This year, Kew horticulturist Ashley Hughes produced our Remembrance Wreath which was laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Kew's wreath is presented in the ceremony each year on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in honour of the servicemen and women who died for their country.
The significance of plants
The plants Ashley used to create the wreath this year represent the flora of British Overseas Territories. Some of the plant species included were the slipper spurge (Pedilanthus tithymaloides) from Anguilla, the Bermuda snowberry (Chiococca bermudiana), the dwarf fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) from Gibralta and the tussock grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) from the Falkland Islands.
Kew's Remembrance Wreath
Kew in the war
Like many parts of the country, Kew was a very different place during the Second World War. Although the buildings and botanical collections suffered little damage, in the later years numerous missiles fell in the neighbourhood, including incendiary bombs, fly bombs and rockets. A few of these bombs broke glass panels in Kew's Temperate House and Palm House. The Marianne North Gallery and the Waterlily House also suffered badly.
In November and December 1940 it was decided that one third of Kew's world class Herbarium collection and valuable books from the Library should be moved to the New Bodleian building in Oxford for protection. The remainder of the collections remained at Kew, and the Herbarium and Library remained open as usual.
Visiting the Gardens
As well as the broken windows from the blasts, visitors to the Gardens may also have noticed that Kew had replaced some flower beds with vegetable plots to support the nation’s food production campaign. This enabled members of the public to grow their own vegetables. Some corners of the meadows were also given over to local residents who didn’t have enough space to grow their own crops.
Trained staff were available on hand to answer queries on fertilizers, the detection and treatment of various pests and diseases, and to answer other gardening queries. Air raid shelters were also built in the Gardens for visitors and staff.
During 1939-45 the maintenance of the trees at Kew Gardens was somewhat neglected as many student gardeners and male staff were called up to serve in the war. Weeds were more apparent than normal due to the acute shortage of gardening staff. Fortunately a number of female Gardeners were keen to get involved and help out. Without their help it would have been difficult for the Gardens to remain open to the public during this time.
Kew helps the war effort
Scientific research at Kew during these years was increasingly involved with Britain's war effort. Staff concentrated on finding local alternatives for no longer importable goods, such as medicinal plants like deadly nightshade (Belladona), Stramonium and foxgloves (Digitalis). Vitamin-rich foods were also investigated such as rosehip syrup, to provide vitamin C for children and infants. From 1940 the cultivation of pharmaceutical plants not of interest to commercial growers, but necessary for the war, became a new feature in the Gardens.
With the fall of Malaya, and the acute shortage of rubber which ensued, botanists were also involved in the research of rubber yielding plants for reinforcing plastic in aircraft construction.
Staff with knowledge of overseas vegetation also helped the Naval Intelligence in the compilation of handbooks supplying accounts of vegetation, forestry and agriculture of these countries.
Kew also possessed its very own Home Guard in the shape of a special Garden Platoon. Many of those involved were old soldiers or regular visitors. The manning of Kew Bridge was one of their tasks.
Finally, in the earlier days of the War, the Pagoda was used for the testing of bombs, being dropped from the top, with only a few internal modifications.