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.
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 Parterre
In 1848 William Andrews Nesfield created an intricate geometric pattern of beds, or parterre, to surround the newly constructed Palm House finished.
His design 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'.
Nesfield’s designs gradually disappeared, beds were replaced with grass, gravel paths with turf, and topiaried shrubs removed. With the First World War, the Palm House Parterre took on a new role, growing onions to feed the nation.
Flower beds were reinstated in the 1920s. Though designs were less complex than Nesfield’s they were more labour intensive as the bedding was changed twice a year, a practice which continues today.
The changing variety of plants exhibited in the Palm House Parterre has tended to reflect botanical thinking of the time.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.