Those unable to satisfy their wanderlust in these uncertain days of lockdown and travel quarantine are invited to immerse themselves in the sights, smells and spirit of faraway places – in a botanical sense at least – here in the UK.
From colossal Californian redwoods, those imposing ancient giants of the plant kingdom, to the balmy fragrance of Mediterranean rosemary and lavender, visitors to Kew Gardens in London will be transported to 10 countries across six continents within just a few hours as part of its Travel the World trail experience from next week.
The essence of a tranquil Japanese tea garden and delights of the Himalayan flora of an undulating Rhododendron dell are still within reach, for a tiny fraction of the real cost, with visitors’ senses heightened by accompanying prose, poetry and illustrations specially commissioned from talent across the world.
“In a year when many holidays and travel plans have had to change, Travel the World at Kew will offer visitors a chance to experience the next best thing, a journey around the world inside the safety of our walls,” said Richard Barley, the director of horticulture, learning and operations at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
“Visiting 10 special locations dotted throughout our 320-acres landscape is a perfect way to reconnect with nature after months of lockdown.”
Kew’s Great Pagoda towers over plant specimens collected in China’s Sichuan province. South Africa’s bergs and kloofs are replicated in a rock garden stippled with cascading waterfalls. Eucalyptus trees arouse thoughts of Australia, as do spectacular mountain gums.
The monkey puzzle trees – “coiled succulent pine / with saurian arms, bony plates / on reptilian back” in the words of the Latino-British poet Leo Boix – are redolent of the time of dinosaurs. They evoke, too, Argentina’s “sub-Antarctic forests” and rivers of “the most radiant turquoise I’ve seen”, writes the Kew scientist Dr Laura Martinez-Suz in her accompanying prose.
Britain’s native woodlands of tall grasses, wildflowers and whispering beech and hazel are also on show. Meanwhile, Oscar Martin Centeno’s poem The dance of sunrise in the Mediterranean Garden is a dreamscape of flowers swaying in the light of a rising sun.
A centrepiece will be a large-scale humpback whale botanical living sculpture, created by the winner of the Netflix series The Big Flower Fight and on display from 22 August – 18 September.
The specially commissioned poetry and prose by literary award-nominated writers, with a strong connection to each country, are displayed alongside vibrant illustrations by artist Mark Boardman.
Writers include Joe Cottonwood, who lives in the coastal mountains of California, whose words read: “because a redwood with its power / will never preach / makes no demands / sips from the clouds / swallows the sunlight …”
The world-renowned Himalayan poet Yuyutsu RD Sharma has penned Rhododendron’s Suitor, which includes the lines: “an eternal lover / jilted by the silver-barked / suitor of the steep cliffs, / the Nepalese alder …”
Paul Denton, the head of visitor programmes at Kew, said the trail highlighted some of the “hidden gems” of Kew Gardens. “You can be reading a beautiful piece of poetry at the same time as seeing the landscape, so you can get a real sense of place and space,” he said. “It’s like taking the perfect holiday snap.”
His favourites? “I love the Californian redwoods. There is something about the colossal nature of these trees. And the monkey puzzle tree, which just has such a strangeness about it.”
Travel the World at Kew Gardens runs from 22 August – 16 October 2020. Entry to Kew Gardens is on a pre-booked ticket basis.