The Palm House recreates a rainforest, a living laboratory supporting a diversity of plants from the tropical regions of the world, all under one roof.
The plantings simulate this multilayered habitat, with canopy palms and other trees, climbers and epiphytes down to the shorter understorey plants and dwarf palms.
Many plants in this collection are endangered in the wild, some even extinct. There are many species here studied by Kew scientists for research into medicines.
Many of the plants in the Palm House are of great economic importance, grown for their yields of fruits, timber, spices, and medicines. One of Kew's roles is research into the factors that make for sustainable cropping.
Look out for the Rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), Cocoa (Theobroma cacao), Coffee (Coffea), Pepper (Piper nigrum), and Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum).
The Palm House was constructed in 1844 by Richard Turner to Decimus Burton’s designs to provide a home for the tropical plants that Victorian explorers brought back from their adventures in the tropics.
No one had ever built a glasshouse on this scale before and to do so the architects borrowed techniques from the ship building industry which may explain why the Palm House looks like the upturned hull of a ship.
Today the Palm House is one of Kew’s most recognisable buildings having gained iconic status as the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure.
The sculpture in the centre of the Palm House pond depicts Hercules wrestling the river god Achelous. It was made for King George IV in 1826 and formerly stood on the East Terrace of Windsor Castle. It came to Kew in 1963.
Ten heraldic figures, sculpted in Portland stone, look out over the Palm House pond. These are the ‘Queen’s Beasts’. They are replicas of sculptures that stood at the entrance of Westminster Abbey during her Majesty’s coronation in 1953.
Derived from the heraldry of the Queen’s ancestors, they reflect her royal lineage and include the Falcon of the Plantagenets, the Black Bull of Clarence and the Unicorn of Scotland.
Look out for young specimens of the Madagascan palm, Tahina spectabilis. An adult palm is so big, it can be seen on satellite images from space.
First identified as a new species by Kew botanists in 2008, the name 'suicide palm' was coined when Kew's scientists discovered the palm, commonly known as dimaka, actually flowers itself to death.
Its unusual lifecycle involves growing to dizzying heights before the stem tip converts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers. After fruiting, the tree collapses and dies.
Cycads were widespread over 250 million years ago, before dinosaurs and well before the appearance of flowering plants that now dominate the world’s vegetation.
There are many cycads in the Palm House including Encephalartos altensteinii, collected in 1773 and considered one of Kew's oldest pot plants.
Due to its weight, this unique specimen stretches out sideways supported by metal stilts to ensure it is conserved and continues to grow.
In the 1950s scientists discovered several chemical compounds in the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) which are now used in the treatment of a number of different types of cancer.
One derived compound, called vincristine, has been credited with raising the survival rate in childhood leukaemia to over 90% today.
This demonstrates the importance of preserving areas of rich biodiversity, for there may be other ‘miracle drugs’ in plants yet to be discovered.