My sister and I were garden-children. Beyond the classroom and its algebra equations and spelling tests, ours was a contactual education contained within the boundaries of trees and hedges. We learned in the half-light, through tunnels of mock orange and feathery grasses and the gauged ridges of tree bark. Our Wiltshire family home had tiered gardens that ran, from the house that my father built, down to the River Avon. If I went back now it would all undoubtedly seem less pretentious than memory so often allows, but as I remember them, the gardens formed three distinct districts - the larger of the three had a densely planted bank that served us as ramparts dominated by a buddleia bush that gave off a heady perfume, and clouds of butterflies, during the summer months. This was divided from the second by a path contained by an arched tunnel of Russet apple trees. The second held an ancient well and a neat privet hedge, and the third, further down, was lawned and softly sloping to a high wall of bamboo, a steely cane of which gave me my only lasting scar, a thin pink mark on my right knee, the remnant of an overzealous roly-poly.
Here we felt the brush and caress of plants, studied the thorn-scratches, the collision of vine and blossom, the manipulations of our eccentric, wheel-barrowing gardener who enchanted and terrified us in equal measure. Gardens and plants and the creatures who dwelled there taught us the brutality of birth and death, the inevitability of cycles, seasons, perennial rebirth. So we learned, amongst sweetpeas and hebe, tracing and pressing pansies into notebooks, clambering the climbing frames of sap-sticky pines, selecting leaves to crush and learning the fragrances they gave off through our fingers - the spit-sharp sherbert scent of a maple-shaped Mabel Grey pelargonium, the cooling, medicinal sensation of mint, dressing our hair with rudimentary crowns of silvery lavender. All the summers of our childhood, our gardens were the living rooms where we played and napped and ate and argued, the ballrooms for our dances, the stages for our soliloquies.
Though I have never more than tended window-boxes (gardening itself being reserved for when I am older and wealthier), my flowery childhood legacy left me with a deeply engrained love, reverence even, for plants and for gardens; botanic and physic gardens, walled kitchen gardens, herb gardens, box mazes and orchards and nurseries. I see the narrow vista of a vegetable patch from the road or a slip-shadow glance through an open gate and I feel the same magnetic tug somewhere behind my diaphragm every time. A beautiful garden still pulls me toward that trance-state, back to being eight years of age and the magical wanderings of being a girl in our dappled, leafy kingdom. They are still the places I return to for solace, the places I seek out when I travel, the places I feel most distinctly ‘myself’. My mother thinks I have inherited this from her grandfather, Charlie, who was a professional gardener, says she still remembers afternoons in his greenhouse, and the damp, earthy scents of soil and seedlings.
And this brings me to the latest in my garden-related preoccupations – the glasshouse. From orangeries and arid houses to tropical palm houses and the humblest of greenhouses, there is something aesthetically mesmerising about the refracted light and the plants there, encased in glass and rusting wrought iron.
I have a bucket-list of glasshouses across the world that I would like to visit over the course of my lifetime. And of course on this list there was Kew. And so it was that I came there for the first time a couple of weekends ago. It was odd weather that day – permanently half way between rain and flashes of bright spring sunlight. And it was cold.
Unfortunately the infamous Temperate House was closed for renovation. But the Palm House was open – a magnificent structure of peeling white paint and iron and sixteen thousand panes of glass.
From a distance the Palm House resembles the upturned hull of a colossal glass ship. The interior from the North to the South wing is a steamy green cathedral of exotic palms from the Tropics; plants from Africa, the Indian Ocean Islands, the Americas - cocoa, rubber, banana and papaya plants - Asia, Australasia and the Pacific. I learned that in the late 1980s the Palm House was restored and, for the first time in its history, emptied of its plants which were mostly moved to other glasshouses. Those that were too large were cut down and used to make specimens. During this time ten miles of replica stainless steel glazing bars were erected to support the new glass panels.
The restoration took as long to complete as the glasshouse took to build.
After Kew, I had a series of fitful dreams, of tropical storms and rustling palms and their names. Elaeis guineensis; African oil palm, Dypsis decaryi; Madagascan triangle palm, Dioscorea composite; Mexican yam.
I dreamed of being a child again in our cottage gardens, of the speckled turquoise berries of porcelain vines and hot gardenia-scented afternoons.
I dreamed of peach palms and starfruit trees, and running through shadowy blue forests of Lebanon cedars that had no end.
*There is a beautiful exhibition of paintings of Kew’s Heritage Trees by Masumi Yamanaka on display at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, running until 9 August 2015.