Prince Charles visited Kew Gardens this week to plant a tree in memory of the legendary founder of the greenbelt movement, Professor Wangari Maathai.

The Prince of Wales went to the botanical gardens this week and planted an oak tree to mark the life of Professor Maathai, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2004 and died in September 2011.

Prince Charles said: “I am so pleased to be able to join you here today just to pay a very special tribute to Wangari Maathai, someone who I admired and loved – in fact, we ended up on hugging terms.”

Professor Maathai, who was born in Kenya, was the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and founded the greenbelt movement in 1977 which, to date, has planted more than 51m trees.

During a speech in The Orangery, the Prince of Wales said: “Her optimism and her deep sense of hope, in addition to her prodigious laugh and brilliant smile, could not but fail to win people’s affections.

“Today we remember, with love and pride and gratitude, someone who gave her life for others, for Africa and for the world.”

Children from Stoneygate College in Leiciester performed a play entitled Hummingbird - a story about protecting the environment Professor Maathai loved to tell – before guests moved outside to watch the tree being planted.

Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, helped the Prince of Wales plant the oak tree, which was raised at Kew in 1914, on a site where a previous oak tree fell in the 1987 hurricane.

He said: “It has been fantastic. She was an incredible lady. I met her about four years ago when I was filming for my programme and she was a really dedicated woman to a really good cause.”

Trustee of Kew Timothy Hornsby said: “I think it marks this tremendous woman with a shared degree of respect and affection linked with a very simple message of conservation and connecting people with the environment and her wonderful notion of tree planting.

“To plant a tree for a woman who founded a movement to plant trees could not be more apposite.”