The Waterlily House, right next to the Palm House, showcases the spectacular Victoria amazonica waterlily.
At 7pm on a peaceful July evening a group of Kew Patrons assembled for a behind the scenes tour of the Palm House with Palm House Manager Wesley Shaw. The evening wasn’t one of glorious sunshine but nor was it wet, and a few dramatic looking clouds served only to provide a striking backdrop to the iconic glasshouse.
As Wesley began the tour at the east side of the building many of the Patrons were on familiar ground, having visited the Gardens many times over the years, while others gazed up at the hundreds of glass panels more wonderingly, having not visited for a long time. Once inside though everyone on the tour found themselves surprised and fascinated by the secrets which were uncovered at every corner.
Wesley Shaw’s detailed knowledge of the Palm House is captivating – from its history as a Victorian marvel of engineering to its current status as home to vital botanic specimens the tour encompassed elements of everything that makes Kew special. Since 1848 the Palm House has been home to exotic and spectacular plants, many of which towered over the group as we stood in the middle of the house as its highest part. Wesley told the story of one palm growing right to the top and then spearing its way straight through a pane of glass and out through the ceiling, leading to a complicated repair operation and some increasingly cautious horticulturalists.
The Palm House is kept at a minimum of 20 degrees and as the group walked around it was easy to imagine how tiring it must be to work in such an environment, especially when plants weighing several tonnes need to be pruned, adjusted and sometimes relocated entirely. In the evening, without public visitors, the House is surprisingly quiet; the only reminder of the hundreds of school children who are normally present is the assorted pens and pencils under the grates in the floor.
It’s easy to get distracted by some of the plants as you walk past, and not just the stunningly coloured blooms that look almost unreal. There are some plants which have evolved vicious looking defence systems and you have to take care to avoid some sizeable spikes and thorns if you get close to them, a point Wesley emphasised with cautionary tales of students who hadn’t taken enough care when handling them. But while these visual oddities garner considerable interest the truly fascinating plants are the ones with the power to change the world. There are various coffee plants on display, producing the most traded commodity in the world after oil, and several other plants which are integral to communities across the world.
And alongside these is the Madagascar periwinkle, a very pretty but unassuming plant which can be found in gardens across the world. Amazingly, it also contains chemical compounds which were used in one of the key medical breakthroughs of the twentieth century. The plant was used to formulate treatments for several cancers, resulting in survival rates rising from under 10% up to 90% in cases of childhood leukemia.
The tour took in too many marvels to list, including the beautiful array of plants in the nearby Waterlily House, and ended with Kew’s famous Jurassic cycad, thought to be the oldest potted plant in the world, having come to Kew in 1775. At this point there was just about time for a glass of wine and some socialising before the sun faded away behind the clouds and everyone made their way back to Victoria Gate. As they left, everyone continued to talk with warmth and amazement about the extraordinary content s of Kew’s most famous historic building.
Become a Kew Patron
Kew Patrons provide invaluable support to Kew, funding our vital science and conservation work as well as helping maintain our cherished Gardens and iconic heritage buildings.
If you would like to find out more about joining the Kew Patrons programme please contact the Patrons Officer, Daniel Barker, for more information.
T: 020 8332 3238 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm)
Become a Kew Patron