Palms in the Temperate House, Kew

Join Richard for a wander around Kew's second most famous glasshouse.
Richard Weekly, R.B.G, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB
Chamaerops No.30 Spring 1998

Biggest indoor plant in the world: Jubaea chilensis in the Temperate House, Kew

The Temperate House is the largest glasshouse at Kew in volume, covering 4,460 square metres and holds 40 Palm species in the collection. Temperatures in the house should never fall below 7deg C; summer temperatures have reached the high 30’s, even with full ventilation and the heating turned off. The atmosphere is much dryer too than that of the Palm House, and has an almost ambient feel.

In the North block Guihaia argyrata collected in Guangxi, China is growing behind Tetrapanax papyrifera.This is a small fan palm with an attractive, almost white, underside to its leaf. In the wild this palm is found growing in rock crevices on hillsides. Trachycarpus martianus from the Himalayas can be seen growing near the pond behind the waterfall feature, donated by Martin Gibbons in 1991. Almost opposite is a favourite of mine, Rhapis excelsa, a 9’ Lady palm from Sichuan, a multiple stemmed clump forming palm. This is a very mature specimen which flowers and fruits. Opposite the Montana Rhododendron display is a young Phoenix rupicola from India, this palm grows up to 8m, with long arching fronds and has bright red fruit.

Entering the North Octagon the large feather palm in the centre is Howea forsteriana from the subtropical rainforests of Lord Howe Island. This is the "Kentia palm" sold everywhere, a favourite of the Victorians. Just across the path is Hedyscepe canterburyana, a smaller feather palm also from Lord Howe Island, only planted last year and growing away well. In the wild it would grow on high cliff ridges at an altitude of 600-750m.

Moving into the Centre block and under the Dicksonia antarctica tree fern grove, near the spiral staircase are some palms from Australia: Archontophoenix cunninghamiana and the rare Oraniopsis appendiculata. The Archontophoenix are solitary feather palms, of the two plants in the house the taller one regularly flowers and fruits, a self sown seedling has been allowed to grow beneath, and you may see seed germinating on the soil surface. The Oraniopsis is a much smaller feather palm with a reddish tinge to its leaf and was only planted last year. On the bed near the stream and waterfall, Rhopalostylis baueri var. cheesemanii from the Kermadec Islands is found, planted about three years ago and growing fast. On the same bed a small plant of Archontophoenix alexandrae from Queensland Australia has suffered badly from an attack of scale insect. Having removed the badly infested leaves the new growth is doing well and there is no sign of the scale. Across the path are two palms almost opposite each other, Rhopalostylis baueri from the Norfolk Islands and on the economic bed amongst the Citrus is Phoenix dactylifera, the Date palm, with an educational label which tells visitors all about its uses.

"Look up! This is the largest glasshouse plant in the world!". Jubaea chilensis is the plant that put Kew in the “Guinness Book of Records” .With its leaves touching the glasshouse roof (19m) a bit of a dilemma. Flowering and fruiting every year, seeds germinate all over the house somehow. Read about how it was moved in 1938 and how it is made into wine in its native country Chile on the educational panels below. Across the centre path is one of its offspring, planted by H. M. the Queen in 1982 at the re-opening ceremony of the Temperate House, after its restoration. A replacement in years to come.

On the same bed, almost next to the young Jubaea is Livistona chinensis from S. China. A solitary fan palm which flowers well, but does not set viable seed with us. It was donated to Kew by King George V. The two other giants on this bed are Brahea edulis, the Guadeloupe palm, and Washingtonia robusta, both are large fan palms, in my opinion best viewed from the balcony. On the corner of this bed opposite the Tree ferns, is Serenoa repens, the Silver Saw Palmetto, from Florida, a slow growing small fan palm with a subterranean trunk which is beginning to form a nice clump. Opposite the Serenoa is Rhapidophyllum hystrix, the Needle palm from south east U.S.A., another slow growing fan palm with a short trunk and suckering growth. This one should probably be grown outside.

Moving down the side path leads you to Rhopalostylis baueri and Rhopalostylis sapida, recently planted feather palms from Norfolk Island and New Zealand. Further round the same path amongst the “spikeys” Agaves and Yuccas is a small plant of Sabal texana, now included with S. mexicana, a glaucous coloured fan palm, collected by David Cooke of the Palm House Unit, who says it is probably very hardy, and fast growing. Further along you find the rare Pseudophoenix sargentii, from the Caribbean.

There are some Chamaedoreas from Mexico close by, C.schiedeana, C.oreophila and C. klotzschiana, all solitary stemmed species. Through the bed, over by the glasshouse windows Chamaedorea elatior is grown, the only multistemmed Chamaedorea in the house. There is also a large Chamaerops humilis in the vicinity, again donated by King George V.

Back into the centre of the house is a large Phoenix canariensis, which was also given to Kew by King George V., in 1926. It flowers well, the old flower spikes make good besoms and are always in demand by the public. Old leaves are often used by the education department on the outreach centre, which takes the magic of the plants at Kew out into schools all over the country. Some of the leaves are give to London Zoo, to be used in the furnishing of animal enclosures, apparently to make them feel at home, and make shelters out of.

There is a Sabal parviflora (now included with S. palmetto) on the corner of the next bed, from Cuba, originally grown in the Palm House, now on trial in the cooler conditions of the Temperate House. Further down on the same bed is Parajubaea cocoides from Ecuador, collected by Martin Gibbons. It's a high altitude Andean palm, which may be hardy in Cornwall. Our plant has a lot of growing to do. Sabal mauritiiformis just opposite the pond, again a young plant, from Colombia, has a slender grey trunk, which grows to about 10m. Its leaves are bright green above and glaucous beneath. Commonly known as the “Savannah palm”.

Near the other spiral staircase is a Trithrinax campestris, which is quite a strange shape and is becoming a bit troublesome, as its sharp fan shaped leaves stick out over the path. In the corner over by the glass is Butia yatay, an elegant feather palm, these are both from S. America.

Going back towards the centre pond, under the staircase almost, another Parajubaea this one is P. torallyi from Bolivia, donated by Martin Gibbons in 1992. Two Ceroxylon quindiuense from Columbia greet you before stepping onto the centre path, collected by Dr. John Dransfield, these can grow up too 60m high, the tallest of all palms probably. Ours have a long way to go yet! They grow at high altitude and are quite rare.

From the centre path the palm in front of you is Butia capitata, the Jelly palm from Brazil, one of my favourites. This palm fruits regularly, and they are edible, I’ve tried them! Elegant blue green almost glaucous feather leaves, it looks great from the balcony, in good light. I have some seedlings from it at home, when they are large enough I shall try it in the garden. On the Citrus bed, behind the Butia, is a very old Chamaerops humilis, which flowers and fruits, viable seed set if it gets pollinated. Another donation from King George V.

Into the South block, only a few palms in this area, Phoenix reclinata the African Wild Date palm from Botswana. A clump-forming palm with pinnate leaves which grows up to 10m. It has small golden fruits, our plant though is just a baby. And Phoenix theophrastii the Cretan date palm which is a rare spiny feather palm. I have young plant at home that I brought at an R.H.S. show. We also have some large oriental urns in the house, planted with Rhapis excelsa vars, ‘Kan-Non-Chiku’, ‘Koban' and ‘Kodaruma’.

Palms generally do very well, the main problems we may have with them are the pests, Scale, Mealy bug, and thrip. These are treated with Biological control agents, or spot treatments with environmentally friendly pesticides. Foliar feeding is carried out twice monthly during the summer, with a balanced (19.19.19) liquid fertilizer, (16.8.32) being the winter feed carried out once a month. It's a shame we don’t have much room for many more!

Richard Weekly is a Higher Botanical Horticulturist at the Temperate and Evolution Houses, Kew.


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