Throughout its history, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has made important contributions to increasing the understanding of the plant kingdom with many benefits for mankind. Today it is still first and foremost a scientific institution. With its collections of living and preserved plants, of plant products and of botanical information, it forms an encyclopaedia of knowledge about the plant kingdom.

The living plant collection is the largest and most comprehensive in the world, containing representatives of more than one in eight of all flowering plant species. Plants are included in the collection primarily for their scientific or educational value and many of them are actively used in our research programmes. Tender woody species are mainly grown in the Temperate and Palm Houses whilst tender herbaceous plants are displayed in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The Alpine House contains plants from mountains and high latitudes. Other herbaceous plants, hardy in the British climate, are grown in the rock, grass and woodland gardens. Most of the hardy trees and shrubs in the collection are arranged according to the Bentham and Hooker scientific classification, although mixed decorative groupings of trees can be seen at the northern end of the Arboretum. Displays of ornamental herbaceous plants are featured in front of the Palm House, along the Broad Walk and in the Queen's and Duke's Gardens.

Many species within the living collection are endangered in their natural habitats and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is increasingly involved in their conservation as threats to the world's vegetation escalate. Specimens of such plants are cultivated and propagated for distribution to other botanic gardens or, whenever possible, return to their natural habitats. Seeds from more than 3,500 plant species are preserved under chilled dry conditions in the seed bank at Wakehurst Place. These are available for study by other scientists or for reintroduction into their native habitats.

Our herbarium contains a reference collection of over 6 million specimens of dried plants and fungi - the most comprehensive in the world. Botanists use these specimens, together with material from the living collection, to study plant characters in order to catalogue the diversity of the plant kingdom. This process, known as systematics, involves the identification, naming and classification of different groups of plants from all over the world. Kew also has one of the world's foremost botanical libraries, containing over 120,000 books as well as journals, papers and illustrations, and an extensive archive.

Botanists from all over the world use our collections for studies of specific groups of plants or research into the plants found in particular areas of the world. The results of their studies are published as plant resource inventories, manuals for plant identification and classifications capable of predicting the distribution of useful properties and evolutionary relationships.

Scientists in the Jodrell Laboratory study the internal characteristics of plants such as their structure, biochemistry and genetics. These not only complement the taxonomic studies carried out in the herbarium but also help to identify plants of potential economic importance. Among the benefits emerging from this research are the isolation of plant chemicals of potential value as drugs and the identification of high-yielding fuelwood trees. The economic value of plants has been recognised since the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's earliest days and, over time, a collection of over 72,000 plants and their products has been amassed, now housed in the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany.

The knowledge and expertise of our scientific and horticultural staff is shared with other botanists and the public by means of publications, scientific conferences and educational programmes. Among the programmes for specialists are a three-year horticultural diploma and a course on herbarium techniques. Other educational courses cover topics as diverse as landscape design, botanical illustration and plant photography. Schools education programmes include training days for teachers and study days for children.

Many of our research programmes involve collaboration with scientists from a variety of disciplines and many different countries. One example is Plantas do Nordeste, where scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and other institutions, both in Britain and Brazil, are working towards the sustainable development of natural plant resources in north-east Brazil by focusing on the biodiversity and economic botany of the region with the theme "local plants for local people". In projects such as this, our research has the potential to help solve environmental problems worldwide.