Palm House

big-ass leaves

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

fan palm 3

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.

Palm House metal flower

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.

Palm House roof

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.

Palm House column and beam

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.

Palm House floor

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.

Palm House ceiling 2

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.

oldest cycad trunk

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.

browning cycad leaves

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.

orange buds

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,

palm trunk

and the palms have many spectacular features that more than make up for their unprepossessing sex organs.

fan palm 2

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…

hairy palms

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).

9 Replies to “Palm House”

  1. Thanks, all. I really don’t know why it’s taken me three months to start processing these photos — perhaps the enormity of the task. It was ridiculously easy to get good photos there!

    1. Thanks. It’s a good thing I had finally figured out the photometry settings on my camera (after almost five years of use) just before visiting your sceptered isle.

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