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A sensory journey of smell in Kew Gardens

There are many reasons as to why London is the most visited city in the world. However, the smell of the city is not one of them.

People are more likely to refer to the pollution and say that they love London in spite of its smell.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can go and draw a fresh breath of air filled with the aromas from the Brazilian rainforest and five minutes later, dive into the tropical smell of Madagascar.

In London’s Kew Gardens, however, you can. Even though Kew Gardens is located in central London, it is a place where you can get away from the smog and other unpleasant London smells.

Even if you are not the least bit interested in botany and would rather refer to the flowers by their colours than anything else, Kew Gardens is a sensory journey of both smell and sight.

Gardens old and new

Kew holds many gardens, both inside large glasshouses and out in the open fields of the large park. Palm House, Kew Garden’s oldest glasshouse, is one of them. It was constructed in the middle of the 19th century to accommodate the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in the early Victorian times.

When entering, you are immediately struck by the feeling you get when stepping of an airplane and into the tropics of a foreign country. Exotic smells you never knew existed fill your nostrils and maybe one of them will spark a long forgotten memory from your childhood.

The part of the brain that processes our sense of smell is closely related to the area of the brain that handles emotion and associative learning. This means that a certain smell can almost instantly trigger powerful memories and even emotions.

When you smell a new scent, your brain makes a link to an event, a person, a thing, or even a moment. For instance, many people associate the smell of chlorine with swimming pools and lilies with funerals. Depending on your relationship to something, the smell also provokes a memory or a mood.

Memories

Walking in Kew Gardens is therefore much more than just getting away from that London smell of exhaust fumes. If you sit down in one of their glasshouses, close your eyes, and try just to focus on the different smells, you will almost certainly go on a sensory and emotional journey through many of your obscure memories.

Kew Gardens also contains the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which recreates ten different climatic zones. The air inside is very humid and warm and makes it almost impossible to leave your jacket on. At the same time, you feel rejuvenated from the fresh oxygen that emanates from all the colourful plants.

In the conservatory you can see carnivorous flowers of the most unbelievable colours and shapes. They even have the world’s smelliest flower, which is called Corpse flower because its smell resembles… well you guessed it.

Many people might not reflect on what London smells like, but if you do, it is not difficult to appreciate the aromas that fill Kew Gardens. Yet, Kew is more than a place to get away from the not-so-pleasant smell of London. It is also a perfect place to bring someone dear for a romantic picnic or walk through the park.

And when you do this, don’t forget to try and smell as many new scents as possible. Because that way, you will be able to remember that moment long after it is gone, solely thanks to our sense of smell.    

 

Words and images by Michel Kolijn

Visit Kew Gardens, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB (020 8332 5655) www.kew.org

Nearest tube station: Kew Gardens (District line and London Overground)
It is open daily and tickets are £13.90 for adults and free for kids.

 

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