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Kew at the British Museum

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Tim Entwistle Tim Entwistle | 07:00 UK time, Sunday, 28 August 2011

Imagine a country 30 times larger than the UK, with seven times as many different kinds of plants. A country with deserts, snow capped mountains, tropical rainforests and the tallest flowering plants on earth. Hang on, you don't need to imagine this country, it's Australia!

In the 1980s there was a comedy sketch show on the BBC's distant cousin, the ABC, called 'Australia You're Standing In It'. One of the regular skits had two university students philosophising with great ignorance about the world around them, ending each pronouncement with 'Amaaazing'.

RBG Kew Australian Landscape at The British Museum

RBG Kew Australian Landscape at The British Museum

In front of the British Museum, today, you can not only stand in a little bit of what we like to call Oz, but you can be truly amazed at its bizarre and beautiful flora. Over 80% of the 20,000 plants species native to Australia grow nowhere else in the world - well, other than outside the BM and in a garden or two.

In fact Australian plants grow particularly well in other countries. A handful of the 800 eucalpytus species cover vast areas of the Mediterranean, South Africa and California. Wollemi Pines are not grown in nearly every botanic garden around the world, except in the tropics, and they are fast becoming a feature in many private gardens.

Wollemi Pine

Wollemi Pine

The Wollemi Pine, featured in the BM garden, is a great example of a conservation success story. Discovered in 1994, in a canyon just 100 miles north of the largest city in the country, this relative of the Kauri Pine and Monkey Puzzle Tree has been described as the Dinosaur Tree. Wollemi Pines would have shaded dinosaurs as they munched their way through cycads and other Jurassic plants.

Although known from fossils across Australia and Antarctica, only 100 mature trees are alive today in these rugged canyons. By collecting seed - some of it deposited in Royal Botanic Garden Kew's Millennium Seed Bank - and learning how to propagate and grow the species, hundreds of thousands of the plants now constitute a vast international 'back-up' collection.

That's just one story of 20,000. There are fire adapted plants with woody fruits that release seed once the fire has passed through, others where new shoots burst from the trunk when the vegetation looks blackened and dead.

Some of the richest areas in terms of plants species are the nutrient-poor heath lands in the south of the country. Here the plants are tough and gritty, like the Australian people, making every drop of water count. You'll find thick waxy leaves and all kinds of adaptations to help survive the long dry summers and to extract every microgram of goodness from the soil.

The mass of everlasting daisies in the BM display gives you an inkling of what the vast inland deserts of Australia look like after flooding rains: red dirt transformed almost overnight into a vivid carpet of wildflowers. And what about the golden flowering wattles, the statuesque banksias, or the massive red flowering heads of the waratah? We could only fit some of these into the display - go find out which ones.


 Callistemon citrinus Bottle brush

For your home garden try bottlebrushes (Callistemon) or some of the gum trees (Eucalyptus) from higher in the Australian mountains. The paper daises too, would be a fun addition to an Australian garden in London. But if you want something hardy in the UK and with a great 'yarn' to be told about it, go for a Wollemi Pine.

Tim Entwisle is a garden writer, scientist, scientific communicator and is Director of Conservation, Living Collections and Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.



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