This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on October 12, 2020. Enjoy!
I am a proud Edinburgh resident. As such, I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to reminders of the Regency, from windows and house doors to family portraits in museums and art galleries.
However, only a few days ago, one of such reminders disappeared forever. It was a living being, one already in existence when Jane Austen was alive.
The Sabal Palm Tree, A West Indies Native
I am talking of a Sabal palm tree, native to Bermuda, that arrived from the West Indies to the Port of Leith just outside Edinburgh in 1810. It was a long journey, one which the plant made in a Wardian case – essentially a terrarium, or mini-greenhouse (see picture at the top of the page).
In the early 19th century, the Royal Botanic Garden (also known as the “Physick Garden”) was to the west of Leith Walk, and that’s where the palm tree went. It was a little thing at the time: it took 40 years for it to grow a trunk, and another 80 for it to flower for the first time.
A Living Link to the Regency
I find it mind-blowing to think that the palm tree was planted in 1810, the same year that King George III was declared insane and Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. Jane Austen was very much alive, and possibly thinking about Mansfield Park.
Image source: Historia naturalis palmarum by Carol. Frid. Phil de Martius at Biodiversity LIbrary
By the way, I can quite imagine Sir Thomas admiring Sabal palm trees during his time overseas, and arranging for one to be transported back to his estate. In Miss Price’s Decision, I gave him (as well as his niece Susan) an interest in botany, which I thought suited a man with his responsibilities.
Following the Pineapple Trail
Conservatories and glasshouses as we know them today wouldn’t come until a few years after Jane Austen’s death. However, around that time, many grand houses had south-facing spaces with large windows and pitched glass roofs aimed at maximising light and warmth to grow plants.
As well as citrus, many fruits and vegetables grew in the so-called orangeries. By the Regency, heating was introduced through different means to enable the growth of exotic pineapples, which had very much taken centre stage.
The End of an Era at the Royal Botanic Gardens
But back to our palm tree. In 1821 they moved it to the present Royal Botanic Gardens site in Inverleith. They housed it in Stove House, kept warm with coal-fired boilers, until the majestic Tropical Palm House opened in 1858. It’s there that I saw the palm tree for the last time, all 60ft (18 metre) of it.
The Victorian Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, empty of all specimens
The Royal Botanic Garden is undergoing an ambitious renovation, which includes stripping back the glasshouses and thoroughly repairing them. But while moving the plants to enable the work, it became apparent that the Sabal palm was way too large to make it outside of the glasshouse. With the glass being removed, it couldn’t say in the building either.
Long story short, they fell the Sabal palm two weeks ago today. It breaks my heart to think of it. Apparently, Sabal palms have a lifespan of around 200 years, so the Edinburgh one was coming to the end of its life.
It’s a sad ending for a majestic vestige of the Regency, but I will always remember it, proud and tall, as the centrepiece of the most beautiful of glasshouses.
Plants are silent beings, but also highly evocative. Have you come across any that have made an impression on you?