Built 1844-48 by Richard Turner to Decimus Burton’s designs, the Palm House is Kew’s most recognisable building, having gained iconic status as the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure. —Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: History and Heritage
The Palm House was created specifically for the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times. The elegant design with its unobstructed space for the spreading crowns of the tall palms was a perfect marriage of form and function.
While the design of the Palm House was Burton’s, the extraordinary engineering and construction work was very much Richard Turner’s. The technology was borrowed from shipbuilding and it can be seen that the design is essentially an upturned hull.
The unprecedented use of light but strong wrought iron ‘ship’s beams’ made the great open span possible, giving room for the unhindered growth of tall specimen palms.
For its tropical plants, the Palm House needed heat. Originally, the boilers were in the basement, heating water pipes under iron gratings on which the plants stood in great teak tubs, or in clay pots on benches.
The smoke from the boilers was led away through pipes in a tunnel under the Palm House Pond to the elegant Italianate Campanile smoke stack 150 m (490 ft) away. The tunnel also housed a small railway which transported coal to the Palm House boilers.
That’s right, kids: the Palm House at Kew is totally steampunk. Or at least steamy. The architecture of the building is such a good match for the architecture of the palms and cycads, at times I had trouble distinguishing trunks from columns and ribbed leaves from ribbed ceiling.
The Palm House contains the oldest potted plant in the entire vast collection at Kew, a venerable cycad from South Africa whose trunk is supported by sturdy metal crutches and worn smooth by the fingers of 22 generations of visitors.
What a vision of paradise this greenhouse must’ve represented in an age when travel was expensive and slow, when winters were colder, and thanks to the Industrial Revolution, when the famous London fog was hazardous to one’s health.
Palm flowers are typically unimpressive, so it’s a real tribute to the British love of plants as plants that Kew’s first great glass house was devoted to the Arecaceae. But of course not everything in it is a palm,
and the palms have many spectacular features that more than make up for their unprepossessing sex organs.
Given the Victorians’ ambivalence about sex and love of conquest, the Palm House with its plethora of sword-shaped leaves seems just about as Victorian as one can get…
though there were a number of hairy palms in evidence, as well.
Click any photo to see a larger version at Flickr (where I’m continuing to upload more photos of the Kew Gardens as I get around to processing them).