The Glasshouses

The RBGE has been growing plants in glasshouses since 1713 when our first structure was built at the Trinity Physic Garden (now Waverley train Station).


Covering two levels, 10 zones and range from the iconic Victorian Palm Houses of 1834 & 1856, through the 6 zones of the initiative 1967 Front Range and ending with the two utilitarian clear-span glasshouses from 1978 that focus on our SE Asian research.

Our oldest glasshouse is the Tropical Palm House and was built & designed by an unknown architect in 1834 and was the tallest in the UK till the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth was built in 1840.

The Temperate Palm House was built in 1858 by Robert Matheson with a grant from the UK Parliament and cost a total of £6,500. It measures 15.24 m (50ft) to the top of the stonework - sandstone from a quarry at Bishopbriggs near Glasgow, with each glass dome 3.35 m (11ft) giving a total height of 21.95 m (72ft).

The radical design of the 1967 glasshouses was hailed as the most innovative since Paxton's Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, built in the 1830s. All the supporting structure is on the outside, so the internal area can be used to full effect. It was designed by Allan Pendreigh who was responsible for the actual design as architect with the Department of the Environment along with George Pearce and John Johnson. The Main Contractor was Alexander Hall & Son (Builders) Edinburgh Ltd.. The main range is 128 m (420 ft) long and 18.25 m (60 ft) wide and cost £263,000.

The glasshouses were filled with topsoil that had been removed from the construction site of the Forth Road Bridge, which was opened in 1964. 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.

Finally the two clear-span glasshouse where built in 1978 along with most of our Research glasshouse in the final phase on “modernising” after a period of neglect They were opened by Sir George Taylor on the 14th July.


Tropical Palm House and Research Houses

Seasonal Highlights

There is something to see in each of the Public glasshouses all year round.

  • In the Summer, the obvious must see highlight is the giant water lilies in the Plants and People house which are at their best in July, stretching in size to match the long days. The Arid lands bloom in the summer as we increase watering and the heat builds as do the Aroids beneath their usually dominate foliage.
  • As in most gardens the Autumn sees fruit developing and the Glasshouses are no exception, look up to see the bananas towering above you, Cacao pods developing on the woody trunks of the Theobroma cacao and the fragrance of the strawberry guava fruit fill the Rainforest Riches glasshouse.
  • Apart from being a haven of warmth, Winter sees the Vireya Rhododendron join the blooming Orchids and winter flowering Pelargoniums, adding a splash of colour to our grey winter days
  • Spring sees fresh new growth on many of our plants adding shades of red to the greens that fill the glasshouses. The red flowers of the powder puff tree will catch your eye and keep your eyes open for the unusual coloured flowers of the Jade vine.

Travel the world through our 10 Glasshouse zones

Temperate Palm House

Filled with Ferns & Palms to complement the Victorian idea for the display, although ours are planted rather than maintained in pots as they did from 1713 to 1890. The light levels in this house are far lower than those in other glasshouses due to the wide stone pillars. Since the temperature never falls below 10°C, many frost-tender species thrive here.

Palms are arguably the most useful group of plants on our planet. They provide a vast range of economic products from foods such as dates and coconuts to oils used in cosmetics and cooking.

Temperate Palm House

Tropical Palm House

The Tropical Palm House is not only the oldest glasshouse in Edinburgh dating from 1834, but also boasts the Garden's oldest palm at its centre. The Sabal bermudana was moved from the previous Leith Walk site in 1822 and spent the first 70 years at the Inverleith site in an ever increasing pot. It was finally planted into its current position around 1892. Look out for other palms like the multi-stemmed Caryota and the climbing Rattan, not to mention our giant bamboo whose growth can go from ground to roof in 4 to 5 weeks!

Plants and People

Here luxuriant tropical rainforest vegetation and economical plants - including bananas, rice, sugar and cocoa - surround the central pond. In the summer the pond is dominated by the huge floating leaves of the giant water lily (Victoria species), which thrives in the high humidity and hot conditions of this house. Although giant water lily plants is a perennial in the wild, they cannot be sustained all year round so far north due to the low winter light levels. Instead, fresh seed is sown each year in January to produce new plants.

Plants and People Glasshouse

Orchids and Cycads

A smaller individual example of the 1967’s Front Range, this glasshouse was opened the following year and dominated by cycads. They have tough palm-like leaves, and both the male and female plants bear spectacular cones. Cycads are very slow growing, surviving for up to 2,000 years, although unfortunately in their native habitats many are threatened with extinction. Some of the cycads in this house are already over 200 years old. A wide range of orchids flourishes in the moderate humidity and warmth of this house. Some, known as terrestrial orchids, are rooted in the ground, but many others grow epiphytically - on the surfaces of other plants.

Orchid and Cycad

Ferns and Fossils

The grove of tree ferns around the cascading stream in the centre of the house echoes the montane cloud forests of temperate Australasia. These tall-growing species, which can reach up to 20 metres, provide shelter for other delicate species and under-storey ferns that demand protection from high light levels. You will also find a giant horsetail (Equisetum myriochaetum) here - it's as invasive as the garden weed and is contained within a concrete planter.

Look out for a replica of Westlothiana lizzae (created by Mo Farquharson), a 25cm long lizard-like reptile that lived in the swamps in central Scotland some 338 million years ago and also Acmopyle pancheri, endemic to New Caledonia, and now under threat as populations become fragmented by mining activities and fire.

Fern and Fossil

Rainforest Riches

Experience the hot and humid atmosphere of the South American rainforest. A range of exotic climbers, many of which have extraordinary flowers, festoons the walls and railings that overlook the pool brimming with carp. Featuring prominently are the bromeliads - a large family of over 2,000 species, of which the most familiar is the fragrant pineapple (Ananas comosus). Known as 'urn plants', their leaves spiral around a central hollow in a nest shape, storing water for the plants and creating a reservoir for other life forms, such as the tree frog. In late winter the bright red pompom flowers of the Calliandra haematocephala provide a splash of colour.

Rainforest Riches

Temperate Lands

The great expanse of this house is a direct result of the external supports designed into the Front Range by the architects for the Department of the Environment in 1967; the design maximises the light available to the plants and provides a pillar-free internal area which is landscaped to create an atmosphere of exotic habitats. The bridge that stretches end to end gives wonderful views down onto the lower level. The house features plants from warm, moist evergreen forests, such as the Japanese blue oak (Quercus glauca) and the kauri (Agathis australis). Beneath these are many shade-loving plants such as begonias, hedychiums and ferns, which thrive in the dappled shade.

Temperate Lands

Arid Lands

The clear, dry air of the Arid Lands House transports you to desert regions of the world, from the Americas to Africa and Arabia. The displays in the house explore the complex ecosystems of desert life; the plants are xerophytes, which have adapted in various ways to show extraordinary tolerance of dry conditions. Some, such as Agave and Aloe, have fleshy leaves in which water is stored, while Cacti have leaves that are nothing more than spines, while others like the ferns shrivel up like a nest of dry leaves. In summer, the sandstone in the house absorbs the heat in the day and releases it at night when these areas can drop to freezing temperatures. The plants benefit from this heat, as well as from the shade that helps with water conservation.

Arid Lands

Montane Tropics

North of the Front Range is the first of the two clear-span glasshouses that opened in 1978 and are landscaped to reflect the scientific collection of SE Asia. Here the higher altitude plants thrive in a cool moist & bright atmosphere.

The first represents the mountainous region of Borneo to Indonesia, which is home to the world's richest diversity and largest collection of Vireya rhododendrons. These beautiful plants can be found growing from sea level to over 4,000m in the wild yet are not frost hardy and need to be grown under glass. A case of carnivorous plants is another popular attraction in this house. Look out for the cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica) and the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

Montane Tropics

Lowland Tropics

In the second of our clear-span glasshouse we stay in the same geographical area as the Montane Tropics House, but this environment represents the lowlands and so it is warmer and wetter. The limestone cliff provides the environment for members of the African violet family, the Gesneriaceae, within which are plants such as the goldfish plant (Columnea) and the lipstick vine (Aeschynanthus).

Dominant here is the large collection of gingers, the Zingiberaceae. Many species of this family have leaves that contain aromatic oils and the family includes culinary plants such as turmeric and cardamom as well as the familiar ginger Zingiber officinale. At the back of the house is a 1000-litre pot containing the tuber of the now-famous Amorphophallus titanum, the world's biggest and smelliest unbranched inflorescence. The plant flowered for the first time in Scotland in June 2015 when it flowered for the second time it was pollinated and went on to produce the first seed from Scotland.

Lowland Tropics

Glasshouse Borders

Although not covered in glass, the Glasshouse Borders enjoy a microclimate that allows more tender plants to survive outside, thanks to the protection the proximity of the glasshouses provides. Behind the Glasshouses is the Chilean Terrace, showcasing many of the wild plants collected by RBGE staff, from the small Calceolaria to the Berberis valdiviana with its drooping racemes of saffron-yellow flowers.