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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 October 2007, 01:48 GMT 02:48 UK
Kew: Razed, reborn and rejuvenated
By Victoria Bone
BBC News

King William Temple at Kew Gardens after the 1987 hurricane (pic: RBG Kew)
Kew lost 700 mature trees - some very old and rare - in one night
The human cost of the Great Storm of 1987 was enormous, both in terms of lives and livelihoods.

But the environmental impact was also terrible and there was no bigger victim than the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in Surrey.

The morning after the hurricane Ian Beyer, deputy director of Kew, said it was the worst day in its entire history.

He and many others feared it would take a century for the gardens to recover.

How then can Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, now say the storm was "one of the best things that ever happened"?

Utter devastation

On one cataclysmic night, Kew lost a third of its mature trees - about 700 in all.

Many were at least 200 years old and more than 100ft tall.

Countless smaller shrubs were also destroyed and about 300 more big trees had to be pulled down by heartbroken staff because they were unsafe.

Kew's "country garden", Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, suffered even more. There at least 15,000 trees were reduced to kindling.

In 1987, the arboretum was old and decrepit and it needed regeneration and rejuvenation. The storm did that
Tony Kirkham
Arboretum manager at Kew

Tony remembers that day vividly: "When I got here, I went for a walk but I got lost. There were so many trees down that I couldn't get my bearings."

Given this picture of devastation, it is hard to imagine how Tony could even find any sort of silver lining, let alone be positively upbeat.

"It was all doom and gloom at the time, but now we can see how much we've benefited," he says.

'Big holes'

The storm wiped the slate clean and in Tony's eyes provided a great opportunity.

Lessons could be learned, plans could be redrawn and bold decisions taken.

For the first few weeks, the shell-shocked team at Kew audited everything to see what they had lost and what was left.

"We took a good look at our strengths and weaknesses in terms of species and found there were big holes," Tony says.

"Geographically too, a lot of countries were missing, places like South Korea, Taiwan - places hardly anyone goes collecting."

Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew
Tony Kirkham says the storm was hugely beneficial to Kew

Since then Tony and his colleagues have undertaken numerous expeditions, travelling all over the world to collect new specimens.

His favourite tree - and proudest collector's item - is the rare Chinese tulip which takes pride of place in the new scheme.

"We now have a very young arboretum," he says.

"In 1987, the arboretum was old and decrepit and it needed regeneration and rejuvenation. The storm did that."

Root management

Thanks to the storm, an unprecedented variety of roots were above ground and available to study.

Looking at them, it was clear that lack of understanding had greatly increased the vulnerability of the trees.

"We were amazed to find how shallow the roots were - even the biggest trees in Kew have roots no deeper than one metre. Instead, they reach a long way sideways," Tony says.

"Realising that made us see how we could plant them better to help them establish."

It also became clear that many of the trees had been suffering because their roots were badly compacted - hardly surprising with 1.5million visitors walking over them every year.

"There was one tree that had been looking sickly before the storm. That night it was lifted clear out of the ground and dropped back down again," Tony says.

"A year later it was the picture of health, much better than before. That was because it had been badly compacted and the storm freed it.

Walking through the gardens is like walking through a story book
Tony Kirkham

"From that one tree we found a problem that affected many more and set about changing it."

Root management is now a major part of the arboretum's work.

Every tree has a circle of bark chippings and mulch around it, which helps to recreate a natural forest floor.

Staff also encourage fungi and other micro-organisms which turn over the soil, keep water draining efficiently and reduce compaction.

"We used to be reactive in the way we managed trees. The storm made us proactive," Tony says.

"We're also more cautious. We distribute specimens better in other gardens around the country so if it happens again we've got something to fall back on."

'Living things'

Tony adores trees. He has worked at Kew for almost 30 years and is clearly a man in the right job.

"Trees are living things and they're always changing. Each one has a different story to tell.

"Walking through the gardens is like walking through a story book."

Broken tree at Kew Gardens after the 1987 hurricane (pic: RGB Kew)
Kew's staff had to rip out trees that were unstable and unsafe

The oldest part of the gardens, near the main gate, was one of the areas worst hit and today, there are no old trees there.

Tony thinks that's OK.

"An arboretum should be like a family. There should be generations of trees, young and old and the hurricane helped create that.

"You see, in 1987 there were a lot of trees that were probably due to come out. They were getting to the end of their life.

"But it's a terrible thing to take out a tree - you're ending a life. The hurricane did that for us, in one night."

Kew's main thoroughfare, the Broad Walk, has also been transformed since 1987.

When it was first planted in 1846, the route was lined with huge cedars, but these choked to death in the pollution of 19th Century London and were replaced by an avenue of tulip trees.

These in turn were mown down by the Great Storm, giving Tony the chance to return the Broad Walk to how the original designer wanted.

"After the hurricane a lot of people were forced into rebuilding very quickly. They often replaced like with like without thinking whether it was really the best thing.

"We didn't do that, we took our time."

Today, a beautiful wood carving in Kew's visitor centre pays testament to the storm's might. It is made up of 1,000 individual pieces of wood - all from trees lost.

Tony says: "Having said all that about how positive the storm was, it would be heartbreaking if it happened again because these trees are like my children."

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