Beyond Beautiful | Brunswick

The Palm House at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Beyond Beautiful

Kew Gardens is seeking to help save the world, and perhaps atone for historical wrongs.

Can a botanic garden help save the world? Richard Deverell is convinced the answer is “yes.” The Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is putting science at the heart of the 261-year-old institution in a mission to align the entire work of the famous gardens behind the twin challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change.

The need for this endeavor has never been greater. Deforestation is increasing, global emissions are disrupting weather patterns, new pathogens are threatening crops and illegal trade is eradicating entire plant populations.

But the challenges Deverell faces are also huge. As an enterprise, RBG Kew has been hit hard by the pandemic, with lockdowns impacting ticket sales and punching a £15 million hole in expected 2020 income, which has forced the organisation to furlough more than 50% of its scientists for many months.

“We feel a growing sense of urgency, yet at the same time there is frustration because so much of this comes down to resources,” he said. “Kew can help shape and implement solutions, as well as explain to people why it matters, but honourable intentions are not sufficient. You need the resources to make a difference.”

 

Richard Deverell, the Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The oasis of greenery in southwest London has long been a magnet for locals and tourists alike. A record 2.2 million people visited Kew Gardens in 2019 to admire its soaring Victorian glasshouses, beautiful trees and carefully nurtured flowerbeds. But there is far more to this UNESCO World Heritage Site than a lovely old garden on the banks of the Thames. In addition to over 1 million living plants at Kew Gardens, the organisation also boasts a vast array of dried specimens that represent the crown jewels of plant and fungal science.

Hidden away in its herbarium, out of sight of the visitors, are 7 million plant specimens dating back more than two centuries, including some collected by Charles Darwin. The oldest are from India and were gathered in 1696. The matching fungarium, meanwhile, contains more than 1.25 million specimens of often weird and wonderful fungi, which carry with them a faint aroma of mushroom soup. And 30 miles to the south, at Wakehurst, Kew’s wild botanic garden in the heart of rural Sussex, the Millennium Seed Bank contains 2.4 billion seeds, making it the most diverse wild plant genetic resource on the planet.

Overall, Kew houses the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. Yet these collections are more than a unique record of life on Earth. Their deep historical roots mean they can also shed light on how the spread of species – from oaks and orchids to ceps and rust fungi – has changed over the years. Effectively, scientists can use these specimens to travel back in time to see how plants were distributed in the past, letting them reconstruct the extent of forests and other ecosystems that may have since been destroyed by human action or climate change.

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The Plant Family Beds at Kew Gardens show how plants relate to each other, with 102 separate beds displaying 93 plant families.

The 21st-century threats to the natural world mean that interrogating and interpreting this treasure trove has never been more critical. A report from Kew in September estimated that 40% of the world’s plants are now threatened with extinction – a jump from one in five plants thought to be at risk in 2016. Researchers fear the world may be losing species more quickly than science can find, name and study them. It is an alarming assessment that chimes with other recent grim warnings, including a depiction of the sixth mass extinction, caused by humans, laid out in a 2020 film by renowned broadcaster, natural historian and former Kew trustee David Attenborough.

Leveraging Kew’s unique expertise to counter these threats requires a more proactive approach than has been taken in the past, Deverell believes. “We need to change the nature of the science we are doing, and we need to speak with more urgency and bluntness about the biodiversity challenges we face,” he said. “We have got to reach beyond the garden walls.”

In some places in the world Kew is already making a real difference. Last August, for example, the government of Cameroon cancelled a logging concession for Ebo Forest, one of the West African country’s largest intact rainforests, after scientists at Kew documented the incredible array of plant species at risk. The campaign to stop logging in the forest was supported by environmentalists worldwide, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio. In another initiative, Kew has joined other conservationists in a programme to identify priority forests around the world and create a library of tree DNA that can identify whether wood comes from illicit sources.

Deverell intends to double-down on more of these projects in future. He is excited about an invitation for Kew’s scientists to advise Tanzania on ambitious plans to plant billions of trees across 5 million hectares – a multi-year process than will take great expertise in selecting the right species for the right location. “The prize of getting it right is enormous and the cost of getting it wrong is equally enormous,” Deverell said.

The former BBC executive, who took over at Kew in 2012, is the 17th director of the venerable institution – but the first not to be an eminent scientist. Ironically, however, Deverell believes Kew has become a lot more science-focused in the last eight years because of the board’s decision to put a non-specialist at the helm.

“The first thing I did was appoint a director of science and publish a science strategy. So, slightly counterintuitively, the advantage of me not being a scientist is that for the first time in Kew’s history we had a senior figure only focused on the quality and impact of science,” he said.

Deverell aims to push things further with the launch of an updated science strategy in 2021 that will emphasise optimising scientific projects and increasing collaboration with other research institutes to protect ecosystems and mitigate climate change.

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The treetop walkway at RBG Kew.

One huge technical task is to drag Kew’s centuries-old specimen collection – which is stored on sheafs of paper in thousands of cardboard boxes – into the digital era. Scanning and digitising the information contained on pages holding leaves, stalks and flowers from around the world will give researchers access to data they could otherwise only get by visiting Kew in person – something that is often inconvenient and has been outright impossible for most of 2020. The number of specimens means digitisation is a mammoth project and so far only 13% of the herbarium collection has made it into cyberspace.

Kew also has an ongoing “Perception Shift” programme to make the case for its scientific ambitions to supporters, staff and visitors. Treading the line between research and the attending to the beauty of the gardens is a constant challenge, given Kew’s multiple stakeholders. The organisation gets 30 to 40% of its income from paying visitors, who cherish the gardens above all else. Another third comes from the UK government and the remainder is made up of science grants, philanthropy, venue hire and commercial partnerships. The latter includes a tie-up with Procter & Gamble to identify botanical ingredients for use in personal-care products.

After more than 260 years, Kew has a long legacy – and not all of it is comfortable. Much of the collection was assembled in the 19th century when the British Empire stretched around the world and Kew played a key role in the movement of valuable plants for agriculture and trade. The result is a history with sometimes shameful episodes rooted in colonialism and racism.

Inside the Palm House at Kew Gardens.

Deverell argues Kew has an urgent duty to confront this legacy by re-examining the collection and acknowledging exploitative legacies. “The history is there, and we cannot brush this under the carpet. We have to take this very, very seriously – it will take years of determined focus,” he said.

The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly been a wake-up call for many organisations, including Kew, that inequalities in today’s world remain deeply rooted and changes have come far too slowly, or not at all.

But for Kew’s core mission, the challenges do not stop there. It is also becoming clear that the world will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic as an even more unequal place, adding to the already immense task of ensuring sustainable livelihoods for 7.8 billion people, while at the same time protecting the natural world. There are no easy answers – but the work must start by taking stock of the world’s wild places and painstakingly enumerating the threats.

In the 21st century, Kew has a chance to play its part – and perhaps redeem some of its colonial legacy – if it gets the strategy right, Deverell believes. “The challenges, ultimately, come down to some simple questions: What is the purpose of this organisation? Why does it matter? How do you measure success? If people believe Kew is nothing more than a lovely heritage garden, we will have failed.”  

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Ben Hirschler is a Senior Advisor based in Brunswick’s London office and a former global pharmaceuticals correspondent for Reuters. 

Photographs are courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.