Palace of Palms: Tropical dreams and the making of Kew by Kate Teltscher 2020. Picador.
The UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew near London are famed as much for the buildings and grounds, as the ground-breaking, world-leading research into plants that is carried out there. And Kew’s most iconic building is undoubtedly the Palm House, which in many respects is the focal point of the Gardens. Kew’s buildings and plants are masterfully combined by Kate Teltscher in Palace of Palms which places the Palm House and its precious plant contents centre-stage.
Taken at face value Palace of Palms is an account of the construction of the Palm House at Kew. Although a book about a building project – even a botanical one – might seem a little too niche, specialist, and lacking in broad appeal, Teltscher’s story-telling makes that story far from boring and dry. Indeed, her engaging, informative, and highly readable narrative ranges far (e.g. from London to Iceland, the Antarctic, and India) and wide (e.g. from the natural and cultural history of palms, to metallurgical insights into large iron structures, and the problems of recreating the tropics indoors in England). Palace of Palms is best summarised by the book’s sub-title, Tropical dreams and the making of Kew, and includes: royal patronage, patriotism, peers, plagiarism, paternalism for professional advancement,* procrastination, people, plants, pleasure gardens, public institutions, national prestige, prisoners, princes, princesses, palaces, public procurement practices, and places.
Palace of Palms is therefore much more than a tale about the construction of a giant glass house. Rather, that engineering project is placed in the wider context of 19th century British imperialism and emphasises the central role that botany played in promoting and perpetuating Great Britain’s presumption of privilege and prestige and international status. And this was achieved, as Teltscher reminds us: “With its global collection, the Palm House embodied the wide reach of Britain’s imperial power” (p. 218). In many respects, the story of Kew Gardens is the story of how the Palm House came to be.
And, perhaps the most fascinating fact of all is that there could so easily have never been a Palm House in the first place, nor the Kew Gardens that we have today. Kew was originally a royal estate whose continued existence was under scrutiny when Queen Victoria ascended the British throne in 1837. Initially, Victoria was in favour of the estate’s abandonment. Fortunately, her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne suggested that the public “might possibly vote a sum for it” (p. 21). Following a change of heart by the monarch, ownership – and the expense of its upkeep, etc. – of Kew was passed into public ownership in 1838. As is often the case, with new owners came a change of management, and William Jackson Hooker took over as Director from his predecessor William Townsend Aiton, director-general of the Royal Gardens*.
As a venue to showcase the botanical bounty of the British Empire, constructing the Palm House was a personal crusade of William Hooker. But, as with all large government-funded projects the path to its completion was not a smooth one, and many obstacles had to be overcome. It’s in large part due to the efforts of Director Hooker that it became a reality, and not just as a botanical shop-display, but as the magnificent symbol of Victorian entrepreneurship, industrial invention, innovation, imagination, and architectural creativity that still stands today. It’s that tangled and tortuous tale of the journey from the recommendation by the 1838 Royal Commission into Kew that the greenhouses be renovated, to the opening of the Palm House to the public in 1844 that Teltscher tells in Palace of Palms.
Palace of Palms is a very scholarly text, its 310 pages of main text is supported and supplemented with >70 pages of sources, bibliography, and Index. The pages contain numerous references [as discrete super-scripted numbers] to support the statements made and conclusions drawn by the author – which is always nice to see.** Lest mention of the book’s scholarliness lead you to think it might be a stuffy and rather dry tome, fear not, in Palace of Palms research-rigour and readability go hand-in-hand. And, anyway, there are lots of illustrations to break up the text; two blocks of colour images, and numerous black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the text. Although there are some nice pictures of plants, most images are not vegetable in nature and portraits of people and plans of the Palm House abound. However, some of the illustrations are too small to be really useful, e.g. Fig. 15 “an initial sketch of an arboretum”, and Fig. 17 “plan for a national arboretum”. Overall, though, Palace of Palms is a great addition to the plants-and-people genre that appears to be blossoming in print at present [and long may that trend continue!].
Divided into 14 chapters, each provides an account of a different aspect of the creation of the Palm House, and other aspects of the development of Kew as a national institution of global significance and relevance. Accordingly, although there’s lots about the personalities that contributed to the design of the Palm House and its construction, we have substantial sections devoted to the materials used in that construction and learn the difference between cast and wrought iron, the numerous experiments to select the right colour of glass for the buildings 16,000 panes, and the logistical difficulties of providing the constant 26 oC necessary to reproduce the tropics year-round in the UK. For the true plant lovers amongst us, two of the most interesting sections of the book are devoted to the economic botany collection at Kew and a fascinating account of the relevance and ‘meaning’ of palms in society, culture, and literature – especially the date palm and coconut palm. Indeed, Chapter 4 is so packed full of palm information that it gives Palm by Fred Gray a very good run for its money!
Having read Teltscher’s book, the name Palm House will now never do justice to that venerable Victorian vegetable ‘manicured jungle’; it has to be renamed the Palace of Palms from now on!***
If you have the slightest interest in ‘how Kew Gardens came to be’, and are just a little bit interested in the plants and personalities that helped to make it all happen, then Kate Teltscher’s Palace of Palms is just the book for you. It’s a great story that’s told well, and gives you as much plants-and-people information – and enlightenment – as you could wish for in one place.
* A good example of the patronage and paternalistic advancement of one’s professional career featured in Palace of Palms is Joseph Hooker. He was shamelessly ‘groomed’ by his father to succeed him as Director at Kew, which he did, in 1865. Another example is that of John Smith, the curator at Kew who secured employment for his son, Alexander, at the Gardens. Initially employed in sorting the collection of vegetable products at Kew, Alexander eventually became the curator of the Museum of Economic Botany. The fascinating tale of this collection which “aimed to demonstrate the uses of plants, both in their local and global context” (p. 240) is told in Chapter 12 of Palace of Palms. Housed for many years in Museum No. 1 at Kew, opposite the Palm House, I don’t know where the collection is now since its former home appears to have been converted into a restaurant. Another example of paternalism I chanced upon when Googling William Townsend Aiton; he succeeded his father William Aiton as director of Kew in 1793. Botany, a flourishing family business indeed!
** But, the one snippet of plant information that really caught my attention – the assertion that the seeds of date palm smell like human sperm – was not referenced. Sadly, I haven’t yet managed to find a source for this assertion. However, my Googling did turn up several articles that suggest there is a connection between date palm fruit and pollen products and motility of mammalian sperm (e.g. Ben A. Fatma et al., Asian J Androl. 11(3): 393–398, 2009; doi: 10.1038/aja.2008.6; Soghra Fallahi et al., Electronic Physician 7(8): 1590–1596, 2015; doi: 10.19082/1590; Mohammad Tahvilzadeh et al., Journal of Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 21(4): 320-324, 2016; doi: 10.1177/2156587215609851; Ubah Simon Azubuike et al., bioRxiv 2020.06.17.156687; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.17.156687). If true, could this be evidence in favour of the medical system known as the Doctrine of Signatures..?
*** I wonder if the building will be renamed on the map of Kew Gardens..?
Thank you for your very enthusiastic review, Nigel. Love how you run with the ‘p’ alliteration of the title!
Here’s the missing reference for the observation by the 13th-century geographer al-Qazwīnī that the seeds of the date palm smell like human sperm:
Salman H. Bashier, The Story of Islamic Philosophy: Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Al-‘Arabi, and Others on the Limit between Naturalism and Traditionalism (State University of NY Press, 2011) 48-9
That is most kind of you.