Kew to mark 50th anniversary at its country home

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A year of celebration at Kew's country garden in Sussex

The new year is a very special one for an internationally-respected botanic garden and home to conservation as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew marks the fiftieth anniversary of running the Wakehurst Estate in Sussex. We can look forward to twelve months of celebrations throughout 2015.

Situated in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, part of the 500-acres is classified as a Sight of Special Scientific Interest and is home to Kew's Millennnium Seed Bank, the largest depositary of wild flower seeds in the world. It's working to protect 20 per cent of the most vital plant species by safely banking their seeds against the risk of extinction.

Kew's move south

It was back in 1965 that management of Wakehurst passed to Kew following the death of the last private owner, the affluent tailor Sir Henry Price. He had maintained the garden's key features instigated earlier by Gerald Loder (later Lord Wakehurst) and his incomparable Head Gardener, Alfred Coates. The pair created an outstanding woodland garden, planting trees from China, Australasia and elsewhere.

Kew's requirements for a variety of soil types different from those at its west London home were met in the mature gardens at Ardingly. Not only did the estate boast a range from light silt-loam to clay, but also a higher rainfall and sheltered frost-free places. Kew's major collections of Rhododendron, Acre, Notofagus, Betula and other genera have since been moved to this more hospitable habitat.

Unlike Kew, where trees and shrubs are planted in taxonomic order, its sister garden observes a geographical sequence; Westwood Valley has been allocated to the Asian collection, trees of the southern hemisphere congregate in Coates Wood, the North American collection flourishes in Horsebridge Wood, and areas around Bloomers Valley are planted with specimens from Circumboreal, Mediterranean and Irano-Turanian regions. "This is natural landscaping at its best", according to Ray Desmond, author of Kew's official history. "The only concession to formality is the Walled Garden, near the grey-stone Grade One Elizabethan Mansion.

Saving seeds

As space to house scientists in the building at Kew was at a premium, the Physiology Section and Seed Unit were moved to Wakehurst and took up accommodation in the old mansion for seed research and specialist storage in the Seed Bank. In 1974 Kew formed the Seed Conservation Department and recruited Roger Smith from the University of Reading to head this new dynamic component of Kew's conservation agenda. With colleagues, he formulated the idea of the Millennium Seed Bank Project which was launched in August 2000 with a target to collect and safeguard seed from ten per cent of the world's flora by 2010 - a target it achieved with time to spare as well as securing all the UK's native flora with bankable seed. There were celebrations with the Prime Minister in Downing Street when the billionth seed was banked in April 2007.

In 1978, the Southern Water Authority's completion of the Ardingly Reservoir at Wakehurst presented the opportunity to create, in 1980, the Loder Valley Nature Reserve on 150-acres of ground around the stretch of water. In 1994, as part of the UK's Biodiversity Plan, Kew planned a recovery programme for four species of cryptogams at Wakehurst: mosses, lliverworts and ferns. It was also central, in 1999, to a joint effort with English Nature's Recovery Programme, to successfully rescue from extinction Britain's rarest plant, the Lady Slipper Orchid.

Celebration year

Established in 2014, Wakehurst's summer and winter festivals proved a huge success. The Scything and Cider event in July and the winter celebration of light with the Glow Wild festival of lanterns, fire and incense drew huge crowds. Back this year with an extended theme, they will form the centrepieces to twelve months of marking Kew's running the Sussex botanic garden.

Full details of the 2015 programme will be published in early spring.

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