When I was little (10-13 or so), I wanted to be a horticulturalist when I grew up. Obviously this did not stick into adulthood, but plants remain a curiosity to me despite my vampire-like avoidance of the sun. I know, it’s weird. I’m obviously more a fan of indoor plants than landscaping.
The trip to Kew Gardens thus would have been interesting on its own, but I’d read For All the Tea in China, in which Kew is a prominent location. Not much action happens with the story there, but it was the hub of Victorian-era botany and the place where all the results were discussed, all the specimens examined. (It is from Kew that ill-advised invasive species were sent around the world as ornamentals or potentially useful plants.) The book is the story of a field expedition, Kew was the headquarters. Armed with the knowledge that Kew was for botany, I was not expecting a slideshow on Beatrix Potter and the mono-alphabetic substitution cipher she developed in order to keep her diary private. The presenter for that bit was Andrew Wiltshire, who had known Leslie Linder, the man who cracked the code. Potter’s life was deeply shaped by multiple domineering forces- most notably her mother and the extremely misogynistic society of the time. Her mother drove her to write in code, and the society drove her to almost abandon her interest in fungi as none of the prominent names in the field treated her as if she had any shred of intelligence. I do wonder what she would have been like if her life had been less prone to forced Victorian-era propriety.
We moved from there to the Kew Library, where we gawked at some of the botanical illustrations, which are still used in field guides today despite our advances in photography. Illustrations show plants at angles that may be impossible in photographs, laid out perfectly to show every identifiable bit of the specimen.
Saw some of the treasures of the library itself, and then the herbarium. I’d never been in an herbarium before, and it was really kind of neat. Plant specimens of every sort, still pressed between newspaper sheets and stacked in manilla folders, still arriving regularly fro the field. Kew still functions as a hub for botany, and that’s where the seeds and specimens are stored.