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Palm House Parterre

In 1848, when construction of the Palm House finished, William Andrews Nesfield created an intricate geometric pattern of beds, or parterre, to surround it.

Palm House Parterres on a summer day with Museum No 1 in the background

Summer planting in the Palm House parterre, August 2012

History and design

Nesfield's design for the east side (the Palm House Parterre) comprised a rectangular terrace cut with 27 symmetrically arranged beds, defined with large urns. Box borders and stone curbs edged the beds, which he planted with 'one kind of plant for the sake of colour'. 

To the west, (behind the Palm House). he traced out a similarly complex pattern of beds within a wide semi-circle. His three major vistas dissected the semi-circle, and the Syon and Pagoda Vistas remain today in the current Rose Garden.

Nesfield’s design for the Palm House Parterre was gradually eroded by successive directors. Grass plots replaced intricate labour-intensive beds, gravel paths succumbed to turf and topiaried shrubs disappeared. Then came the First World War, and the Palm House Parterre took on a new role, growing onions to feed the nation.

Although flower beds were reinstated around the Palm House in the 1920s, the designs were less complex than Nesfield’s but were more labour intensive as the bedding was changed over twice a year, a practice which continues today.

The changing variety of plants exhibited in the Palm House Parterre over the years has tended to reflect botanical thinking of the time. In spring 2009, the bedding was laid out to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of his book Origin of Species. The species selected were those encountered or studied by Darwin and linked to Kew.

Plants displayed later in the year reflected those used for food, clothing and health, such as woad (Isatis tinctoria) grown to provide purple dye. For the International Year of Biodiversity 2010 the Palm House parterre summer planting scheme was designed to reflect the diversity of plants found in Namaqualand, a biodiversity hotspot, and to reflect on the pressures endangering this diversity.

Things to look out for

Ten heraldic figures, sculpted in Portland stone, look out over the east Palm House Parterre. 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. They include the Falcon of the Plantagenets, the Black Bull of Clarence and the Unicorn of Scotland. They were created by the sculptor James Woodford, who also made the ones for the coronation, and presented anonymously to the Gardens in 1956.

The sculpture in the pond opposite the Palm House 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.