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Palm House & Glass Houses

The Palm House

The magnificent Palm House is one of the world’s most beautiful garden buildings. Dating from c.1825 the Bicton building is about 20 years older than the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and has a fantastic collection of palms.

Remarkably for such a bulbous building, the Palm House is glazed entirely with flat glass. The small size of the 18,000 overlapping panes enables them to fit smoothly between the curved, thin iron bars that form the roof’s skeleton. The structure is strengthened by slender cast-iron columns in the side wings, but the larger central dome is self-supporting. There are no horizontal glazing bars, and the roof would become unstable without the glass.

The whole building was extensively renovated in 1985. Modern glass has replaced the original panes, which were hand-moulded to be thicker at the edges than in the middle so that water would run away from the ironwork. Ventilation is by rope-operated louvres set high up in the rear brick wall. Underfloor heating remains in operation today with large hot-water pipes acting as a huge radiator.


The south-facing Palm House, where winter temperatures may dip to 5°C (41°F), provides suitable conditions for a wide range of palms, from tender inhabitants of tropical islands to the toughest of them al like the needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) from the southern USA, which can survive frosts down to -12°C (10°F).  A number of hardy Chusan palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) from China grow outdoors at Bicton including the avenue on the drive at the entrance to the gardens.

Palms began their life on Earth during the last days of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Today, there are some 2800 species, mostly in the tropics and subtropics where they are of great commercial importance. Their products include oil for soap and ointments, fibre for rope and furniture, wax for shoe polish, and foods such as dates and coconuts.

Many species are vigorous and can quickly outgrow their accommodation in the Palm House, with regular thinning and replanting needed. Strelitzia Nicolai towers mighty in the Palm House with large white birds of paradise flowers occasionally peering down. The rarest plant in the house is the Madagascan triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi), which is listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Palms are also popular as house plants and although tropical conditions may be essential for some species, Bicton is an example of how many others can adapt to cooler environments both indoors and out.

The Glass Houses

Our other glasshouses are kept with different conditions in mind to enable a variety of plants both colourful and rare. These include the tropical house representing a rainforest environment, a temperate house demonstrating a cooler atmosphere and an arid house that provides the necessary dry conditions to allow cacti and other drought loving plants to thrive. From late spring to autumn the pelargonium house is also open providing a mass of colours and fragrance.

The Temperate House
The Temperate House was completely refurbished in 2011 and its structure faithfully restored. It is designed to show the geographical evolution of vascular plants since the split of the super continent Gondwana about 167 million years ago.

Along with many of the Protea species from the previous display, a few choice plants were added to represent the flora of Table Mountain, the giant plateau in Cape Town, South Africa. Plants like Leucadendron argentium, or Silver Tree, which is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Leucadendron discolor, listed as endangered, and also the mighty King Protea, are at threat from the expansion of Cape Town into the surrounding hill sides.

Australian plants like the Acacia and the tender Eucalyptus, show the link in evolution from 180 million years ago when Australia and South Africa were joined together as the super continent, Gondwana.

Plants from island habitats are important as they have evolved and adapted in isolation. This limits the number of pollinators and the introduction of invasive plants such as the endangered Geranium maderense from Madeira. Other plants like green and purple

Aeoniums, Isoplexsis, Argyanthemums from the Canary Islands and Echiums, including the rare red flowering form Echium wildpretii, show the diversity and the beautiful flowers of island plants. Over winter and during early spring can be seen displays of tender and unusual bulbs such as Gladiolus splendens, Ixia and Watsonia. Scented daffodils are planted in between winter flowering plants.


Bicton Park Arid House

The Tropical House
Bicton’s famous Tropical House, providing winter warmth for all its species, is a myriad of colour and smells; bursting with a wide diversity of plants that give the feeling of having been transported to the depths of the rainforest. The collection demonstrates how the plants would grow under the canopy of the tropical rainforest with many of the plants originating from the tropical regions of Asia, Central and South America.

The 200 year old Tropical House is also used to display plants which provide food including the banana plant, Musa cavendishii, a dwarf variety used for commercial production in the tropics, that are exported throughout the world. Moreover it provides a chance to see much loved houseplants on a giant scale. 

Bromeliads are another feature of the Tropical House. These fascinating plants collect water in leaf cups which then create small pools. These pools dissolve nutrients from fallen leaves and other debris then use the nutrients to feed themselves.

The Tropical House also contains over 40 species of Orchids which bloom throughout the year featuring our very own Lemboglossum bictoniense, or Bicton orchid.Originally from Guatemala, this orchid earned its name by blooming at Bicton for the first time after cultivation. The white and pink lipped flowers tend to appear in the late summer or autumn period.

The collection demonstrates how the plants would grow under the canopy of the tropical rainforest and encourages them to develop root systems that accurately reflect such growth in the wild. This diverse collection of plants originates from the tropical regions of Asia, Central and South America.

The Arid House
The Arid House features some of the world’s most fascinating plants, among them cacti and succulents grow in perfect harmony. A large prickly pear loves to show off it deliciously looking red fruits and it is beautiful to see large unexpected flowers on all sorts of cacti and succulents. Watering in this house is much less frequent to represent the natural arid environments of the plants native regions. 


The Gardens Await

ABBA and Fleetwood Mac

Thursday – August 1st

Bohemians + K2

Thursday – August 15th

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