Glasshouses at public gardens are hugely inspirational and at this time of year wonderful places to escape the northern hemisphere winter. Step inside these temples to exotic plants and you can be transported from a dreary, cold day to the warmth, smells and sights of not just one far-flung destination but a whole host of places around the world, from the steamy tropics to the arid deserts.
One of the oldest and largest glasshouses in the world is the Palm House at Bicton Botanic Garden in Devon. It was built in 1830 and has beautiful curving domes. The Victorian period was the heyday for glasshouse construction. Elaborate glass structures became the latest must-have for the wealthy aristocracy and businessmen of the time. They were just the thing for showing off plants brought back from Asia, Africa and the Americas by the plant hunters they would sponsor. Glasshouses would often be designed for just one type of plant so that the exact requirements for that plant could be met, for instance, an orangery would house purely citrus plants. Orchid houses and palm houses were popular too.
In Britain, some of the best known glasshouses are those at Kew, the RHS gardens at Wisley and at university botanic gardens such as Cambridge and Oxford, but there are others dotted about from Inverness in the far north of Scotland to Sheffield and Birmingham and Joseph Paxton’s fernery at Tatton Park in Cheshire, which was built in 1850.
In recent years many of these old glasshouses have been fully refurbished – the 150 year-old glasshouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh are currently undergoing a massive restoration process – and there have been new interpretations on indoor growing, such as the biomes at the Eden Project and the largest single span glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.
Colourful flowers such as bromeliads bring a welcome splash of colour to eyes that are sick of seeing winter greys and browns. It’s impossible not to be mesmerised by the structure and details of giant lily pads, wowed by the huge foliage of palms or intrigued by the unusual forms of cacti.
While most of these glasshouses are on another scale to the ones we have in our own gardens that doesn’t mean they can’t inspire us. Alpine houses with their raised sand beds and sunken pots of tiny plants are achievable in a typical back garden. Keep a look out when you’re walking around tropical, temperate and desert glasshouses and see how many plants you can spot that can be grown as houseplants. On one trip I was surprised to see in full bloom a huge Crassula ovata, the money tree, which I have growing on my windowsill. I’d never even realised it flowered.
I first came across air plants, or tillandsia, on a visit to Kew. These are such unusual plants because they grow on the trunks or branches of trees, or on rocky outcrops, all without the need for soil. At Kew impressive specimens tumble from overhead like long trailing beards. While I don’t have a warm greenhouse at home, air plants make great houseplants, and I now have my own small collection.
Orchids are a particular favourite of mine and it’s fascinating to see them in one of these specialist glasshouse showing how they would grow in the wild, clinging to damp tree trunks and nestling in the crevices of branches. I grow moth orchids as houseplants, but there are so many different and unusual ones that seeing them in a specialist collection is a real treat. If you’re a fan, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew holds an orchid festival every February, with incredible displays inspired by a particular part of the world – this year it will focus on the plants of Madagascar.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
- Current blog posts
- Three tips for the greenhouse
- For the plants to grow it takes fertilizer but which one?
- Sterile soil is not good for the plants
- Greenhouse plants also get sick
- Hens in the garden
- Provide shade for your plants
- The philosophical gardener’s theory of perennials
- Create good living conditions for animals and insects in the garden
- The golf courses great secret
- What you need to be aware of when growing in plastic