Kew Gardens Excursion

With year seven exams over and the end of the British school year fast approaching it was time for the Marylebone Boys’ School annual year seven pilgrimage to Kew Gardens. Part of my teaching role involved organising these sorts of trips so I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to share my plant passion with the students in this awe inspiring setting. I had been to Kew Gardens twice before in the last year so had a good idea of some of the cool discoveries I could show the boys as we toured around the gardens. The logistics was another matter of key concern for myself as more than 45% of staff were out of school that day while only 30% of the students were along for the trip. Nevertheless, everything came together nicely overall although there was a last minute surprise with the weather going to be scorching.  It was an unusual hot spell with the second day at the gardens reaching 34.5°C – the hottest June day since 1976!

First up we split into our small groups and I lead our group straight for the treetop walkway. To keep the boys engaged they had a booklet to fill in different factoids from all the areas in the garden we visited as well as observing their surroundings on the overground train we took there. At this first stop there was also the opportunity to talk to them about the vessels used to transport nutrients throughout plants, xylem and phloem, as there is a large wooden sculpture at the base showing what these tubes look like to the naked eye. Using the schools rewards system, I gave house points for boys that gave great contributions to stops like this with mini quizzes designed to incentivise them to use their critical thinking skills to new ideas. Right next to this sculpture was a grand southern beech tree (Nothofagus sp.) where we explored how fossils of this tree from the same time period in different southern continents could support the theory of continental drift.

High in the canopy
Treetop Walkway

I ensured we explored the gardens at a slow enough pace with plenty of breaks since the Brits are not so well versed in getting around outside sensibly on hot days like these – taking note of all the bubblers or water fountains for the non-Australians for topping up the thirst later on. One of these break stops was the exploration of the log trail and badger sett (burrow) giving them an idea of how animals interact in a more natural environmental setting. With a bit of steam let off  they were all ready to go again for the next port of call – the Palm House. Of course this was after we spent a little time to find a lost bag that someone put down without due care of their surroundings.

Did not lose a single boy
The Badger Sett – perfect for boys to recharge by crawling around inside a human size badger dwelling.

Walking along Cedar Vista towards the pagoda we were disappointed to find the pagoda was undergoing renovation works along with the Alpine house, Temperate house and the aquarium of the Palm house. As time was getting on we broke for lunch just outside the Palm house sitting in the shade of some nearby trees. This was a welcome stop before going inside the greenhouses as both the Palm and Lily house are hothouse affairs as well as amazing in the variety of plants from all the continents save Antarctica they contain. Fortunately for the students some sprinklers were going and they took great delight running through them.

Looks like a ship for a reason
The Palm House
Nicer on a cold day
The Waterlily House

Our last stops in the afternoon were the Princess of Wales conservatory and the Hive. The conservatory had a fantastic collection of ten climates with carnivorous plants, stone mimicking plants, orchids and the mangrove section in the middle which was open and a beautiful sight. Quizzes along the way for why ants might hang around on plants, why some plants eat animals and the use of mangrove roots protruding out the mud were some of the ways I challenged the students to think about the adaptations of plants to their environment.

Expect to be impressed
The Princess of Wales Conservatory
Bees a buzzing
The Hive – modern light and sound installation replicating the experience of a bee hive for humans

One place I had hoped we would be able to get to was the Orangery which had a great story about photosynthesis linked to it. Orangeries were built to house citrus fruit trees and plants never grew too well inside. It was generally thought at the time that plants grew via the will of God and it took a series of simple but painstaking experiments to prove otherwise. Glass jars were filled with water and leaves from a whole range of species were then placed inside. It was observed that oxygen gas appeared on the surface of leaves of all manner of species when submerged in water. Crucially though this oxygen only appeared on the leaves when the jars were placed in direct sunlight but not in the shade. However sunlight provides both warmth and light, so in order to confirm it was the light itself that was important the experiment was repeated with jars placed near to a fireplace but out of the light and no oxygen appeared on the leaf surfaces. This simple experiment clearly showed the pivotal role sunlight played in plant growth. Now when it comes to the role this building played it was built in 1761 without this knowledge so the citrus fruit trees never grew so well because there was not enough light due to the lack of a glass roof and few windows being present.

The Orangery where citrus fruits were unsuccessfully grown before we knew the role of light in photosynthesis – photo by Hesekiel – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19393780

Kew gardens proved to be a fantastic place to spend two days learning more about plants and if you get the chance to go you will surely not regret the decision.

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