Wednesday, 10 August 2011

After the manner of a flower garden, from disorder to superorder


Shock, horror. Has the world gone topsy turvy?

The Order Beds, or more historically correctly the Herbaceous Ground, are in transition.

In 1846, William Hooker knocked down one of the walls around what was previously the Royal Kitchen Garden (and the newest addition to Kew Gardens) so he could arrange hardy herbaceous plants according to the French botanist Jussieu's classification system.

The Herbaceous Ground has remained more or less orderly ever since. The classification system evolved from Jussieu (a vast improvement at the time on the rather arbitrary system used by Linnaeus) to that of George Bentham and Joseph Hooker in 1869. The beds evolved from irregularly shaped to rectangular.

In the early years, Donald Beaton, head gardener at Shrubland Park in Suffolk, described the Herbaceous Ground as the "huddling together the most ugly plants of all the principal orders, after the manner of a flower garden". He suggested, quite sensibly, that rather than displaying as many different species as possible a few typical of each genus should be on show.


Deputy Director (at the time), Joseph Hooker, followed Beaton's advice and planted larger groups of fewer species, and only ones that grew well. This change to a more appealing and accessible display is an amusing development by someone who spent much of his time as Director trying to discourage visitors from visiting.

Nevertheless, the orderly herbaceous beds in the ground have persisted. Today they still reflect the now superseded classification system of Bentham and Hooker, but the order has broken down a little. The beds require a lot of work to keep them fresh and tidy through spring and summer, and any planting based on classification tends to be horticulturally challenging. Do you include shrubs and trees? How do you grow a desert adapted species next to a tropical forest specialist?


Basically it comes back to the advice of Beaton. Do it simply. That's the approach we'll take next year. Although we struggled with staffing level and other priorities this season, you can still enjoy some spectacular displays of plants with a common heritage. The daisy bed (family Asteraceae) is looking great at the moment, particularly the Cynareae bed. I haven't checked whether the flowers in the bed pictured above are all in the 'tribe' Cynareae (as labelled) but I can confirm that this thistle, Cynara cardunculus certainly is.


Next year look out for the Plant Family Beds, bringing you, for the first time in a living collection of plants (perhaps - any other examples out there?) the romantically and evocatively named APGIII classification!

APGIII is the Angiosperm Plant Group's third iteration of how the flowering plants of the world should be grouped together into families, orders and now superorders. You can read all about in volume 161 of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, published in 2009.

In the new order (nothing to do with Hitler or music) you be reminded that the superorder Proteanae includes three very odd bedfellows: the protea/banksia family (Proteaceae), the plane tree family (Plantanaceae) and the lotus family (Nelumbonaceae). And carnations, cacti, pitcher plants, and spinach are all grouped together in the superorder Caryophyllanae. Fun times!

DNA sequencing, much of it in the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew (below, with a sculpture featuring the DNA double helix just to make the point more clearly), is behind this latest classification and has helped us find connections between plant groups that may look different but share a common ancestry.


All that is for next year. At the moment its a bit of this and a bit of that, but you can still see the major plant groups on display, many of them holding firm in APGIII. Alternatively, sneak around to the end of the display for the ordered disorder of this truly pretty herbaceous border...



Thanks to Ray Desmond's wonderful 'The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew' 2nd ed. (2007) for the historical information.

1 comment:

Bom said...

I really need to save up and visit Kew. *sigh*