Victoria cruziana in the Waterlily House at Kew

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The most famous garden in Britain is not Hidcote or even Sissinghurst. It is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, a worldwide icon as widely known as Oxford, Cambridge, the Queen, the RSC, Wimbledon, Ascot and Lord’s. There are not many such icons, but we have been watching a steady assault on this one’s eminence.

The damage goes back to the later years of Margaret Thatcher, who cut Kew’s public funding without any popular mandate. An adult entry ticket rose from 1p in 1979 to £3 in 1990 as a result. It is now £15. When I complained in her presence, she rounded on me like a blowtorch and affirmed that privatisation was transformative and Kew would be transformed. That phrase was used when minor Tory ministers were being told to go round and ask what was the point of London Zoo. Kew is not a zoo. All it needs is for people in Britain to be as proud of it as people outside Britain think they are.

After trying its best and upping its populist aspects, last year the garden announced a £5m hole in its budget. Nobody had speculated. Nobody had taken a management course with the Co-op bank. The entry prices simply could not go on rising to keep the enterprise afloat. Job cuts were announced, but 100,000 signatures on a petition forced a rethink by the coalition government. In September, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, announced a grant to tide Kew over. It was about his only popular announcement all year. Kew’s directors then announced that the job cuts would go ahead nonetheless. After a barrage from the unions, these cuts have been concluded. Are they the sign of a retreating Kew, a newly positioned Kew or a textbook manager on the rampage?

The cuts have mostly fallen on the gardens’ scientific programme, raising questions about what that scientific programme should be. Kew’s director of science is now Professor Kathy Willis, who presides over a group of 18 plant scientists at Oxford university. When my fellow Oxonians embark on restructuring from on high, they have a wondrous record of making things worse. So I went to talk with Willis to find out.

Now 51, she has a compelling grip on her strategic plan, a vision of what is needed, which I wholeheartedly share, and a manifest love of Kew itself. The cuts are not just an exercise in cost-cutting. “We are emphasising collection-based research more than conservation in the field,” Willis insists. Kew has had a recent history of funding fieldworkers in faraway countries who work at ground level to re-establish or assist “endangered species”. One of Kew’s more curious recent proposals was to raise and spend £10m on re-establishing the “Mediterranean ecosystems” of California. Why restore a superseded ecosystem? Surely California can get on with it itself.

A collage of digitised specimens from Kew’s Herbarium

Meanwhile, the deadening slogan of “sustainability” had been drummed into takers of its horticultural courses, resulting in an output of professional drabbies whose ideals would result, logically, in gardens full of sustainable nettles. They looked on me as Satan for admiring beauty, transience and the lovely plants which come and go in our lives. They seriously expected me to strip off topsoil and chuck it out in order to establish “native” wild flower “meadows”. It was a sort of horticultural Ukip, driven by people who wanted to save the planet. I want gardeners who can grow lovely lilies and who have a beautiful vision leading them onwards and upwards.

Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew

Willis wants to link up Kew’s unrivalled Herbarium, its Fungarium and its scientific programme on site. She is introducing a taught MSc and postdocs on fixed contracts for the first time. There have been only six compulsory job losses in this shift. She is pushing Kew’s scientists to intercommunicate, to publish work, to apply for grants and, in short, to behave like scientists in any university department. I suggest to her that she might introduce my lifeline, a communal lunch for the exchange of views and afternoon plans. I remember a visit to Kew’s scientific buildings in the 1990s during which a leafy salad was followed by perceptible concern among my hosts that my interest in their nearby seed bank might go on beyond 3.15pm and entangle them in the rush-hour on their way home.

Willis impresses me with her clear sense of what Kew can do best without duplicating the work of plant science departments in universities. Kew has been mythologised by my fellow historians as a former “bastion of empire” which annexed plants from colonies all over the world for reasons of “power”. To my eye, it has been atoning for this travesty in a fit of postcolonial correctness, wanting to save just about everyone and everything by work in impoverished semi-deserts.

Willis sets out four prongs of her scientific programme, none of them driven by social guilt. One particularly delights me. Kew will now train the next wave of plant namers and identifiers, the taxonomists who have been almost eliminated in the wake of the rush for genetic discoveries. Kew has huge living and dried collections and older experts who can still identify plants found in the wild. That skill must be perpetuated in a new bright-eyed generation. How can we save a plant if we do not even know what it is?

Jars of seeds stored at the Millennium Seed Bank

Since an appeal to enlarge it in the early 1990s, the Millennium Seed Bank has been the shining beacon of Kew’s role in conservation. It now has 400 worldwide partners and by 2020 the Kew centre will reach its target of holding the seeds of 25 per cent of the world’s flowering plants. What then? If the seeds are never grown, they will fizzle out. Who is going to sow them and harvest them to keep them fresh? “Good question,” she says, and here I see a truly exciting opportunity. For too long the gardens of Kew were a lower priority, with a past history of pretty awful taste. Now they need a niche and a spin. Instead of plastering themselves with summer bedding and inferior versions of Britain’s best borders, they can plan a new type of garden by sowing the seed bank seeds and linking science and beauty. They should show us plants we never see, linked in a display which Kew has worked to assure. Science has its beauty, but most scientists have as little idea how to present it as I have about the genetic code of a rose bush. Kew now has the chance to change the scope of gardening by working on a joined-up spiral.

Two Saturdays ago, a letter to the FT asked why we were about to spend a fortune on a new garden bridge over the Thames when Kew is starved of funds and could be maintained from the planned cost. I entirely agree. We should not be lurching into a derivative version of New York’s High Line. Kew has a change of vision, a workable scientific mission and a truly exciting chance for its garden. For about £10m a year, a globally admired asset can be put back on top of the world. What, south of Scotland, is there to oppose in that?

Photographs: Andrew McRobb; RBG Kew; Wolfgang Stuppy; Richard Ansett

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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