Transplanted Tropics: Kew's Palm House

Transplanted Tropics: Kew's Palm House
Lubo Minar

Discover amazing plants and think abnormally deep thoughts, all under one regal roof at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

It hits you like a wall. Heat and moisture in sudden overdrive, your whole skin involuntarily subject to an instantaneous lotion bath. 

That’s the Palm House at Kew — luminescent, misty, and imperial, it stands at 51.4791° N, 0.2927° W, a thirty minute train ride west of central London, though it might as well be another world entirely. One tiny tropical island inside of a regularly overcast, temperate one — this glass house is an invitation to leave one universe and enter another, without actually going anywhere. 

Rainforests cover only 2% of the world’s surface, but make up 50% of the earth’s species — their ecological importance cannot be overstated. Kew Gardens’ Palm House is a living laboratory dedicated to the study of these species, many of which are endangered. In that sense, it’s a research-oriented greenhouse like others elsewhere, its purpose clearly defined and fulfilled. What makes it different from, say, an expressly scientific, modern greenhouse however, is a palpable mystique emanating from its eroded, 19th-century frame. Its ivory iron pillars peel despite having been re-painted recently; condensation menaces them at all hours of the day. Plants invade the structure, weasel their way through small gaps and climb as high as the building itself. Nature is both contained and in control at the same time. 

Not secret in the slightest, the internationally renowned Palm House makes you feel as if it were secret regardless — iron-wrought, spiral staircases ascend into its dense heavens, made off limits with a simple chain and sign: do not enter.

All of this has the opposite of its intended effect, tempting you to ascend upwards and explore the building’s verdant canopies. The internet reports these staircases are sometimes open, and apparently sometimes not, though you’d never know what day to visit for access. In this sense, surprise is always part of the experience — your visit a figurative lottery to celestial realms. 

Speaking of the lottery, this greenhouse does have something in common with Las Vegas — in reality (and according to nature’s terms) it shouldn’t exist. Thanks to humans, it does anyway, with banana trees and lizards and brilliant blooms all enclosed together, as if in a bubble, smack dab in an environment largely inhospitable to this level of tropical biodiversity. The sensation of the tropics has been manufactured out of its original context, almost like The Birth of Venus on a pair of socks, or German, Mexican, and Chinese “style” neighborhoods at Disneyworld’s Epcot. Species live side by side that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths — all “tropical” but totally scripted, placed deliberately side by side at the bequest of human beings. 

Credit: Kevin Mueller

There is nothing objectively bad or good about this, but it does put the “meta” strangeness of our world into context, emphasizing the various ways seemingly disparate elements interact, evolve, and in some cases, live inside one another.

Through these interactions, evolutions, and Russian doll living arrangements, all these previously understood “things” develop new connotations, deliver new messages, and create new, multilayered experiences. John Berger explores this phenomenon in depth in “Ways of Seeing” (1972), touching on principles previously broached in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935); an evolution of these conversations takes place IRL — albeit in your head — as you stroll through the simulated environment of this stately greenhouse at Kew, pondering why and how you feel the way you do in this transplanted, large-scale terrarium. 

Clearly, there is a major difference between experiencing “China” and experiencing China through the lens of Disney’s Epcot, though there remains something remotely “Chinese” about the Epcot experience, regardless of its baseline inauthenticity. Similarly, there is something tropical about this Palm House, though it is not in and of itself the tropics — unless it is, in its own kind of manufactured way. In the moment, you’re not really sure. But curious befuddlement is part of this place, which is also probably why it vaguely reminds you of that chocolate river scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) — strange buttercups to drink out of and the feeling of being enclosed in a world so expressly manufactured and maintained. 

The point is: These are the types of existential — and even psychedelic — thoughts that come to you as you stroll around this massive humidifier, ducking under protruding plants and breathing in their unfamiliar fragrances.

Credit: Gemma Evans

It is wild to think of the gardeners and botanists who spend their weekdays here, tending to 300 year-old potted plants and operating so normally under exceptional conditions. For them it is an everyday space, even a lifestyle. Practically speaking, it is much more than an experience for visitors, but a means for scientists to conduct research related to medicine and sustainable cropping. 

Typically, when we think of manufactured spaces, the items are “fake” or reproduced. Candy mushrooms in the case of Willy Wonka, cotton thread in the case of The Birth of Venus on a pair of dress socks. But not at the Palm House, where all items are indisputably living, just outside of their original, or “natural,” contexts. This fact alone bolsters the space’s intrigue in comparison to other manufactured environments, raising questions around when — in the eyes of a collective public — the Palm House will begin to feel just as natural as the global tropics it has borrowed from. 

But for now, this structure’s Victorian charm continues to take center stage — so much so that it matters much more than anything else.

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