It’s a quiet time of year in my greenhouse. During the winter months it mainly functions as a home to a motley collection of plants sheltering from the cold and rain, but there aren’t many signs of life as most plants have entered their dormant phase and retreated under the soil or compost.
A visit to a greenhouse at one of the country’s botanic gardens, however, tells a different story. These huge greenhouses, generally referred to as glasshouses due to the sheer amount of this material that’s used, create the perfect growing environments for a whole host of plants from far flung parts of the planet, whether arid desert or tropical rainforest, which carry on growing and blooming despite the wintry conditions outside.
The structures themselves are fascinating too. There are old glasshouses like those at Kew and Edinburgh that showcase the craftsmanship and ingenuity that fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Then there are modern day constructions such as the world’s largest single span glasshouse at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales and the futuristic biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall.
Botanic gardens and their glasshouses are fabulous places to visit any time of the year but there’s something about them in winter that makes them extra special. They’re a refuge from the cold outside and they provide inspiration too. While a year-round heated greenhouse with climate control might be beyond most people’s dreams, many of the plants on display can be grown quite happily in a conservatory or on a windowsill. So if you’re looking for an excuse to get out of the house this winter visit your nearest botanic garden.
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew are a world renowned botanical gem with plenty of glasshouses to choose from. There’s the Palm House, the iconic Victorian glasshouse built in 1844, that’s home to rainforest plants; the Princess of Wales Conservatory with 10 different climate zones and plants including orchids, cacti and the Titan arum with the largest flower in the world; and the Dawes Alpine House, with its unusual design that provides the perfect growing conditions for these tiny plants. The hottest and most humid of the glasshouses is the Waterlily House, built in 1852, where you’ll find the giant Amazon waterlily along with papyrus and ferns.
Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh were established in 1670. Of the complex of 28 different glasshouses 10 are open to the public, including the Tropical Palm House built in 1834 where the temperature is kept to between 18-24°C and the humidity at 80%.
Inverness Botanic Garden may be smaller than many and a bit off the beaten track but there’s still plenty to see. The Tropical House has a good array of plants you may recognise as houseplants. There’s a cascading waterfall and colourful orchids and, in the cacti house there’s an impressive selection of desert-loving plants set among 75 tonnes of rock.
The National Botanic Gardens of Wales near Swansea opened in 2000, with the Lord Foster designed largest single span glasshouse at its centre. Inside find the largest collection of Mediterranean plants in the northern hemisphere. Wander among rocky outcrops, gravel scree and sandstone cliffs recreated to show off the plants in their most natural settings.
Sheffield Botanic Gardens are the perfect example of the Victorian passion for plants. The gardens were first opened in 1836 to create more open space in the city. Paxton’s Pavilions – 3 glass domes linked in between by ridge and furrow glasshouses weren’t actually designed by the world famous glasshouse creator Joseph Paxton, but rather by Benjamin Broomhead Taylor. Recently restored with Lottery funding the pavilions are once more home to all manner of plants from Africa, Australia and Asia.
The Eden Project in Cornwall took the idea of the glasshouse and brought it into the 21st century by erecting giant biomes with a distinctive bubble-like construction in an abandoned china clay pit. The main tropical biome is where you’ll find ‘the largest rainforest in captivity’, then there’s the Mediterranean biome with plants from South Africa, southern Europe and Australia. If you’re looking for an escape from the British winter, several hours here will transport you to a whole other continent.