A Touch of the Tropics

An odd feeling takes over me at this time of year now that the distraction of Christmas is over. I start to feel restless. There’s a craving for light, for colour and for life. There are signs – the fat green fingers of bulbs tentatively pushing through the soil, early snowdrops and the occasional brave, or foolhardy, primrose encouraged into bloom by a milder spell of weather but it’s not quite enough to assuage the feeling of cabin fever that January induces in me. So what can a gardener impatient for spring do to raise their spirits in deepest midwinter?

My own unheated greenhouse may not be the winter retreat I’d like it to be but dotted about the country are some fabulous temples to plants protected by glass which are the perfect places to escape to on a grey, chilly day. Whether they are pinnacles of Victorian engineering, such as the Palm Houses at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, or the gravity defying modern architecture of the world’s largest single span glasshouse at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales these cosy indoor worlds of plants can provide just the boost a gardener needs at this time of year.

Here are just some of the glasshouse highlights you can come across this winter:

– See the delicate beauty and drink in the intoxicating scent of Eucharis amazonica, a relative of the daffodil, in the Tropical Rainforest House at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

– Marvel at the Sabal bermudana palm already a mature specimen when it was moved to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh in 1822.

– Find mimosa, bottlebrushes and proteas in bloom underneath the awe-inspiring roof of the Lord Foster designed glasshouse at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales.

– Look out for the vibrant bird of paradise flower at Birmingham Botanic Garden along with plants we’re more familiar with growing in our homes or as summer bedding plants.

– From the middle of January right through into March you can combine seeing the tropical flowers of orchids with some butterfly spotting at the cathedral-like glasshouse at RHS Wisley.

– See the giant fruits of Citrus medica at the Botanic Gardens in Oxford. Believed to be the first citrus fruit to be cultivated in Europe it might look like a huge lemon but it has very little actual flesh or juice consisting only of rind and pith. If you had candied peel in your mincemeat over the Christmas it is likely to have come from this fruit.

– Although not made from glass the biomes of the Eden Project provide the perfect growing conditions for a huge range of tropical and Mediterranean plants and is home to the largest undercover tropical rainforest. See the exotic flowers of the purple Crinium and the elegant beauty of zantedeschias.

– And as we move into February the colour in the alpine houses of the RHS gardens at Wisley and Harlow Carr is hard to beat.

So beat the winter blues by whiling away a few hours in a glasshouse surrounded by plants.