The prince of the plant world: nothing compares to Kew
It’s easy to think of The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as simply a visitor attraction, with its 132 hectares of landscaped parkland and lovingly planted gardens, iconic glass structures (the newly restored Temperate House is the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse), and its collection of more than 33,000 species of native and exotic plants, trees and flowers (including some of the world’s rarest and most threatened). And yes, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site which attracts (along with its country estate Wakehurst) more than 2.1m visits each year.
But the 250 year-old-plus (founded in 1809) Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (lapsing into acronym as RBG Kew) is also a globally significant scientific organisation, respected for its collections as well as its expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development. Its scientific activities and collaborations span more than 100 countries. Given that the human race depends on plants and fungi, RBG Kew is an important centre of knowledge.
Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world with more than two billion seeds - a vast vault for their long-term storage for research and conservation. Its associated global network, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), is the largest ex situ plant conservation programme in the world and is active in over 80 countries. The MSBP aims to bank 25 per cent of the world’s plant species by 2020.
Its scientific collections contain over 8.5m items, representing over 95 per cent of known flowering plant types and approximately 60 per cent of known types of fungi. The Herbarium alone contains seven million pressed plant specimens. Its Library forms one of the most important botanical reference sources in the world, with holdings extending back to the 14th century.
In 2018, RBG Kew unveiled its first strategy aimed at managing the future use of its vast collections of plants and fungi. The 10-year Kew Science Collections Strategy includes what collections are currently available, and which represent critical research priorities. It also confirms how the collections need to be managed and how to increase global access to them.
“By doing this we hope to enhance Kew’s role as a global resource in plant and fungal knowledge – helping to find solutions to some of humanity’s greatest challenges including food security, climate change and plant diseases,” according to its Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis.