Sharon Willoughby, Head of Interpretation at RBG Kew

About Sharon Willoughby, Head of Interpretation at RBG Kew

Sharon has worked for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew since 2017. Prior to that post, she has been part of the Landscape Planning Group for the award winning Australian Garden at Cranbourne. Sharon has a background in ecology and is completing a PhD in Environmental History. Her real passion is telling stories about plants and our place in the natural world.

The jewel of Kew Gardens

What a summer we are having in London! The thermometer has sat in the high twenties for nearly a month now and there is no sign of rain. As an expat Australian working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, I’m enjoying the warmth after the bleak cold and snow of February – the only downside is that the Gardens could really do with a big drink.


The Temperate House. Image credit Gareth Gardner


I arrived at Kew in March 2017 to start a new role as Head of Interpretation. My first big project was to recruit and establish the team that would develop and deliver the stories within the refurbished Temperate House. After 18 years at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, the chance to work at Kew on such an incredible project was too good an opportunity to pass up – a dream job for a storyteller.

With only a year to opening the Temperate House to the public, we needed to hit the ground running. The Temperate House contains many plants that are rare and threatened in the wild. Temperate plants exist at the very frontier of global change and are most threatened by human activity. The temperate world is where most of us live, where we build most of our cities and clear land for agriculture. The Temperate House has provided us with a space in which we can share stories about contemporary Kew science and the role of botanic gardens in the conservation of the world’s flora.

In the midst of this Melbourne style heatwave, it seems incongruous to be talking about ‘temperate climate’ plants.  The Temperate House at Kew was first proposed in 1859 by Director William Hooker.  At that time Kew’s plant hunters were still sending back to London temperate plants from Britain’s colonies: India, Australian, New Zealand and Africa.  Hooker was concerned that these horticultural treasures would be lost to London frosts hence his proposal to construct a glasshouse to keep them safe.


Protea cynaroides


The architect Decimus Burton was engaged by Hooker to design the Temperate House.  Burton had previously designed the ‘Great Stove’ glasshouse for Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth.  The first section of the Temperate House opened to the public in 1863 though it took Kew another 40 years to open the full house due to difficulties in finding funding.  The glasshouse that Burton created, new refurbished and returned to its 1863 glory, twinkles in the sunlight like a large Victorian jewellery box.


The central space is cathedral like. Image credit, Gareth Gardner


The central space feels like a cathedral with tall white columns and spandrels hanging in the air overhead.  The light inside the glasshouse is white and clear and, in the warmth, the scented specimens that are planted close to each entrance perfume the air.  The main entrance to the glasshouse is surmounted by two statues of one of Flora the goddess of flowers and the other, a larger than life-sized, Silvanus the god of trees – it truly is a temple to the flora of the temperate world.


Statues adorn the entrance


My favourite story is that of the Dombeya mauritiana.  In 1994 the lone tree that survived on Mauritius died and the plant was considered extinct in the wild.  Luckily a few cuttings taken from this plant survived in cultivation.  Fifteen years later another wild survivor was found on Mauritius and staff from Kew were able to fight their way through a guava thicket to take more cuttings and propagate more plants.  Bringing this plant back from the brink.

The Great Broad Walk Border at RBG Kew

I was recently lucky enough to sit with Richard Barley the Director of Horticulture, Learning and Operations at Royal Botanic Garden Kew, in amongst the plantings of the new Great Broad Walk Border at the end of its first summer. We talked about the history of this part of Kew, the development and design of the new borders, the plants that stop people in their tracks, seasonal succession planting and also the new pedestrian path surfaces now being used at Kew. Continue reading

On the nose: exploring fragrance in our ancient flora

Have you ever seen the beautiful Grevillea leucopteris? We have it growing far from its home in Western Australia on the northern side of Howson Hill in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne. When in flower it has large trusses of cream-white flowers arching over the surrounding garden – just magnificent. The Herbarium in Western Australia knows this beauty by the common name White Plume Grevillea. It is however more often known by another common name ‘Old Socks’ – as to some people these otherwise beautiful flowers have a very unpleasant smell indeed. Continue reading

Eucalypt trail finds stories in the trees

On 23 March 2016 the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) celebrated National Eucalypt Day with our partners at the Bjarne K Dahl Trust (Dahl Trust) by launching a new trail at Cranbourne Gardens Eucalypts for your home garden. This trail uses plant labels, signage and QR codes, linked to deeper web content and video, to highlight 40 small eucalypts that are terrific for Melbourne home gardens such as the beautiful Eucalyptus cosmophylla. The trail contains a wealth of information about how to: select, plant and care for a small gum tree that would be ideal for your home garden. Continue reading

Christmas tree – Oh Christmas Tree!

Walking through Observatory Gate at Melbourne Gardens in early December I passed one of my favourite native Christmas Trees – Bursaria spinosa. It was absolutely laden with tiny pearly white buds and on the verge of bursting into flower. Bursaria spinosa has a swag of common names depending on the Australian State you live in: Australian blackthorn, mock orange, native box, sweet bursaria and Christmas bush in honour of its star-white flowers and sweet perfume that scents the Victorian bush at Christmas time. Continue reading