Indoor gardens to visit in London

by Abigail Willis

Courtesy of the Barbican Centre

Garden visiting is all very well in the summer but once autumnal mists and mellow fruitfulness give way to full-blown winter, enthusiasm (along with daylight hours) tends to wane.  In London however, the December doldrums don’t have to put paid to the fun – the following are great places to escape the horizontal rain and Siberian winds and experience some fabulous indoor gardening action.

Barbican Conservatory

Although concrete is the material most associated with the Barbican, this vast post-war development in Cripplegate is much greener than most people credit. The complex features some 12km of balconies, many of whose numerous window boxes are enthusiastically gardened by residents.  The Barbican also has its own Horticultural Society, a wildlife garden and its labyrinthine walkways even accommodate some containerized allotments.

Packed with over 2,000 species of tropical and sub-tropical plants, many of them “palmed off” (as it were)on to the Lord Mayor by visiting dignitaries, the Barbican Conservatory is a little known London garden that’s ‘hidden in plain view’.  It’s the second largest glasshouse of its kind in London after Kew but was a bit of an afterthought, built around the fly tower of the Arts Centre theatre.  It opened in 1984, with the cacti-filled Arid House following two years later. The Conservatory is open to the public on Sundays, 12 noon-17.30.

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Credit: Lee Mawdsley Conservatory. Bridge: BarbicanCentre

The Conservatory, Chiswick House

Chiswick House repays a visit at any time of year but from February to March, its Conservatory is the place to head.  Built in 1813 for the horticulture mad 6th Duke of Devonshire, this 300ft long glasshouse is still home to the collection of Camellias he amassed before his death in 1858.  All early flowering Japanese species, (as opposed to C. sinensis or C. sasanqua), the Duke’s exquisite blooms are the perfect way to banish the winter blues.  They are the focus of an annual celebration in their honour (Chiswick House Camellia Festival, 1-30 March 2014).

A time capsule of early 19th century plant-collecting predilections, the historic camellias also offer a tangible link to London’s nurserymen of old.  The beautiful rarity C. japonica ‘Middlemist’s Red’ (one of only two known specimens) is named for John Middlemist, the Shepherd’s Bush nurseryman who introduced it to this country, while C.japonica ‘Chandleri’ remembers the Vauxhall nursery of Chandler & Son who bred it (by crossing ‘Variegata’ with ‘Anemoniflora’).

The building in which these historic camellias are housed is also noteworthy – the recently restored Grade I listed structure predates its more famous cousin at Chatsworth (another commission by the ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire) and the Palm House at Kew by decades.

Camellia Festival 2014, 1-30 March 2014

Visitor: Anna Kunst Incarnata: John Fielding.

Visitor: Anna Kunst Incarnata: John Fielding.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kew’s signature glasshouses come into their own during the winter months.  Although the Waterlily House (Kew’s hottest and most humid glasshouse) closes for the season and the Temperate House is currently closed until 2018 for a major restoration, there is still plenty of undercover action at Kew.

Built in the 1840s, the Palm House was designed to house the exotic palms that the Victorians loved to collect.  Over the years it has taken longer to restore its iconic ‘upturned ship’s hull’ structure than it did to construct it in the first place – the tropical rainforest conditions so necessary for palmiculture not being quite so conducive to 19th-century ironwork.  Today this glass enclave is home to rarities such as the triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi) from Madagascar and a South African cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii) that was brought to Kew way back in 1775.  With the exception of the tall palms beneath the central dome, specimens are arranged by region and with a focus on their economic role in the world such as Tetrapanax papyrifer (rice paper plant) and Cocos nucifera (coconut palm).

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Palm House Credit RGB Kew

Even more ambitiously, the Princess of Wales Conservatory recreates 10 climactic zones, including dry tropical environments such as desert and savannah.  Its collection of agaves, aeoniums and echiums prove it’s really not necessary to board an overcrowded flight to experience the flora of winter holiday hotspots like the Canary Islands.   Exotic – and slightly sinister – fauna in the shape of piranhas, poison dart frogs and water dragons only add to this conservatory’s cold weather appeal. This Conservatory hosts Orchids at Kew: A Plant-hunters’ Paradise in February 2014.

,glasshouse princess of wales kew

Credit: RBG Kew Princess of Wales Conservatory

For those who don’t like it too hot, the Davies Alpine House is as cool, dry and refreshing as a nicely-chilled glass of Chablis.  The newest of Kew’s glasshouses, its quirky ‘back to back arches’ structure – designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects – houses charming, ever-changing walk-through displays of tiny but tough mountain plants such as campanulas, dianthus and tulips.  If you’re lucky your visit may coincide with an outing of their rarest plant, the cobalt blue Chilean Blue Crocus, (Tecophilaea cyanocrocus).

Glasshouses aren’t the only weatherproof attractions at Kew.  Facing the Palm House, and likewise designed by Decimus Burton, Museum No.1 continues the theme of ‘economic botany’ with displays of plant-based artefacts that civilisation just can’t do without (bamboo blowpipes, rubber dentures…).

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Credit: RBG Kew Davies Alpine House and Marianne North Gallery

Containing the life’s work of globe-trotting Victorian artist Marianne North, the gallery named after her offers a most congenial escape from a drab December day.  Depicting plants in their native habitats as she encountered them was Miss North’s speciality and although she came late to both painting and to world travel, she managed to portray some 900 species in a total of 833 paintings.  These are hung pretty much floor to ceiling in the manner of a ‘botanical stamp album’.  Next door the sleek white interior of the Shirley Sherwood gallery showcases examples of botanic illustration, both classic and contemporary, in more minimalist style.

Hall Place & Gardens, Bexley

When it’s bracing in Bexley, you could do worse than ducking into the award-winning 65 hectare grounds at Hall Place. As well as rolling formal parkland, heraldic topiary, ‘botanic time-line’ garden, demonstration gardens and a ‘really useful’ herb garden, the gardens also include a modern palm house. It’s well-stocked with clearly labeled sub-tropical plants, and there are fun displays on exotic crops such as coffee, avocados and bananas. Terrapins patrol the central pond and in February 2014 butterflies from around the world will have the run of the place, as part of the Butterfly Jungle Experience.

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Credit: Bexley Hall

And with one eye on the future …

Indoor gardens are set to be a striking feature of the new US Embassy building, currently under construction at Nine Elms.  No less than six double height ‘atrium gardens’ are planned for the 10 storey glass cube by architects Kieran Timberlake.   Designed by Philadelphia/Los Angeles based landscape architects OLIN (, each sky garden will reference a different signature US landscape, offering a taste of back home to embassy staff, as well as a pleasant environment in which they can enjoy a sandwich or a coffee break, or simply move through en route to other areas of the embassy.  The six gardens – Pacific Forest, Midwest, Gulf Coast, Canyonlands, Potomac and Mid-Atlantic – will contain both fictive and real elements to evoke various aspects or phenomena of their regional landscapes, be it their spatial quality, light, colour or their materiality.  While the interior gardens won’t be for public consumption, the embassy complex as a whole will sit in a public park setting, linking the new embassy building with a new greenway that itself will connect the Thames with surrounding neighbourhoods.

© Abigail Willis, November 2013


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