Today, Ali’s crook. Joss’ been restored to perkiness, but poor Alice is now laid low, with congestions of the sinai and a wicked cough. She elects to stay put, as Joss did yesterday. So, the ‘healthy’ three depart for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew via the Underground. No matter where you are, what city, what country, riding the subway offers a glimpse into the real life of the place and its real people. Thank heaven most of these folks will take their kids by the hand at South Kensington and haul them into the Natural History Museum.
The RBG (yes, the RBG) is presenting an Orchid Extravaganza, which, for once, does not cost extra. It’s a strategy to draw people to the Garden during the off-season. Amusement at the Victoria Gate – a scooter park with thirty or so colorful, little kids’ scooters all lined up and waiting. Our path through the Princess of Wales Greenhouse begins in the desert, where orchids are unplentiful, creating an aura of puzzlement. Moving along, the humidity intensifies and suddenly there are cascades and clouds, pillars and pools of orchids in their infinite, rococo variety.
After lunch, the Palm House beckons. It’s an expansive, humid tropical paradise, a 19thcentury spectacle. Palms and cycads everywhere, including one cycad they claim to be the oldest potted plant in … the world. A spiral staircase leads up to the catwalk that allows one to circumnavigate the central part of the greenhouse from above. From that vantage, the tops of the trees fan out against the white-painted iron framework, while outside dormant flower beds and endless allées of green grass hint at the possibility of springtime.
We leave the atmosphere of the Palm House and strike out overland. Kew was founded by botanical scientists and well-known for its ancient specimen trees. I remember a disastrous wind storm some thirty years ago that took out some of the Gardens’ oldest and most renowned trees. One, The Turner Oak, was completely uprooted. It had been ailing for some time, but to everyone’s surprise, once resettled, developed new vigor. Soil compaction at the root. Old trees now get special attention for this. In leafless winter, the trees are at their most sculptural. The fractal complexity of trunk and bough and branch and twig is breathtaking. One immense tree is the Chestnut-leaved Oak, one of the Gardens’ oldest, having sprung from an acorn of the Caucasus planted in 1846.
Older still is the Pagoda Tree, planted in 1702. It’s striking in that it has developed distinctive horizontality over its three hundred years; the main trunk runs parallel to the ground for 20 meters. Its base has been reinforced by a brick structure and its boughs supported by sturdy metal beams.
Of sentimental interest to me is Kew’s Wollemi Pine. Ali and I found the one in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia. This tree is one of those ‘living fossils’ like the gingko, having been discovered in the 90s in a hidden valley of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. London’s Wollemi Pine is statuesque, compared to the ungainly Sydney example. Exiting through the fucking gift shop, I buy Kif a book on Kew. Yay.
We roll into 6 Broad Court just before five o’clock. Alice is up and about, though coughing and complaining. Our final London meal is at Brasserie Zedel, a spectacular stage set of a brasserie in a vast, underground complex of dining and entertainment.
Packing. Packing, Packing. Sad Face.