the Palm House, Kew. 14.07.12

I don't get to Kew as often as I would like and in the last few years I have had to accept that it isn't possible to see much of it in a single visit. I have started to concentrate on a single feature for each visit and Gloria agrees with me. If we try to see it all we have to do without lunch which turns a lovely day into an exercise in endurance. This time it we returned to the Palm House. I haven't been inside the doors for several years and it was time to have a good look round.

The Palm House was designed by Decimus Burton and built by Richard Turner from 1844 - 48. The first restoration took place in 1955 and involved cleaning the cast iron structure and replacing the glass. The second restoration began in 1984 and continued until 1988. The entire structure was dismantled (it is like a giant metal construction set), all the parts were cleaned and repaired. All of the original glazing bars were replaced with identically shaped bars in stainless steel and the glass was replaced with toughened safety glass which brought the building back up to modern health and safety standards.

Inside, the Palm House retains the mood of Victorian glasshouses. The contents are very green and leafy, the stone beds and metal gratings speak of the technology of that age. The Palm House is maintained at tropical temperatures and there is enough headroom to grow the contents to the size of forest trees. At ground level it is very humid and shady. Photography is not always easy, pictures are always framed from the gloomy undergrowth outwards to the bright glass surface. Gloria got very frustrated at times and was constantly polishing her lenses.

The ornamental structure is built around a sensible core of cast iron, much as a modern office block would be built by hanging cladding from a structure of steel beams. There is a balcony around the tall central section of the house, but I got over-involved with plants and ran out of time before I got up there. It is a strange upper world, walking through the tree canopy with views through the glass of the parkland outside and the hint of west London.

During the last restoration a new Marine Plant display was constructed in the basement, using the space that once housed the original boiler. Heating is now achieved with a modern gas boiler that only requires a fraction of the space. The display was opened in 1991 and remains interesting and in good condition (which isn't always easy with aquatic displays).

It is a very curious idea to have a display of seaweed, but it emphasises that Kew is concerned with plant life, not just the fluffy flowering stuff. This is spectacular in a different way. Most seaweed grows in water affected by tides and currents, or in this case tanks with water pumps, but the effect is the same. The plants sway and swirl around. It is mesmerising, like watching a fire burn. This is Caulerpa serrata (and I'm feeling very smug that I knew what it was without reading the label). The Caulerpa are probably the easiest of the tropical seaweeds to grow (none of them are actually easy). To my eye they looked as though they were struggling a bit, and I thought the light levels were too low in some of the tanks but Kew have a great deal more experience than me, so I'm going to shut up now.

One of Kew's most famous residents its at one end of the Palm House, surrounded by its relatives. There is a good collection of Cycads at Kew, many of them grown in the Palm House. Some of the more tropical woodlanders are scattered through the beds, the rest are grouped around this ancient Encephalartos altensteinii.
Francis Masson was one of Kew's earliest plant collectors, and in 1775 he returned from a trip to South Africa with this Encephalartos , collected in the eastern Cape. It has been at Kew ever since but has only flowered once, in 1819.

The flora of the Palm House can be a bit green and leafy, but when it flowers it does it with spectacular weirdness. There are quite a lot of gingers among the undergrowth but Zingiber spectabile must be the most striking in flower. The orange cones last for some time, but the individual black flowers are only open for a day or so.

Kew is filled with astonishing architecture and the architecture is filled with astonishing plants which made for a very satisfying day out!

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