25% of the accessions in RBGE's living collection are housed in the 28 glasshouses, made up of public display glasshouses and 'back-up' glasshouses for research, quarantine, and propagation. Since over 80% of the world's flora occurs in warm temperate and tropical parts of the world, the glasshouses offer the environments that many plants require.
The Victorian Palm Houses
RBGE's first glasshouse, the Tropical Palm House, was built in 1834 at a cost of £1,500. Some 28 years later the extension, or Temperate Palm House, was built by Robert Matheson with a Parliamentary grant of £6,000. The Temperate Palm House measures 15.24 m (50ft) to the top of the stonework, with each glass dome 3.35 m (11ft) giving a total height of 21.95 m (72ft).
The original glasshouse range was refurbished in 1849 under the auspices of Regius Keeper John Hutton Balfour, but by the 1960s these glasshouses were falling into a state of disrepair and were replaced.
The 1960s Front Range
The radical design of the 1967 glasshouses was hailed as the most innovative since Paxton's Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, built in the 1830s (which was superseded at Chatsworth by a prototype for our Glasshouses here at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh). The main house is 128 m (420 ft) long and 18.25 m (60 ft) wide, designed by George A. H. Pearce (1913-2005) assisted by J. Johnson of the then Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, Soctland at a cost of £263,000. The Main Contractor was Alexander Hall & Son (Builders) Edinburgh Ltd.. All the supporting structure is on the outside, so the internal area can be used to full effect. It covers two levels, with five climatic zones and along with the other glasshouses, there are now 10 glasshouses open to the public.
The glasshouses were filled with topsoil that had been removed from the construction site of the Forth Road Bridge, which was being built at the same time.
Some of the large specimens were transplanted from the old glasshouses to the new, but the 1960's plan made it possible to move away from the congested ranks of pot plants to a more natural look that continues today. The Plants & People House became home to the Victoria amazonica (giant water lily), which opened its first flower after planting, in time for the official opening by HRH Princess Margaret on 25th October 1967.
The back-up houses which offer space for propagation, quarantine, and research purposes were completed in 1976. Two years later the display houses (Montane & Lowland Tropics) were built for members of the Zingiberaceae (ginger family), Gesneriads (african violet family) and Vireya (tender) rhododendrons.