Order, Order - Taxonomy in Action, Interpreting the Order Beds at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Contributed by Pat Griggs, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK.
The Topic – Taxonomy
Identifying, naming and classifying the objects in our environments are all activities we undertake everyday without thinking twice. But lump them all together under the heading ‘taxonomy’, and the process seems to become more abstract – something that belongs in the domain of learned scientists.
Much of Kew’s research effort is directed towards a taxonomic survey of the plant kingdom. Its purpose is to provide the accurate identification, naming and classification of plants that are essential; not only for all other botanical research, but also for any other work involving plants, including agriculture, forestry and conservation.
The Aim – to Raise Visitors’ Awareness of Taxonomy and Kew’s Research
Most of Kew’s 1.3 million visitors each year are adults, who come simply for a day out. Just 7 per cent of them say that they visit the Gardens because they are interested in plants. Although 61 per cent feel that Kew is ‘scientific’, only 32 per cent think that Kew’s primary role is botanical research.
Accordingly, various interpretive projects have been initiated to explain the significance of the living plant collections and to highlight Kew’s research activities. One such project is in the Order Beds, where visitors can experience ‘taxonomy in action’.
The Resource – the Order Beds
The Order Beds contain more than 3000 different types of herbaceous dicotyledonous plants, mostly from temperate regions of the world. The plants are grown in family groups; in general one family occupies one bed, although larger families are spread over a larger area. The Compositae, for example, fill 29 beds. Originally, the 126 beds were laid out according to the Bentham-Hooker system of classification, devised in the mid-nineteenth century, although this has been modified over time as research at Kew and other botanic gardens has clarified plant relationships further. By displaying plants in this way, the similarities and differences in form and flower structure between members of the same family can be seen at a glance.
The Method – Interpretation
To address the different levels of visitors’ interest in this topic, we have provided multi-layered information:
At each main entrance to the Order Beds, we have installed a large pillar bearing four panels. Two explanatory panels – ‘The Order Beds’ and ‘Taxonomy in Action’ – appear on both pillars. Panels on ‘Identification’ and ‘Naming’ are located on one pillar and on ‘Classification’ and ‘Taxonomy at Kew’ on the other pillar. These explain the elements of taxonomy and set Kew’s taxonomic research in context.
Labels located on some of the family beds provide additional information, including the family characteristics and details of some of the particularly interesting members of the family.
Visitors who want further information can obtain an information sheet as part of a pack sold at Kew’s shops.
The information available in the Order Beds is complemented by labels located close to each of the major gates and within the glasshouses; they describe the elements of the basic garden labels displayed by all plants. Additional information on Kew’s research can be found on a panel attached to the wall of the Jodrell Laboratory adjacent to the Order Beds.
By encouraging visitors to investigate the diversity of the plant collections, we hope that they will discover for themselves the importance of accurate identification, naming and classification and realise that taxonomy provides a method of organising our knowledge about the plant kingdom so that it becomes more manageable.