My favorite place in London was Kew Gardens. I visited twice and shot some 300 photos, mostly inside the three enormous glass houses. Kew hosts the oldest and largest collection of living plants in the world, representing some 30,000 species, and for a plant lover like me, it’s something damn close to paradise.
I was astonished by the variety of strange and wonderful forms. I spent three quarters of an hour just admiring the different types of cycads in the Palm House. The orchid rooms in the Princess of Wales Conservatory took my breath away.
So you’d think that coming home to my own woods would be a bit of a letdown. We have a single orchid species blooming right now, the pink lady’s-slipper, and yes, it’s fairly spectacular if you’ve never seen it before, but it blooms in profusion every year.
Individual plants can contort in surprising or amusing ways, but I’ve seen it all before — and captured it in photos numerous times.
So why did this morning find me on my belly in the leaf duff once again, snapping still more pictures? This last photo might give a bit of a clue, actually. Ladyslippers are among the sexiest of orchids. They’re like little goddesses. I went and looked through my photos of Kew orchids and realized that none of them had impressed me quite so much — but of course it isn’t a fair comparison. Seen in its native habitat, the (nearly) complete ecological matrix in which it evolved, a plant can’t help eclipse its hothouse brethren. It’s the difference between actually visiting ancient Athens versus seeing the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum.
If the ladyslippers reminded me of anything from my recent trip, it wasn’t plants so much as some people dressed as plants: one of the four stilt-walkers we saw at Kew last Sunday was, in fact, outfitted with a pink orchid headdress.
That’s because when you get to know flowers really well, they do become a lot more like persons, fellow residents rather than mere objects to study or admire. Aesthetic appreciation doesn’t diminish, but becomes augmented by a more complete knowledge of habits and habitation. The plants’ autonomy and fitness, here among their native pollinators and seed dispersers, begin to impress themselves on one’s imagination. These are wild flowers; there’s none of that dull passivity of domesticated stock. One begins to feel that one’s gaze is, if not exactly returned, at least acknowledged in some way — especially with orchids, which do seem like the most gifted of all plants. They make fascinating neighbors. I wouldn’t trade them for a forest full of elves.