Discovery.

In the 1700’s and 1800’s British navel explorers criss-crossed the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. New territories such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island near Australia were claimed for the British Empire.

Botanists sailed aboard many of these ships. Their duties encompassed descriptions of local wildlife and vegetation with accurate illustrations of their findings. Wherever possible, seeds and living specimens were bought back to England.

Under such perilous conditions few tropical plants survived to grow or germinate in the northern climate of Great Britain. Only the Royal Botanical Gardens at Mew and very few other gardens where researchers conducted plant studies, could expect to receive such precious samples. Tropical and subtropical plants remained rare and costly. To own such plants was a sign of significant wealth and status.

in 1869 Charles Moore, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney, made a brief visit to Lord Howe Island. Moore’s task was to survey the island’s vegetation, including the palms that formed dense forests covering the Island’s lowland area.

Moore singled out two palms that grew in abundance. They were given the botanical names Kentia Belmoreana ( after the Earl of Belmore ) and Kentia Forsteriana ( honoring William Forster, a prominent Senator in. We South Wales, Australia ).

Upon his return to Sydney, Moore sent a small amount of seed from these palms to Sir Joseph Hooker, curator of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kev. Hooker had been a distinguished plant collector. He was well aware of the potential commercial possibilities of successfully introducing into the British market a previous unknown plant from a distant part of the Empire.

As an enthusiastic member of the international botanical fraternity, Moore would have been informed of the changing fashions in England. Moore laid the groundwork for the Kentia’s introduction with several letters published in the “Gardeners’ Chronicle’. This magazine was founded by Joseph Paxton in 1841. By 1870 it was England’s premier gardening journal, with a readers in the thousands. Moore’s later letters advocating the decorative quality and reliability of the Kentia he has identified on Lord Howe Island were read with interest by gardening enthusiasts. Those in a position to afford such luxury, when the plants were available, turned to English nurserymen for supplies of the plant.


Shipping planter box used by botanists in the 1880’s.( picture from book “Seed to Elegance”).

Kentia Palms and Nobility in the Victorian Era.

Horticulture Magazines in the late 1880’s attributed the popularity of the Kentia Palms to Queen Victoria. Her stately homes and castles featured Kentia Palms in elaborate urns bringing tropical nature inside these vast chambers.

In many portraits of the nobility in Europe there was often a potted Kentia Palm displayed. On some occasions the potted Kentia Palm might not have been the most elegant choice for its shape or size, but it was a feature. Could this trend be because the Kentias in that area defined good fashion sense and wealth, all because of Queen Victoria’s admiration for the palm?

Photos from Seed to Elegance.

Victorian Era.

Once introduced into Europe, the Kentia Palm was immediately recognized as remarkable for its dramatic appearance and ability to readily flourish indoors. Strong survival rates meant greater numbers of seeds could be imported successfully. However, the Kentias were still very expensive to purchase and therefore exclusive.

The prohibitive cost factor resulted in Kentia Palms becoming famous house plants among the nobility and aristocracy of Europe. Royal residences and stately homes had the high ceilings where Kentias could be displayed in all their glory. The owners also had the budgets for securing them. Kentias could be found by the late 1800’s in parlors, ballrooms, reception areas and conservatories. Since Kentias lived in splendor for many years they were cost effective. Growers found them a popular, worthwhile and a well valued investments. They believed that Kentias defined the good fashion sense and wealth of the plants’ owners. Kentia Palms were admired throughout Europe’s aristocratic, upper class and well-to-do middle class families.

(Country Life Picture Library.)

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