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Two Palmy Places

You don't have to go to the Tropics to see palms, and in this 'two-for-the-price-of-one' article, Roger Dixon visits some nearer to home.
Roger Dixon, 2 Pierrefonds Ave, Farnborough, Hampshire
Chamaerops No. 17, published online 23-07-2002

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The Barbican Conservatory

The weather on the day of our visit could only be described as wet 'n' wild with gale-force winds and sharp, squally showers. The Mimosa trees, covered with yellow puff-ball blossom, were being whipped by the winds eddying around the gardens. The fronds of the Trachycarpus fortunei and Phoenix canariensis were buffeted by the squalls.

Despite the outdoor exotics, this was not a visit to Madeira on an off day, but a trip to a location not a mile or two from Central London, in fact to the little known conservatory at the Barbican, within the City of London's square mile. It is a large tropical glasshouse positioned high on the top floor of the Barbican Centre, which is better-known for its recitals of classical music than for its plants. Access is on the 8th floor and on the 9th is the balcony overlooking the dense tropical planting of the conservatory.

The design of the Barbican Centre effectively divides the huge glass structure into two. One is a formal layout with raised beds and brick walkways and walls. The other is in informal style with winding paths, a pool, and with plants climbing over and disguising the stanchions. The roof of the conservatory rises to some 50 feet where it meets the back wall of the Barbican complex. In both areas this backdrop wall has been thickly planted with shrubby plants on ledges, and trailers cascade over the balconies.

The formal section is dominated by two large palms, a 30ft Phoenix dactylifera said to weigh over two tons, and a Howeia forsteriana of around 20 feet. The beds also include Rhapis excelsa, Washingtonia filifera, and Phoenix roebelenii. A gully, planted with Washingtonia filifera, Howeia forsteriana, Syagrus schizophylla and S. comosa leads to the informal section. This has plantings of Ptychosperma, Caryota mitis, Chamaedorea elegans, and Syagrus romanzoffiana and, in pots, more Caryota, the Cycad Dioon spinulosum and, for good measure, a Norfolk Island pine.

Kew it's not but all in all, an exciting discovery, perfect as a retreat from the hubbub of London's traffic or from the weather on a wintry January day. Open Saturday and Sunday pm only. Phone 0171 588 8211 for times. Do try to fit it into your sightseeing tour of London!


Members of the EPS who are in the Swansea (south Wales) area are well recommended to allocate an hour or two to visiting Plantasia. This complex, based around a substantial tropical glasshouse, contains a number of attractions including a walk-through Butterfly house, an aviary, display tanks containing reptiles, amphibians and insects. However, for the palm enthusiast the real interest will be the planting within the glasshouse itself.

Shaped like a low glass half-pyramid, abutting a shopping area, it rises above the adjacent car parks. A surrounding shrubbery is planted with Trachycarpus fortunei. Covering an area of over 15,000 square feet it is some 50 feet at its highest point. A series of concrete walkways meander around the planted area, centred on a pool and there is a balcony giving a panoramic view over it and the various plantings.

Within the humid zone there are extensive beds luxuriantly planted with tropical specimens. Varying plant shapes, use of the different planting levels and generous use of climbing, trailing and ground cover plants all contribute to the dense tropical feel, and a number of mature palms provide height to the planting. The largest of these are two mature Phoenix dactylifera, some 30 feet in height, dwarfing a nearby 20ft Cocos nucifera. Also to be seen are large Washingtonia, a fine Ravenala madagascariensis (Traveller's Palm), well positioned to show off its two-dimensional habit, and Howeias, with their slender, ringed trunks. A number of Caryota urens (Fish Tail palms) are about to reach the roof. At eye level, there are many smaller and immature palms and in a shady gully are a number of Pritchardia pacifica with their round, green leaves glossy in the tropically humid atmosphere.

Those not so botanically-minded will be entertained by the large Koi Carp in the pool. Apart from a clump of Papyrus, there are no plants here. The Koi, described as the goats of the aquatic world, see to that.

To coin a phrase, there is something for everyone here, and it is a 'must see' for visitors to the area. Plantasia is open 6 days a week, but is closed on Mondays except some Bank holiday Mondays. Phone 01792 474555 before visiting to check opening times.

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