. So there was a curious connection between the
pagoda and the Australian sheep industry because the man who bought the Merinos exported them to
Australia as part of founding that industry. You didn't know that, did you?

Robyn Williams: I absolutely did not know that. But what happened to the bones of the kangaroos and
the kangaroos themselves? Do we know?

Nigel Taylor: I don't know if we know what happened to the kangaroos ultimately, but they were
breeding so successful they had to be removed, they were becoming a liability. When we celebrated
Kew's heritage recently in 2006 we actually had some wallabies in the same area of the gardens
around the Queen's Cottage grounds as a reminder of this important fact, but of course wallabies,
as you know, don't jump as high as kangaroos, so they were a little easier to contain.

Robyn Williams: Nigel Taylor, curator at Kew Gardens in London, one of the truly great centres of
scientific botany. They're in the process of organising their 250th birthday party, which may
include a mob of roos but may also feature those very sexy plants, the orchids. Nigel Taylor is
also Kew's historian, and history is seen all over, through his window.

Nigel Taylor: The biggest thing you can see out of my window across the Palm House pond is of
course Kew's Palm House, which opened in 1848 and it's a remarkable structure made from cast and
wrought iron which was majorly restored about 20 years ago. But the Palm House was the way the
Victorians could see tropical vegetation. They couldn't get into a 747 and get out at the other end
in the tropics, they had to imagine what it was like, and they got a pretty good idea from the
plants growing in the glasshouse.

Robyn Williams: It is huge, isn't it. When they first set it up, did they have to experiment to see
how it would work, establishing a hothouse like that?

Nigel Taylor: It was an experiment. The man who designed it was the architect Decimus Burton, but
the man who really should get the credit for the structure is a guy called Richard Turner who was a
ship's foundry man from Dublin. And if you look at the structure and you turn it upside down, what
do you have but the hull of a ship. So he adapted the technology he'd been developing in ship
building and converted it into a glasshouse.

Robyn Williams: I can see just what you mean with that lovely curved centrepiece as well and that
vast door, it's a huge door right in the middle.

Nigel Taylor: Yes, a vast door to bring in vast plants, if necessary, and that's exactly what they
did.

Robyn Williams: Going further back, when was the Kew Gardens actually established, not necessarily
as a botanical gardens but as something else?

Nigel Taylor: The history of Kew in the full begins in 1718 when the future George II leased the
western half of the estate, and was then succeeded in around 1730 by his son Frederick who leased
the eastern half of the estate. In fact we still have a roadway going though the estate which marks
the boundary between these two royal gardens. The interesting thing about this relationship is that
the Georgians hated their first born sons, the ones who were set to become the next king, and
indeed this was the case with George II and his son Frederick, they hated each other, even to the
extent that Frederick's mother refused to see him on her deathbed, she hated him, yet he occupied
the site immediately adjacent to their estate. Why did he do that? That's an interesting question.

Robyn Williams: Any ideas?

Nigel Taylor: I suspect rivalry. If we were kind we would say that it's to do with trying to make
friends with his parents but I don't think that was really his interest. He wanted to show off that
he could make a better garden than they could.

Robyn Williams: Talking about gardens, is this the oldest in England?

Nigel Taylor: No, Kew is very far from being the oldest garden of any kind in England, certainly
not the oldest botanic garden. Our botanic gardens go back to the 17th century. Kew's origin is in
the 18th century, but it is the most important and arguably the most important in the world.

Robyn Williams: So the older ones, would they include Oxford?

Nigel Taylor: Oxford and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, these are the two oldest, they go
back to the first half of the 17th century.

Robyn Williams: When was Kew established as the Royal Botanic Gardens with that kind of scientific
role?

Nigel Taylor: It became a scientific institution in 1841 when it was transferred from the royal
estates to be a government funded institution, and its role from there on was largely scientific.
However, as a botanic garden it started in 1759 when the first head hardener in charge of the
botanical collections was appointed by Princess Augusta, the mother of George III.

Robyn Williams: And that's the anniversary we're looking forward to at the moment?

Nigel Taylor: That's right, next year, 2009, is 250 years since 1759, and many of us feel that this
institution has another 250 years at least in front of it and we're planning for that next 250.

Robyn Williams: And you're the historian. Do you look at the broad thrust of these various
influences with royalty and scientists and collectors and whatever?

Nigel Taylor: I'm not a professional historian but I've become a kind of historian because of my
current role as curator because we are steeped in history here and understanding Kew's history is a
very good way of understanding where it has to go in the future. The two are inextricably linked.

Robyn Williams: So what's the essence of the role that was established 250 years ago? What made it
the great institution we all know in most countries with an interest in plants?

Nigel Taylor: It was all about collecting things that were going to be useful. The great British
Empire was at its zenith and even the countries that weren't painted pink on the map held plants of
tremendous value. So, things like rubber came from Brazil and was distributed to British colonies
where it made a fortune for the plantation owners.

Robyn Williams: It was stolen, wasn't it?

Nigel Taylor: The popular interpretation today is that it was stolen but I think that's viewing the
thing with modern eyes. I'm not sure it would have been regarded as theft in those days. In those
days, countries didn't own their plants in the way they do nowadays under the convention on
biological diversity.

Robyn Williams: But this was a great sorting house to see what was important, to see how it should
be studied and classified, so it really was there at the beginning.

Nigel Taylor: It was. The initial driver was economic botany, and in fact the building we're
speaking in is the world's first museum of economic botany established in 1857. But if you wish to
understand the economic uses of plants you first have to know what they are, so very quickly Kew
became a centre for the identification of plants. We have these huge preserved collections of dried
plants in the herbarium representing virtually every known plant on the planet. That's the
powerhouse that drives Kew, the identification skills that we have.

Robyn Williams: Where did the expertise come from at that time, all those centuries ago when you
obviously needed people who could recognise plants, not just ones that they'd seen before, but ones
from the other side of the planet?

Nigel Taylor: In the earliest days the plant knowledge was vested, I think, in the gardening staff
because there weren't really scientists on site. But from 1841 with the appointment of Sir William
Hooker, the first director, Kew had a scientific mind directing it. In fact all subsequent
directors have been scientists also, nearly all of them plant taxonomists, people who understand
plant diversity. And the collections that I mentioned before, these are the reference collections
that you use to identify things. Very quickly a scientific staff developed and they developed
specialties in different parts of the world or in different groups of plants. Botanists can either
know a flora, like the flora of Australia, for example (that would be quite a big challenge), or
they may know a family very well. As a botanist I'm an expert on the cactus family, a family, by
the way, which is not very popular in Australia because of the problems it causes when they escape.

Robyn Williams: Prickly pear, yes, indeed. But cactus from America, they're not indigenous in many
other places, are they.

Nigel Taylor: This explains one thing about the British and their interest in plants. We have a
very depauperate native flora, it's about 1,500 species. Some would argue a few more, but not much
more than that. Therefore we have a huge interest in what other people have got. So the fact that
cacti are only found in the Americas naturally, or nearly all come from there, is of no
consequence, we want to study them, they're interesting, they're exotic, and so we want to know
more about them. And that's what I've devoted my life to.

Robyn Williams: It's amazing how leisurely that process can be. I remember...when you talk about
the Australian material...when Banks brought it back it took him something like a century to
publish the damn stuff, didn't it.

Nigel Taylor: Botany of this sort has been quite slow because the accumulation of knowledge that
you need to make a good flora is a slow process. It's even harder today in a way because we've got
much more specimens to look at. In the days of the Hookers, father and son who became the first two
directors, they didn't have many specimens of each species, so it was quite easy to work out what
the differences were. But when you have lots and lots of specimens and they're variable, it's
harder to perceive immediately how you distinguish two things, or three or four things. So this
kind of botany is slow.

Of course with modern molecular techniques we're starting to penetrate into the innards of the
plant in a way which we could never do before, and you can distinguish individuals now. That's
becoming relatively easy. But most plant identification is still today done by visual examination,
sometimes with a microscope or a hand lens, but basically macro-visualisation of the plant. And
then recalling from your databank in your grey matter; have I seen this before? What does this
remind me of? Which family could this belong to? And so on.

Robyn Williams: It reminds me...the present director coming from Western Australia, that's actually
where you've got a hot spot. In other words, zillions of species, immense biodiversity, and I
suppose that sort of experience has stood him in good stead here.

Nigel Taylor: Yes, it certainly has. And in fact Kew's work as a whole is about discovering and
identifying hot spots and drawing attention to their importance because the hot spots of the world
do contain a very considerable proportion of the world's total biodiversity, whether it be plants,
animals, fungi, bacteria, whatever. They're concentrated in certain precious places and these are
the ones that more than anywhere else we need to preserve.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so 250th anniversary coming up in that busy year, 2009. How are you going to
celebrate it here? With a gigantic exhibition of cacti?

Nigel Taylor: I would personally love to have a gigantic exhibition of cacti, but being more
realistic, what we're going to do is to have extravagant horticultural displays at our two
principal gates of entry; that's the main gate and the Victoria gate. Both of these major entry
points for visitors (and we have about 1.5 million a year) are very understated in horticultural
terms and we want to make more of them, especially for the 250th year, a year when we hope the
Queen will probably visit us, when we'll have many other parties and celebrations. And it's Kew's
horticulture, in my eyes, that's the most important thing for the public to see, and so we want to
make a big splash this coming year.

Robyn Williams: And so if people want to come from Australia, what will they see when they walk in
the gates?

Nigel Taylor: Well, if they come in early spring they will see a spectacular of flowering bulbs,
millions of flowing bulbs. If they come later in the year into summer they will see herbaceous
plants from every continent on the planet making a spectacularly colourful display. So if you think
of a continent we will have some plants from it, and we will also have a world map identifying
where Kew works in the world, which is more than 50 countries.