Vienna, the capital of Austria, has always been noted for its culture, its beautiful buildings and an aura of wealthy extravagance. This was the home of the royal Hapsburg family who were strong supporters of the arts and related activities. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Emperor sponsored several expeditions to the New World, culminating in a large collection of new plants and animals from each of the continents. By 1800 he had assembled an important collection of beautiful and rare plants in the Schonbrunn gardens in Vienna.

By the early nineteenth century the wealthy classes of Europe and England had also taken up the collection of exotic orchids and other plants, and the housing of these collections became features of their estates. The wealthy Hapsburgs were at the forefront and the Palmenhaus (Palm House) was commenced in 1828 to house some of the mature palms, and larger trees and shrubs brought in by collectors.

However, as we have all experienced with our own collections, albeit on a smaller scale, this old palm house was soon too small for their on-going collections from around the world. Many additional glasshouses were built at Schonbrunn and plans were made for a much larger palm house. Construction of the ‘New’ Palmenhaus began in 1880 and was completed in June 1882 at a total cost of three million Austrian schillings.

The New Palm House was an innovative and impressive structure comprising three pavilions; the external construction was of riveted wrought iron on top of pillars and arcs of cast iron, all covered by a vaulted construction of suspended double glass. The total length was 111m, width 28 m, height 25 m. A central dome 28 m high was added to house the larger palm trees. It is still the largest glasshouse of its type in Europe.

The Palm House survived World War 1 and an interesting article by Dr. E. Soysa of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon in Orchidologia Zeylanica (Vol. 1, Sept., 1937), describes his visit to Europe to view orchid collections. He makes special mention of the imposing glasshouse at Schonbrunn Gardens, the impressive orchid collection that was once the private collection of the Emperor of Austria, and the rare plants from all over the world including “Brazilian plants now extinct in Brazil”.

Sadly, during the second World War three bombs hit the Palm House on February 7, 1945. It is recorded that ‘all the glass broke and a large part of the valuable plants froze to death on this bitter cold day’. The Palm House was renovated after the war and re-opened in 1953. However, the use of scrap metal that rusted and poor quality glass that deteriorated to allow only 10% light transmission led to its closure in 1976. After public fund-raising, renovationsto the frame commenced in 1986 and the 4,923 m2 of glass (45,000 glass panes) was replaced with laminated glass shingles in the original form. The Palm House was re-opened in 1990 at a total cost of 212 million Austrian schillings.

This is indeed an impressive glasshouse with each of the three pavilions individually climate-controlled and housing appropriate plants. The south dome pavilion is the warmest with a minimum temperature of 17°C. It houses tropical and sub-tropical plants, including mature palms and trees, shrubs, vines, mosses, bromeliads and, of course, orchids. The orchid display is rotated according to flowering times and, at the time of my visit in September 2005, included large flowering plants of stanhopeas, vandas, cattleyas and phragmipediums, among many others. The plants were attached to trees and branches, and made to appear as natural as possible.

The middle dome pavilion matches a Mediterranean type climate with a minimum temperature of 12°C in winter but warm and dry in summer. This pavilion highlights three very tall palms (a Chinese fan palm, a date palm and a Canary Islands palm) estimated to be 120 years old. The restorations referred to previously took place around these palms, as they were too large to be moved. I noted quite a large collection of Australian trees, shrubs and plants housed in this middle pavilion, many such as wattles and hakeas being quite familiar to me, but others quite rare.

The climate in the northern dome pavilion approximates that of high-altitude mountain and cloud forests with cool, damp conditions and a minimum temperature of 6°C in winter. Plants on display in this area included a range of trees, shrubs and smaller ground covers from China, Japan, the Himalayan region and New Zealand.

Schonbrunn Gardens are approximately six kilometres from central Vienna, easily reached on the underground U4 Green line in 8-10 minutes. Train fares are very reasonable and even cheaper for those with a Senior’s card. The extensive gardens surrounding the Schonbrunn Palace (Emperor Franz Joseph’s summer residence) include formal gardens, park areas, a tourist train, walks, the oldest zoo in the world, a maze, various museums, small lakes, statues and sculptures. A fascinating sundial is close to the Palm House, and a stunning view of The Palace and the City of Vienna can be had from a Roman-type structure known as the ‘Gloriette’.