Thursday, 17 January 2013

Palm House

The Palm House is one of the icons of the Victorian era, and is to this day a landmark of British engineering. Built between 1844 and 1848, it was at the cutting edge of technology and was a major event in the ‘Age of Iron’, begun in the late-1700s by  the pioneering Victorians who were shameless in their strive for advancement and progress. One man, Richard Turner, typified that character, almost bankrupting himself developing the light but strong wrought iron beams used in the construction of the Palm House. Iron was previously used in the building of grand glasshouses at assorted stately homes and botanical gardens in Britain, but it is the curved design and sheer size of the Palm House that makes it such an important structure. The building is 20 metres high and a 100-odd metres in length, with the iron frame holding 16,000 panes of curved glass! This incredible design was realised by the ambition of Turner, who’s understanding of shipbuilding and ‘deck beam’ technology made it possible for the huge expanse of the Palm House to stand with very little internal support. Earlier designs submitted contained far too many columns and pillars which would have hindered the spreading crowns of the magnificent palms; the open structure we see today is both innovative and immensely practical! Turner later claimed to have lost £7,000 during construction, and at the time did not get the credit he deserved for his work. Happily though, the old boy went on to create one of the finest Victorian railway stations in England, building the huge expanse of iron and glass that curves over the platforms of Lime Street Station in Liverpool.

Turner’s ironwork

The Palm House mostly contains palms (more revelations to follow), but fortunately upon opening the house, Kew had an entirely insufficient amount of specimens available to fill the cavernous space! This, fortunately, led to a tradition of a more mixed planting within the house, with an assortment of tropical specimens being grown and displayed here alongside the palms. Victorian families thronged to the house to see the vegetation of the expanding British Empire being cultivated under the curved glass, and this exotic and unusual array continues to this very day! The planting around the house is rather formal, reflective of those Victorian days, with the great landscaper William Nesfield responsible for much of the setting within which the Palm House is placed. Syon Vista and Pagoda Vista radiate from the site on the west side, with both of these tree-lined avenues nearly 1000 metres in length! Syon Vista leads down to the River Thames and affords excellent views of the imposing Syon House on the opposite bank, while Pagoda Vista inevitably leads to the giant Pagoda which is another of Kew’s iconic structures. The Campanile is perhaps the most interesting building in the Palm House environ, an Italianate tower to the south of the pond. This is in fact a chimney, connected to the house via an underground tunnel, and designed to remove any soot and smoke that could smother the glass!

The Campanile, the underground tunnel, and its exact path revealed in the melted snow

Historically, the Palm House has been a rather difficult place to work as a gardener. 10 hour days, endless labour, and not to mention the stifling heat, have all contributed to the infamous legend of working in this great glasshouse. New employees would be ‘tried out’ here to see if they could hack the pace, before being moved on to a permanent position elsewhere in the garden. A gardener found to have committed a misdemeanour was liable for boiler duty; lugging a coke wagon backwards and forwards along the 150-metre underground supply tunnel. A small railway track assisted the repentant egg, but it was dirty, back breaking work! Fumigating the Palm House certainly must have seemed like a punishment, with nicotine pyres lit throughout the house, and the staff actually staying inside for two and a half hours to keep the tobacco parcels burning! One chap, who left Kew in 1910, vaguely recalled being dragged outside by a fellow gardener, after keeling over from the toxic fumes! Thankfully such folly came to an end years ago, and the Palm House is a much safer place to work. A reduced working day and some protective clothing when using chemicals are just two of the perks! I will post more highlights from the Palm House over the course of my placement, but for now here is an introduction to this grand house!

Inside is a controlled jungle, with palms blocking the view and vigorous climbers scrambling overhead! There is a constant balancing act between the display of specimen plants, and creating an overgrown tropical atmosphere

Pandanus is one exciting new species I’ve discovered here, with branching growth and huge strappy leaves! The common name is Screwpine, due to the spiral arrangement of the leaves and pineapple-like fruits

Pritchardia schattaueri is just one of the many incredible palms to be had here. Pritchardia is a tough old species, and makes a good candidate for a houseplant in a well-lit room

Many of the trees in the Palm House harbour epiphytic orchids such as Cattleya deckeri. Epiphytes are plants living on another; not in a parasitic way, just hitching a ride to get closer to the available light and moisture!

Pavonia multiflora is one of the most free-flowering of the plants displayed here, in Malvaceaea family

The foliage of tropical legumes is mesmerising! This is Cojoba arborea

Clerodendrum splendens, a vigorous climber with these incredible blooms! Best grown in a container as it will creep around all over the shop in open soil

Solandra maxima is another glorious climber, native to the tropical Americas. The blooms are night-scented, smelling similar to coconut and pollinated by bats!

The top balcony allows a unique view of the tropical canopy, this is the spreading palms of Ravenea moorei

The delightful iron stairwell leading to the balcony! The spinning disc foliage is Cecropia glaziovii

The very centre of the house is the tallest point, 20 metres, and unfortunately any palm finally attaining this glory is liable to be given the chop! Pruning is impossible, as due to the way palms grow any cut to the central stem results in the death of the plant

More detail of Turner’s handiwork! The large-leaved climber scrambling up the pillar and arch is Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum’

The west of the house looks to Syon Vista, the long avenue leading to the river. The evening light on this side of the house is quite special


Jane Aston said...

That glasshouse is just magnificent. It's hard to imagine the ingenuity of those Victorians.I went to a couple of Art Colleges one in my home town in Worcester and another in Aberystwyth. Everyday I felt happy just to be strolling around the buildings. You must feel the same but multiplied.

Unknown said...

Oo, makes me want to get up to Kew asap!

Prue said...

Thanks for the super photos and equally super information about the Palm House at Kew, Bertie.

It's ages since I've been there. Your photos remind me how beautiful the iron work is - amazing that this sort of thing can be made out of hard metal!

So many new plants too - very different from Hidcote.

Keep up the good work Bertie. And keep warm! (not difficult with the Palm house on your doorstep ;)).


Wife, Mother, Gardener said...

Glad they have learned better how to treat their laborers - yikes. Beautiful place! Thanks for sharing.

Bertie Bainbridge said...

Greetings all!