27 March 2015

What has Kew brought to the plate?

Kew On A Plate has re-established a long-lost royal kitchen garden, the like of which hasn’t been seen at Kew since Georgian times. We take a look at the Georgian kitchen gardens role in royal life and find out why they disappeared.

By Andrew Butterworth

Carrots fresh out of the first

Feeding the Royal Family 

Well, of course I relished the idea of a French Republican laying a new garden of 250-strong varieties over a former royal plot! But seriously…

Raymond Blanc in Sheila Keating, Kew on a Plate with Raymond Blanc: Recipes, Horticulture and Heritage. (Headline, 2015), p. 8

Raymond Blanc was joking about his reasons for taking part in the Kew On A Plate TV series but he raises an interesting point. As former royal residences, both Kew Palace and the White House at Kew had kitchen gardens to feed the Georgian Royal Family. In 1801, when George III was a resident at Kew, fruit and vegetables were grown to the value of £1,891 for Windsor Castle and St James's Palace. He was even lampooned as ‘Farmer George’ by the eminent caricaturist James Gillray. 

William Townsend Aiton, botanist and then Director of Kew, produced more than 200 baskets of forced figs in 1810 for the royal table, and therefore felt able to request an increase of £100 in Kew’s annual funding. He also requested funds to rebuild a ruined pinery (a hothouse for growing pineapples) which supplied fruit for the king.

Interestingly, many plants that we eat now were actually once used as medicines. For example 'tincture of rhubarb' was administered to George III during his illness (presumably as a laxative) while he was at Kew Palace from 1788-89.

Although the royal residency may have ended with George III, Kew Palace is still occasionally used by the Royal Family, for example when Prince Charles held an 80th birthday dinner here for the queen in April 2006.

The Lindley report

After the death of William IV (1837), the Treasury instituted a review of the funding for the Royal household due to the end of income from Hanover. John Lindley (1799-1865) was appointed chairman of the committee to look into the royal gardens, with a particular focus on Kew. In the Lindley report, he noted the reputation for good asparagus and congratulated John Aldridge on maintaining a creditable garden. Aldridge supervised a foreman, nine men working in the glasshouses, and 15 allocated to other duties including working in the kitchen gardens.

Fruit trees covered the walls and glasshouses much of the ground. In Methold’s Ground a large vinery grew black Hamburgh grapes but the Home Ground had most of the glass: seven peach houses, two vineries, two cherry houses, three pine stoves and a range of pine pits, a mushroom house and many frames for vegetables.

Ray Desmond, The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (Kew Publishing, 2nd ed. 2007), p. 141

Lindley would recommend that the kitchen garden be enlarged by four acres (1.26h), incorporating the King of Hanover’s paddock. Furthermore, he reduced the number of royal kitchen gardens until only Windsor and Kew remained for the supply of London palaces.

Hooker's hardy herbaceous plants

With the end of royal residency at Kew Palace and a kitchen garden laid out at Frogmore, the Royal Family found they no longer required the kitchen garden at Kew. The 10 to 14 acres (4 to 5.6h) were transferred to Kew's Director, William Hooker (1785-1865), in June 1846. Demolishing one of its walls, Hooker filled it with a collection of hardy herbaceous plants. Although the shape of the bedding was to change over the years, it was only as part of the recent Kew On A Plate TV series that this long-lost Georgian kitchen garden was replanted, with a series of heritage varieties and biodiverse crop species.

The Second World War and ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign

Kew has a long history of using science to answer the complex questions of food security. In the Second World War, supplies of seed potatoes could not meet demand so Kew was approached by the Ministry of Food to provide a solution. William Campbell, Curator of the Gardens, discovered that potatoes could be cultivated by using slices of the tuber instead of the whole tuber, which dramatically increased supply. During the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, Kew provided training on cultivating food crops, made land available for local residents, and created ‘model’ allotments tended to by women gardeners to instruct the public on the best way to produce their own vegetables.

Why is this Kew On A Plate?

The Kew Kitchen Garden has been a wonderful way of showing that horticultural research into plant diversity, chemistry and genetics doesn’t stop at the door of the laboratories, the Herbarium, Fungarium or the Millennium Seed Bank.

Richard Barley in Sheila Keating, Kew on a Plate with Raymond Blanc: Recipes, Horticulture and Heritage. (Headline, 2015), p. 6

The focus of Kew On A Plate was most clearly outlined by Dr Ruth Eastwood (coordinator of the Wild Relatives Projects). In the programme, she explains that up until now “...crops have been bred to be identical because we want to harvest them at the same time and we want them all to be perfect.” Closely-related Brassica crops are vulnerable to the same pests and diseases, and there is potential for a virulent attack to wipe them all out. It was this process of breeding the Lumper potato (a single variety crop) that led to the Irish potato famine of 1845. Specimens from this tragedy, held in Kew’s Herbarium, are now being analysed to learn more about blight and how it spreads. By letting a French Republican lay a new garden of 250-strong varieties over a former royal plot, Kew is showing its commitment to using science brought from the Herbarium, Fungarium or the Millennium Seed Bank to answer food security questions.

Find out more about Kew On A Plate

If you have already bought Sheila Keating's book which accompanies the TV series Kew On A Plate and would like to see the original illustrations that have been included inside, simply request an appointment with our Illustrations team to view the items in the Library Reading Room (see 'Illustrations' link below for contact details). Alternatively if you have already attempted Raymond’s cuisine and would like further recipes which use edible plants from around the world, Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook is well worth a read.

- Andrew Butterworth -

Library Graduate Trainee

Further reading

Ray Desmond, The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (Kew Publishing, 2nd ed. 2007)

Sheila Keating, Kew on a Plate with Raymond Blanc: Recipes, Horticulture and Heritage. (Headline, 2015)

Lynn Parker and Kiri Ross-Jones, The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs. (Kew Publishing, 2013)

Susanne Groom, At the King’s Table: Royal Dining through the Ages. (Merrell, 2013)

Susanne Groom and Lee Prosser, Kew Palace: The Official Illustrated History. (Merrell, 2006)

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