Palm Day at Kew

Steve Swinscoe with a report of a wonderfully palmy day.
Steve Swinscoe, Manatte, 32460 Le Houga, France
Chamaerops No. 4, published online 23-11-2002

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Hot, humid and heavenly! On the palm trail at Kew.

The day that we had all been looking forward to came at last! Saturday July 20th dawned bright and balmy over London - a good omen for things to come on Palm Day at Kew. Wearing my favourite blue shorts and colour coordinated T-shirt emblazoned with multi-coloured palms, I set off through the leafy and flowery suburbs of London Town confident that, appropriately attired, no one could doubt my claim as a true blue European Palm Society Palm Nut and Fou de Palmiers.

Kew Gardens (or to give it its proper title: The Royal Botanic Gardens) is located in the western suburb of Richmond and was founded in 1840. It covers 121 hectares and has on its grounds and in its glasshouses over 30,000 types of plant from all over the globe. Thus, probably the most extensive collection of any botanic garden in the world. This was my first visit and I assure you, I'll be back for more. The day before my departure from home in France I received the programme of the day's events and my name badge. After parking my car and spotting fellow Fous de Palmiers we headed for Jodrell Gate and the Jodrell Lecture Theatre, around the corner from the main entrance to the gardens. Jodrell was to serve as our base of operations for the day's events. From 10 10.30 am Martin Gibbons, editor of 'Chamaerops', greeted us at the door, ticked our names on the list of people who had signed up for the day, and invited us to enjoy coffee and biscuits.

We had the opportunity then to chat with friends made on previous occasions and to be introduced or to introduce ourselves to others whose names we were often familiar with from what they had written. At last we were to see them in the flesh. In all we were a grand total of 86 members of E.P.S. and Fous de Palmiers. France was well represented with a total of 17 members present, and in addition there were members from Belgium, Holland, Germany and Sweden as well, of course as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Isn't it wonderful that a family of plants can draw so many people together from so many different places to share their enthusiasm, experience and knowledge?

At 10.30 sharp, Dr. John Dransfield, eminent botanist, palm authority, and co-editor of Principes, the journal of the International Palm Society, welcomed all present. He then introduced Sue Minter, formerly with Kew, and now with the Chelsea Physic Garden. Sue was in charge of the reconstruction of the famous Palm House and gave a lecture on its history and rebuilding. Her interesting talk was accompanied by slides which enabled us to follow the evolution of the Palm House from the initial planning stages, through its heyday in Victorian times, and up until its reconstruction, followed by the official reopening on November 6th 1990. She rose to the challenge of condensing years of work and the subject of the book she has authored "The Greatest Glasshouse - the Rainforests Recreated" into a fascinating 20 minute talk quite a feat I must say.

Sue Minter's talk led naturally to her introduction of David Cooke, the 'hands-on' man in charge of the Palm House, who gets his own dirty in his duties. He spoke to us in detail about "The Replanting and Day-to-day Maintenance of the Palm House Palms", and also showed us slides during his talk. It was fascinating to learn how the fantastic palm collection was completely removed from the Palm House and temporarily stored, while the restoration work, which took 4 years, was undertaken.

One major change was made, which was agreed to only with reluctance by the Victorian Society, and that was to replace the containers in which the palms had been growing, with beds. The new arrangement would finally give the palms longed-for foot room and enable them to stretch out and flourish. Once the rebuilding was complete, David supervised the replanting. We learned that the first plant to be brought back in was not a palm at all, but a cycad: Encephalartos altensteinii. It was 'watered' as we say in France, by Champagne all round. I wonder if the plant got some too?

Naturally, these informative talks whetted our appetites, even more so for those of us who, like myself, had never been there, to visit the Palm House in person. As David concluded, the lights came up, and we split into 2 groups to make the long-awaited visit, with Sue and David acting as guides.

We had been told it was hot inside, and I was ready for it (remember, I was dressed appropriately). After all, I used to live in Florida. Stepping inside it was like a quick trip to Fort Lauderdale in July, and here I was, in London. As some Fous de Palmiers would remark it was the 'depaysment complet'. Of course it was not only the climate that reminded me of Florida, but also the lush vegetation, with luxuriant palms gracing every vista. Tony King of E.P.S. predicted that his glasses would fog up in seconds. He was right. A few minutes later I discovered the reason why Martin Gibbons was wearing a tie for palm day.... it came in handy for wiping the condensation off his camera lens.

Periodically, jets of mist would send a warm vapour throughout the Palm House, making the extremities of the north and south wings disappear when one was in the centre transept, and bringing to mind images we tourists have of the famous London fog.

Of course, I can't begin to name all the palms we saw. I was puzzled by one fine specimen I took to be a Butia and was rather surprised to find it in this tropical clime. Dr Dransfield told me it was a Syagrus, and David later told me that for years it was labelled Butia, until recently when it was reclassified. Imagine coming of age and then having your name changed. That's what happened to this palm. Wasn't it Shakespeare who wrote "What's in a name?..." Whatever we call it, this palm is thriving and gorgeous.

A personal treat for me was seeing two varieties of Cocos nucifera - the Coconut Palm, probably my favourite palm for its beauty and all that it represents to man in that favoured band encircling the globe, known as the tropics. I had often read that it was impossible to grow coconut palms indoors even under the most perfect of conditions, and didn't really expect to find any at Kew. But there they were. Dr Dransfield's expert opinion was that only the height of the greenhouse would inhibit the healthy development (and presumably, fruiting) of Cocos nucifera when the proper conditions are met. Perhaps one day they'll be harvesting coconuts in the Palm House.
As an aside, and speaking of coconuts, Kew had a nice specimen of the mystical double coconut, Lodoicea maldivica. Unfortunately, the electric warming cables that were heating the bed in which it was growing suffered a thermostat malfunction, and the poor thing was cooked alive. David took the opportunity during his earlier talk to ask if any Palm Society member visiting the Seychelles could bring back a double coconut to replace it. Both Kew and David would be most grateful and promise to take good care of the donation.

The reconstruction of the Palm House included a marine exhibit located underground below the central transept. Since it is so much cooler than the glasshouse above, many visitors lingered there to talk. But if you thought it was hot at ground level, all you had to do was ascend the intricate wrought iron spiral staircase up to the catwalk that encircles the main area. The view was breath taking, and so were the heat and humidity - definitely Amazonian! When you returned to ground level, it actually felt cool, and once outdoors, the lovely 22c London day seemed almost bracing, further proof that everything is relative.

Lunchtime crept up on us and we returned to Jodrell for a buffet feast prepared for us by Eric Taylor. Admiring with our eyes whilst waiting in line to serve ourselves, I commented to Fous de Palmiers Monsieur & Madame Renard, from Montpellier how good everything looked, and Jean Luc jokingly replied that the British had surely made a special effort since they knew they were playing host to the French. When I passed this on to British members present I was asked to assure the French that the Brits eat like this every day! Three cheers to Eric for the copious spread appreciated so much by all the visitors. We enjoyed our meal sitting on the lawn of the lecture theatre, getting to know each other better and sharing notes.

Next on the programme, was a talk by Dr John Dransfield, entitled "My Favourite Palms". He, too, illustrated his talk with slides showing us a vast array of many peoples' favourites, including his own. We all puzzled at the final slide of an extremely unusual palm in the garden of Marty Darian in Vista, California. Dr Dransfield and Natalie Uhl of Cornell University in New York had spent a good while contemplating this specimen in total mystification, before learning that it was a sculpture and made of 100% steel! Chamaedorea metallica eat your heart out!

Following Dr. Dransfield's talk, we once again divided into our two groups. Alternately one group took the short coach ride to the Palm Centre nearby to admire and buy some of the extensive collection of palms, cycads, and books for sale (there was a run on the rare and highly prized Needle Palm - Rhapidophyllum hystrix).

Meanwhile the other group was escorted by David Cooke to the Temperate House to look at the non-tropical palms with which we Europeans are more familiar, and thence to the palm nursery where seeds are sown and seedlings are raised.

In the Temperate House we were amazed by the stupendous specimen of the Chilean Wine Palm, Jubaea chilensis, supposedly the biggest glasshouse plant in the world, at some 20m tall and weighing around 60 tons. It is so tall that in 1982 Her Majesty the Queen planted a young specimen facing the giant in preparation for the day when it may have to be sacrificed before it literally bursts through the glass roof. In the meantime, this spectacular palm is so at home that it produces quantities of viable seeds every year and has never even noticed that it's not growing in its native Chile, but in London. It seems a shame that one day it may end up as palm honey or palm wine. Instead I suggest that they open up a hole in the roof of the Temperate House and let it poke through its beautiful fronds and brave whatever future London winters may serve it.

After the two groups changed places, we rallied one last time at Jodrell for the conclusion of the official programme, tea and biscuits, and the raffle of rare palms, and the new book, "Palms & Cycads Around the World". The raffle was a fund raising venture for the European Palm Society promoted by the sales pitches of Tony King and Jacques Deleuze. E.P.S. stickers with the Chamaerops insignia were also on sale. Dr. Dransfield gave thanks to the organizers of the day, Martin Gibbons, David Cooke and Eric Taylor, and bade all a fond farewell and suggested that the next joint E.P.S./Fous de Palmiers get-together be in France. I'll vote for that!

Officially the programme concluded at 5pm but we hangers-on lingered, comparing photos, notes and experiences, until we were in danger of being locked in the gardens overnight, still reluctant to say goodbye and call it a day.

I think I can speak for everyone present, when saying that Palm Day at Kew was a tremendous success (only one regret we never managed to all assemble for a group photograph) and a fine time was had by one and all.

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