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Rock Garden

Kew dabbled in creating small rock features in the mid-19th century but only constructed a substantial rock garden in 1882.

Photo of the Kew Rock Garden

History and design

The decision to build the Rock Garden was hastened by a donation of 3,000 alpine plants, one of the largest collections in the country at the time.

Director William Thistleton-Dyer, wanting to avoid creating something 'uncouth and obtrusive', opted to design a 150-metre valley, akin to a Pyrenean mountain habitat. At its centre was a winding path, simulating a natural watercourse. It was fashioned from blocks of cheddar limestone, Bath oolite (also a type of limestone) and rocks salvaged from ruins of former buildings at Kew.

Reconstruction and development

New limestone blocks were substituted in 1913. Then, from 1929, the limestone was gradually replaced with Sussex sandstone, which retains more moisture and allows a wider range of species to be cultivated. This reconstruction continued until 1968. 

Further construction was carried out after the completion of the Princess of Wales Conservatory in 1987. At the southern end a new area was built for Himalayan plants and a new cascade and bog garden were constructed in the centre of the Rock Garden, completed in 1991. The plantings were rearranged to fit a geographic theme, with mountain plants from six major regions represented. 

The construction of the new Davies Alpine House in 2005 led to more rock work, both around the new glasshouse and at the southern end of the Rock Garden, where a new area was built to accommodate plants from Australia and New Zealand.

Things to look out for

The Rock Garden displays a range of mountain plants, Mediterranean plants and moisture-loving species from around the world.

  • The Europe section includes British native plants plus those from mountainous parts of Europe. Some examples are the Irish Saxifraga (Saxifraga rosacea) and Pyrenean Trumpet Gentian (Gentiana occidentalis).
  • The Africa and Mediterranean section shows species from the Mediterranean basin, including southern Europe and North Africa, as well as plants from the mountains of southern Africa that are hardy enough to grow outside.
  • The Asian section showcases montane plants from the Himalayas, Caucasus, China and Japan. These range from the hardy member of the ginger family Roscoea cautleyoides to the Himalayan Peony (Paeonia emodi).
  • The Australia and New Zealand area includes plants from the Southern Alps of New Zealand and southeast Australia, while the South America section features alpines from the Andes and Patagonia.
  • The North America section displays a large waterfall that tumbles into a boggy area planted with moisture-loving plants. It also displays montane plants from the Rocky and Appalachian mountains.

 

Dotted around the Rock Garden are boards describing Kew’s work in different regions of the world. Visitors to the Australia section, for example, can learn about Kew gardener Andy Jackson’s plant-collecting trip to southeast Australia and Tasmania. Meanwhile, those wandering around the Asia section can discover why Kew researchers went to Pakistan, how several of the plants there had more in common with Mediterranean species than Himalayan ones, and why it is important that Kew signs agreements with the partner countries before it collects any plant material.