The Palm House in winter

Palm House

An iconic Victorian glasshouse, the rainforest climate inside supports a unique collection of tropical plants from some of the most threatened environments on Earth.

A living laboratory

The Palm House recreates a rainforest climate, 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.

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.

Aerial view of the Palm House at Kew

Palm House Parterre

In 1848 William Andrews Nesfield created an intricate geometric pattern of beds, or parterre, to surround the newly constructed Palm House finished. Over time Nesfield’s designs disappeared but in the 1920s flower beds were reinstated and the bedding changed twice a year, a practice which continues today.

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. 

The Palm House at Kew

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 he Rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis),  Coffee (Coffea), Pepper (Piper nigrum), and Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) and a Cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao).  The edible properties of Theobroma cacao were discovered over 2,000 years ago by the local people of Central America living deep in the tropical rainforests. In the year 2008-2009 world cocoa production was 3,515,000 tonnes. This is equivalent to the weight of a line of double-decker buses stretching more than three times the length of Britain!

Theobroma cacao

Cocoa pods are the fruits of Theobroma cacao. When the seeds inside are dried and fermented in the sun they are brownish red, and known as cocoa beans.

Remarkable plants

'Suicide palm'

Look for young specimens of the Madagascan palm, Tahina spectabilis which lives for about 50 years, flowers once, and dies soon after. 

Leaves of Tahina spectabilis individuals can be seen emerging from the other vegetation

Ancient cycads

Resembling palms, cycads were widespread over 250 million years ago, before dinosaurs and well before the appearance of flowering plants.

Encephalartos altensteinii in the Palm House

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