In London, you wouldn’t expect to find somewhere bursting at full bloom in mid-February, winter still has a hold on the trees and gardens. However, at this time of year Kew Gardens plays host to its annual orchids festival to brighten up the dull days.
My parents and I took a trip west to Kew Bridge to see it for ourselves.
A Little Disclaimer
I am not a gardener. In 31 years, I never managed to keep anything green alive. I don’t know my orchids from my orchards, and so this a review of the experience, not an in-depth horticultural breakdown of the exhibition.
Kew Gardens used to be the private playground of the royal family, but in the 1840s it was officially transformed into a botanical garden. It has grown and grown, and now houses over 30,000 plants spread over 300 acres of lawns, greenhouses, follys and flower beds. Visiting today, you will find a Chinese pagoda from the 1700s, Victorian glass houses from the 1800s, and incredible modern art from 2000s.
Kew Gardens can be reached easily by train. The overground stops at Kew Bridge. Alternatively, the district line on London Underground stops at Kew Gardens.
The good news is that the o rchid festival is included in the price of your entrance ticket. It is cheaper to book tickets in advance from the website. The ticket prices can be found here, but the most you will be paying is £18.75 for an adult ticket on the gate. Being partially sighted, my mum and I get in for free with a carer each.
The Orchid Festival
Entering the Princess of Wales Conservatory, it is not immediately obvious where the orchids are. Push on and find the main hall. As you pass through the doors, you will feel a whoosh of warm, humid air and suddenly you will see the delicate pops of colour filling the room.
This year’s festival is all about Thailand. Not only will you see the orchids that originate from this area of South-East Asia, but learn about the culture, food and people of “The Land of Smiles”.
This may seem like an odd thing to pick for an “oh so British” institution, but Thailand is home to over 1000 varieties of orchid! Plus, King of Thailand’s sister is incredibly interested in the science and beauty of horticulture. She has worked closely with Kew Gardens, swapping samples and research.
The main attraction of the hall is a Thai pagoda, based on the Bang Pa-In Palace, that sits in a large pond. In this pond you will also find some very large fish. Now, I don’t know if they were eating one another but every time we spotted the next fish, it was bigger than the one before!
The pagoda is stuffed full of flowers and glorious riot of colours. Being visually impaired, I’d have liked to get closer and wasfeeling a little saddened but quickly realised that there were other things to stick my face in.
The Arches and The Orchids
Over the paths that wind through the glasshouse are arches of greenery, studded with orchids. Here you can up close and personal with the flowers. They really made me want to get married again, but on a Thai beach, surrounded by one of these arches.
Each one had a different selection of orchids and so I enjoyed discovering all of them. They are such stunning flowers that we spent almost two hours in there. As I said, I don’t know enough about these gorgeous species so I have just put some snaps together in a gallery. There are a few but I think they are really worth scrolling through. (See if you can find the teeny tiny pineapples).
Amazingly, most of these orchids don’t need the soil to thrive. You can just tie them to a tree and they will attach themselves, growing without damaging the trees or leeching off them.
The Rice Paddy
The clever people at Kew has constructed real rice paddies. Yes, they are actually growing rice! In between the flooded areas, small orchids bloom. Standing over them is a huge water buffalo, ridden by a moss man.
Next to this is a Thai market cart, and here is where I found the plant that most astounded me. I was convinced they were fake but these amazing plaited leaves are 100% real.
The Carnivorous Beasts
Did you know that despite their reputation as beautiful, delicate flowers, some have quite the appetite. You will find several varieties that are commonly called bucket orchids and they like to chow down on insects.
These plants are known as “pitcher orchids” due to the jug shaped bells hanging from them. They tempt silly insects into these pitchers with delicious nectar and, once trapped, the bugs can be digested.
And The Rest
Of course there are still plenty of other plants to look at too. The Princess of Wales conservatory offers up a huge collection. My mum knows her botany and she was having a whale of a time looking at all these leafy beauties.
Down below the pagoda, you will find a little underwater world. A series of fish tanks take you through aquatic plants over time. There are also some gorgeous little fish to gaze at. Just check out this dressed up chicky. I wish I could show you the glisten on those scales.
Now that you’ve paid for your ticket, it is time to have a look around the gardens.
The Hive – Cold
The Hive opened at Kew in 2016. The metal structure comes into view on your left as you walk south along the Great Broad Walk. It looks a little out of place, like a strange alien colony. It is actually an immersive piece of art all about the importance of bees as pollinators. You can stand inside it and enjoy the flickering lights and sounds that surround you.
It is actually connected to a bee hive at Kew and the activity of the bees is what changes the experience. It is really amazing.
Underneath you will find four posts. You can pick up a wooden stick and it will teach you a way to feel the bees inside your head. They were out of sticks when we visited but my mum had her wooden coffee stirrer so we used that, and it worked really well.
Photography Exhibition – Warm
Inside the Nash Conservatory, very close to the Elizabeth gate is the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition. It was a lovely way to warm up our frost-bitten fingers. The photos were interesting, not just for their subjects, but also for the ways they had been edited. I assumed that you weren’t allowed but each one had a description of how it had been done.
I won’t show you the winning picture. You must go and see it for yourself! Plus, there are a couple of stones in there that have a very silly and brilliant back story.
Treetop Walkway – Cold
This is always a fun activity, but at this time of year, you better make sure to wrap up warm as the wind can be a little bracing. This will take you 18 metres into the air, through the trees. Don’t worry if you can’t do stairs, there is a lift.
Palm House – Warm
This is a serious piece of Victorian architecture. Well, only the engineering is serious, the decoration is quite frivolous, and in fact, I think it is twiddles and frills that make it one of my favourite spots in London.
The Palm House is full to the brim with palm trees and other tropical delights from all over the world, divided into geographical areas. You will see rare plants in here, some are so rare, that they are only found in this glasshouse.
You can take the stairs up (there is a one way system so check the signs) and walk around the edge of the ceiling. This takes you up close to the largest palms, and gives you a great overview of the canopy. You will get a nice view over the gardens too.
Top Tip – The heating pipes up here are simply delicious for your cold hands.
Eating and Drinking – Warm
This is the Orangery. Despite it’s lofty origins as a place for afternoon tea, it is now a reasonably priced cafe. We didn’t eat here as we were off for some cider elsewhere, but it smelled great. We used the bathrooms in here, and warmed our cockles.
I adore Kew Gardens and I sincerely hope that you visit, and love it too!
You will find the orchids festival and photography exhibition on until 11th March.
Stay tuned for my summer guide to Kew coming later in the year,