International Palm Society Logo"Palm Trees Shivering in a Surrey Shrubbery"-
A History of Subtropical Gardening

Reprinted with permission from the April 1997 issue of Principes, Vol 41, No 2
Journal of the International Palm Society (Renamed as Palms in 1999)

1997 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


Vandusen Botanical Garden Association, 5251 Oak Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

From the earliest times, gardeners have been preoccupied with cultivating exotic plants in alien climates (Huxley 1978). Henry VIII's gardener successfully grew fruit such as figs, peaches, and apricots against the warrn, south-facing brick walls at royal palaces. Not much later, Sir Francis Carew was growing orange trees outdoors in southern England. Extraordinary measures were needed to keep these delicate trees alive. In winter, wooden huts were erected around them and they were heated with stoves when frosts threatened (Rose 1989). However, despite these early beginnings, the use of hardy palms and other "exotic" plants in the temperate garden really owes its origins to eighteenth and nineteenth century European botanical expeditions and to the Victorian vogue for botany and plant collecting. This article traces that history to the present-day use of such plants in the Pacific North West.

Palm Pioneers and Plant Collectors

Interest in palms and other tropical plants grew as European nations extended their influence in tropical areas of the world. In particular, the Dutch presence in the Far East led to an increase in European knowledge of palms. In the latter part of the 17th century, Rumphius (1627-1702) compiled his books on the flora of Amboina in the Moluccas Islands, describing about 50 species of palms. Alexander von Humboldt added greatly to this knowledge through his voyages of scientific investigation to the Spanish Colonies in South America, adding, among others, the genus Jubaea, which is usually considered to be the hardiest of the feather palms. Humboldt's travels and publications stirred up interest over South America, which led, in turn, to the expedition in 1817 to 1820 of Carl von Martius (1794-1868), the "Father of Palms." One of the results of this expedition was the Historia Naturalis Palmarum, which took him from 1823 to 1853 to complete and which is described by Prof. Corner as "the most magnificent treatment of palms that has been produced" (Corner 1966). The half-hardy palms Brahea and Trithrinax were included. The year 1850 saw the publication of another great palm book, Palms of British East India by William Griffith (1810-1845). Other British palm pioneers of the 19th century included Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), Henry Bates (1823-1892), and Richard Spruce (1817-1893). A major contribution was made to the study of palms by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari (1843-1920) in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, plant collectors went on many exciting and dangerous voyages around the world to bring back specimens for European collectors. One of the most famous was Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who went with Captain Cook on his first voyage around the world. When he became unofficial director of Kew Gardens, he sent out other plant collectors who added many more of the plants with which we are now familiar. From Britain, many of the plants were then sent to other tropical regions. For example, the Malaysian rubber industry owes its origin to seedlings sent to the Singapore Botanical Gardens by Kew Gardens. Kew was also important in spreading the cultivation of bananas around the world. A major breakthrough in plant collecting took place in 1827 when the Wardian case was invented and plants could be more safely transported (Allen 1969). Deenaugh Goold-Adams notes that, "the use of the Wardian case -- meant that the more delicate tropical plants and the wonders of China had a chance of surviving the journey. The use of the Wardian case turned the trickle of new introductions into a flood" (Goold-Adams 1987).

One of the earliest plant collectors was Robert Fortune who made successful expeditions into China and Japan (Coats 1969). Although Dr. Von Siebold sent seeds of the Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) from Japan to Holland in 1830, it was Robert Fortune who was responsible for their successful introduction as a staple of subtropical gardening. He first saw the palm on the islands of Chusan off the coast of east China and collected young plants in 1849 on a trip into the interior. China had been off-limits to European collectors until the end of the Opium War in 1842 and in 1849, Europeans were still restricted to 30 miles from a treaty-port. Fortune wanted to collect green tea plants, which were far from the coast so, in order to go undetected, he wore a Chinese costume and had his head shaved in the Chinese style to conceal that he was a foreigner. On the journey by boat to the tea district, he came across the palm that was to be named after him. He arranged to send some young plant via Hong Kong and Calcutta to William Hooker at Kew. He requested "that he would forward one of them to the garden of His Royal Highness Prince Albert at Osborne House, Isle of Wight." It is interesting to note that, in 1871, William Robinson wrote that a Chusan palm in Her Majesty's gardens at Osborne "had stood out for many winters and attained a considerable height" (Robinson 1871). Over a hundred years later in 1989, Roy Lancaster observed that trees from Fortune's introductions are still alive and well outside at Kew, Osborne House, and elsewhere Lancaster (1989).

The Victorian Passion for Plants

The many exotic plants found by the plant collectors were eagerly welcomed by the European middle classes, especially in Britain. The Victorians had a passion for plants:

Plants -- especially fecund, exotic plants, found on heroic adventures in the far corners of the globe -- were one of the symbols of the Victorian Age. As Britain's industrial base grew more prosperous and her Empire spread, so the British public became more obsessed with nature in all its varieties. It was not such a paradoxical fascination as it might seem at first sight. Partly it was a reaction against the accelerated drift of the population towards the industrial cities, partly a sheer revelling in "The Wonders of Creation."  Nothing was more encouraging to an aggressively expansive and optimistic people than the ceaseless parade of new resources and natural marvels that its explorers and entrepreneurs were bringing home from the colonies. It seemed like a divine blessing on the nation. Mabey (1989)

Exotic plants such as palms provided a link, however weak, to wondrous lands:

Only in purple light of dreams may dwellers in temperate climates conjure up, perhaps, for themselves pictures of indescribable magnificence of the vegetation that springs up beneath the glowing sun of the tropics. The individual plants thermelves that languish imprisoned in our hot-houses can but faintly suggest ideas of their full and majestic development in their native lands. S. Moody (1864)

The association of palms with religion was part of their fascination for some Victorians. In 1864, The Palm Tree by S. Moody was published. In it, she notes the many scriptural references to palms, writing that "it has been the writer's earnest aim throughout to endeavour, by unfolding the countless lovely analogies suggested by her subject, to interest the reader in The Palm Tree - Servant of God and friend of man." Sometimes this association seems to have gone too far. One 19th century enthusiast wrote:

This distinguished form of the palm, superior to all other plants, the noble bearing, the stem striving to reach the skies -- its nourishing fruits, the materials for clothing and shelter -- all these combined to create the sense of a higher being inherent in it, if not a godhead then surely the dwelling of the same. Minter (1990)

In Europe, many of the newly introduced plants were housed in greenhouses ranging from the great Palm House at Kew built between 1844 and 1848 to more modest suburban home conservatories built for the expanding middle class created by the Industrial Revolution (Minter 1990, Warren 1991). The development of those glasshouses was the result of the repeal of Britain's Glass Tax in 1845 and the growth of new industries producing cheaper glass. Heat was provided by stoves and so these conservatories were often called stove houses or stoves. One author notes that

the Victorians liked to heat their conservatories. It was a matter of ambition and pride to be able to grow and display the most exotic, rare, and tender plants and then to be able to take tea amongst them. Marston (1992)

The design of many of these conservatories was very elaborate and the survivors bear witness to the skills of Victorian craftsmen. Although the passion for palms never surpassed the craze for ferns, palms had a special fascination for the Victorians as reflected in the growth of the Kew collection. Six palm species were grown at Kew in 1768, ten by 1787, 20 in 1813, 40 in 1830, and 420 in 1882 (Minter 1990). This public ....

This excerpt is the first two pages of the article that originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Principes.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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