The famous Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew started as the private garden of Sir Henry Capel, an enthusiastic horticulturist who died in 1696. It was in about 1759 that the Dowager Princess of Wales, the Princess Augusta Saxe – Gotha, started to develop here a royal botanic garden.
The early lay-out and the development of the garden was controlled for the Princess mostly by John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, with whom were associated Sir John Hill and the architect Sir William Chambers. After the death of Princess Augusta, her son George III developed additional properties at Kew.
It was from the amalgamation of Kew Garden, especially on pleasure grounds with Richmond Garden that the institution retained the designation “Gardens” in plural.
Under the directorship of Sir Joseph Bank many new plants were added in the Gardens, and several collectors were sent overseas to India, South Africa, West Indies, North America, South America, Australia and some other places. Many of the plants thus added were entirely new to Botany.
In the late Hanoverian period Kew declined and in 1838 the Treasury appointed a committee to enquire into the affairs and working conditions of the Royal Gardens. As a result of the enquiry, the Gardens were transferred from the Crown to the State and Sir William Jackson Hooker, Regius Professoi of Botany in the University of Glasgow was appointed Director in March 1841.
Under the Directorship of Sir William Jackson Hooker, the Gardens were increased in size from less than 20 to more than 250 acres. New Greenhouses were added including a large Palm House and Temperate House, economic museums were set up, a lake was constructed and in 1853, the Herbarium and Library were started.
W. J. Hooker had great administrative abilities and he published and edited books, periodicals and papers on various botanical topics.
Joseph Dalton Hooker succeeded his father in 1865 as Director of Kew. He had worked under him as Assistant Director for nearly 10 years. Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker continued to improve the Gardens, adding to the Herbarium and the Library and encouraged research in many directions.
During his directorship, the famous Jodrell Laboratory and the North Gallery were built at Kew. J. D. Hooker in association with George Bentham published the world famous Genera Plantarum (1862-1883) which is still considered as the finest account of the families and genera of seed-bearing plants.
In 1887 Sir W. T. T. Dyes started publishing the Kew Bulletin. On 1st April 1887, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, were transferred from the office of works to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries.
After an interval, during which Sir Geoffrey Evans, was acting as Director, Edward James Salisbury (Knighted in 1946) was appointed the next Director. He was Professor of Botany at the University College, London. Though interested in most branches of Botany, he was a plant ecologist. He had the difficult task of reorganizing Kew after the Second World War.
Many of the greenhouses had to be reconstructed and several others renovated, especially the Palm House. He added a new Australian House, a chalk garden and a clematis wall before his retirement in September 1956.
Dr. George Taylor, former keeper of the Department of Botany of the British Museum (Natural History) succeeded Sir Geoffrey Evans as Director of Kew. The present area of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is about 300 acres and they are now under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, although the director has a wide degree of autonomy.
The main departments are the Herbarium and Library, the Economic Museums, the Jodrell Laboratory and the Gardens.
At present the herbarium of Royal Botanical Garden, Kew contains over 5 million specimens, its arboretum has over 7000 species, and its glass houses have over 13,000 species. Its Jodrell laboratory has best research facilities in cytology, anatomy, genetics and physiology.
Among the most important publications of botanical research carried out at Kew are Kew Bulletin, Index Kewensis. Hooker’s Icones Plantarum (with black and white) drawings and detailed descriptions of the plants preserved at Kew, Botanical Magazine etc. In addition to papers in numerous scientific journals and to official publications, complete books are also written and published in numerous botanical subjects.
It is also called Botanical Capital of World due to presence of vast facilities in the botanical fields.
Botanic Gardens, of course, are far more than merely gardens, in the usually accepted sense of word. They are usually botanical institutions, in which the outdoor garden is but one portion of an assemble including the greenhouse, the herbarium, the library and the research laboratory.