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Bringing the Plant Kingdom to Life: Communities, Cultures and Creating Concepts

Contributed by John Ellison and Laura Giuffrida, Education and Marketing Department, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.

An Educational Resource

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew manages more than 900 acres at Kew in West London, and at Wakehurst Place, Sussex. The Gardens were visited in the year 1995 by 1,303,000 people, including 67,167 schoolchildren.

Our mission is to increase humanity's understanding of the plant kingdom. We have one of the largest and most diverse collections of living plants, comprehensive research collections, including preserved plant material, and an economic botany collection of over 73,500 artefacts.

Our location allows easy access for culturally diverse communities who live nearby. Kew provides learning opportunities for children, both at school and with their families. We encourage them to discover the importance of plants in everyday life, by demonstrating the traditional and current uses of plants and plant products, habitats and the extraordinary biodiversity of plant life.

We want to:

  • provide entertaining, high-quality activities by which visitors can learn to value plants
  • attract more family groups to visit Kew
  • enthuse teachers to pass on information in a resource-effective way
  • encourage visitors to come to Kew in our quieter periods – between October and March
  • cover costs and make a profit where possible.

Some examples of how we aim to achieve our objectives

Our schools programmes include: on-site tours, topic days, teacher-training and in-service training days (INSET), schools advisory services, placements and environmental education, outreach programmes, events, schools education packs and publications.

Placements for Technicians and Teachers

We host a variety of placements of mutual benefit to both participants and Kew with a lively interchange of ideas. For example, a professional development course for school technicians and teachers covers a range of topics. These include school greenhouse management, horticultural techniques for use in schools, and strategies for developing school grounds for environmental education. This work also offers experience in the provision of practical classroom investigations in plant science.

Topic Days

Students from a local high school learn through activities how to identify plants for survival, a sustainable future and much more – plants for water and energy, plant foods for balanced nutrition and their preparation, and plants for shelter, fibres, dyes and medicines. Opportunities exist for students to investigate extraordinary and useful items from Kew's Economic Botany Collections.

Students work together to design and test a variety of items – from shelters to carrying-baskets and water containers. Students and their teachers frequently bring with them a range of traditional skills in making use of plants, inherent in the variety of ethnic backgrounds in the communities around Kew. The exchange of ideas between groups benefits all.

Public Interpretation Programmes

These include: volunteer guiding, adult education courses, exhibitions, publications and events.

Exhibitions:

The exhibition "From New World to Old – Plants and their Uses around the World" displays five cabinets of relevant artefacts from Kew's Economic Botany Collections, together with 50 paintings of plants. These were part of the mass exchange of crops that transformed the lives of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Plants such as maize, tomatoes and potatoes were shipped from the New World and were adopted by Europeans. Sugar cane, bananas and mangoes from Asia, and European cereals such as wheat and barley, were amongst the introductions to the New World.

Christmas at Kew:

This popular programme designed for family groups has been running since 1989. Visitors enjoy a range of activities, including special projects for schools, themed plant displays, carol concerts and rides on horse-drawn vintage buses. The main focus of the event is the grotto, where Santa Claus interacts with children in a number of settings - from the rainforest, where children discover that brazil nuts are still harvested from the wild, to the desert where, through story-telling, they encounter frankincense and myrrh. The children can then see the plants growing in the adjacent glasshouse. Other themes such as the botanical ingredients of a Christmas pudding, and the plants’ overwintering, which used the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis as a setting, have been widely appreciated. Visitors love learning through fun.



Harry Potter's Magic Plants

Flowers so deadly a single touch can be fatal, fruit that makes you believe you can fly and leaves that allow you to conquer the highest mountains. It might be hard to believe, but in real life the plants of Harry Potter are stranger than fiction itself.

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April 2006