Encephalartos altensteii in the Palm House at Kew

Palm House

The Palm House is Kew's most recognisable building and one of the world's most notable Victorian glass and iron structures. The rainforest climate within it supports a unique collection of palms and other tropical species drawn from some of the most threatened environments on Earth.

A tropical rainforest

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.

Rainforest plants in the world economy

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).

An icon of Kew

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 Palm House pond

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. 

Remarkable plants

Madagascan palm - 'suicide palm'

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.

Tahina spectabilis (Image: John Dransfield)

Ancient cycads

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.

Encephalartos altensteii in the Palm House at Kew

A powerful medicinal plant

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.

Madagascar periwinkle  (Catharanthus roseus) in the Palm House