by Lee Nelson
Several of the glasshouses at Kew Gardens—also know as green houses, plant houses or hothouses—are famous the world over.
The Palm House at Kew Gardens is the most recognizable and likely the most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure while the Temperate House is the worlds' largest surviving Victorian glass building.
Newer glasshouses including the Princess of Whales Conservatory and the Alpine House continue the tradition of excellence in design and functionality.
The Palm House at Kew Gardens
Recognized by many as the iconic symbol of Kew Gardens, the Palm House focus is on tropical rainforest habitat.
Rainforest cycads, coconut palms, rubber trees, giant bamboo, cocoa coffee and sugar cane simulate the multi-layer natureof a rainforest with the tallest growing specimens in the soaring center transept of the huge glasshouse.
A quarter of the palms and over half of the cycads in the Palm House are threatened with extinction in the wild.
Richard Turner completed the Victorian style glasshouse in 1848 byfollowing Decimus Burton's designs. Turner's design for the Palm House predated the Crystal Palace by three years.
Wrought iron and technology borrowed from ship builders enable large spaces for tall palms to exist in what is essentially an upside down ships hull.
The design has been inspiration for other greenhouses and glasshouses as far away as the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco California-the oldest existing glass and wood conservatory in the United States.
The large glasshouse has undergone two renovations, first in 1955-57 and then again in 1984-88.
In the process plants were moved from the original teak tubs or clay pots into beds and the boiler room in the basement was converted to a Marine Display. It's emphasis is on the importance of marine plants, particularly algae—including all seaweeds—which provide half the world carbon dioxide.
The original boilers had vented their smoke through to the Italianate campanile smoke stack that still stands 150m away.
The Temperate House at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens' largest glasshouse, the Temperate House, consists of 5 sections that were built over a 38 year time span. With twice the floor space of the Palm House, construction began in 1860 but wasn't finished until 1898. A major restoration was completed in 1980.
The Temperate House sits on a terrace of sand and gravel whose excavation created the lake at Kew Gardens. Maintenance of an appropriate temperate environment requires heat that is piped a quarter mile from the main boiler house.
A Chilean wine-palm, the world's largest indoor plant, is just one of the many temperate zone plants here. African plants populate the south wing, South African heaths and proteas are in the south octagon.
Plants from New Zealand and Lord Howe Island can be found in the north octagon while the north wing contains species from temperate Asia. The large centre section holds Americas and Australia plants.
Among the tender woody plants grown in the Temperate house are several endangered island species that are being propagated for reintroduction. One king protea plant that hadn't bloomed in 160 years did began once again in 1986.
The Evolution House at Kew Gardens
The Evolution House is just a few feet from and directly behind the center section of the Temperate House.
Designed to represent a journey through millions of years of plant history you enter the Precambrian section (over 570 million years ago) and proceed to the rear where you exit through a cave after passing sequentially through Silurian, Carboniferous and Creataceous (145-65 million years ago) areas.
With the Evolution House's focus on Silurian, Carboniferous and Cretaceous periods you'll view some of the first vascular plants, a coal swamp with giant clubmosses and horsetails and Cycads, conifers and flowering plants.
Descendents of plants growing or modeled in the Evolution House can be found throughout Kew Gardens in the other glasshouses, Arboretum, Order Beds and Grass Garden.
The Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens most complex glasshouse was designed to replace 26 older structures. With ten tropical environments—dry tropics and wet tropics being the largest—energy efficiency and low maintenance were high priorities. Below ground spaces and steeply sloped glass roofed, no or low sidewalls and state of the art computer control and monitoring contribute to the successful realization of those goals.
The Princess of Wales Conservatory commemorates the founder of Kew Gardens, Princess Augusta who married Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1736. The complex was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1987.
A painted diorama in the dry tropics zone help to imagine cacti and agaves in their native environment while pools of fish and ponds with giant Amazonian water lily provide a similar function in the humid zone. Areas are provided with the ideal conditions for certain plants such as two different types of orchids-the Orchid Festival is mid-February to mid-March-plants from cloud forests and carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants and the Venus fly trap.
The Waterlily House at Kew Gardens
Just north of the Palm House the much smaller Waterlily House was the widest single span glasshouse in the world when built in 1852.
Like the Palm House the ironwork in the Waterlily House is by Richard Turner.
Designed to house the giant Amazonian water lily it was converted to an Economic Plant House for medicinal and culinary plants in 1866 and then back again in 1991.
The hottest and most humid environment at Kew, the Waterlily House is closed in winter.
The Davies Alpine House at Kew Gardens
There have been Alpine Houses at Kew since 1887. The first lasted until 1981, the second closed in 2004. The latest-the Davies Alpine House-opened in March of 2006. The house's shape and geometry were designed to create, through passive means, the complex environmental necessary for alpine growth while being both sustainable and energy-efficient.
Alpines grow in places with a significantly different environment than that found in London. Plants grown in the protected environment of the Alpine House can have the amount of water they receive controlled to provide the conditions they need to thrive. Shading, additional light and air movement are also controlled.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson