The Davies Alpine House, five years on

By: Richard Wilford - 10/03/2011

The Davies Alpine House is five years old this month. See what changes have been made since it opened on 11 March 2006.

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The eight months preceding the opening of the Davies Alpine House in 2006 was a period of frenetic activity. Rockwork was constructed, the beds filled with soil, plants planted and the whole glasshouse cleaned and tidied for the official opening on 11 March. The first photograph below shows the Alpine House in August 2005, when the rockwork had been built been but before any soil or plants had been put in. Around the sides you can see the black pipes that come up from the underground chamber, where air is cooled before entering the glasshouse. These pipes were later cut down to fit in the landscape and fitted with stainless steel bends to direct the cool air over the plants.


A view of inside the Alpine House in 2005

The Davies Alpine House in August 2005


There have been plenty of changes over the last five years, with improvements to the plant displays, new rockwork built and the addition of extra features to show different ways of growing alpine plants.  More sandstone rocks have been added to provide additional nooks and crannies for alpines, and we have also built a wall of tufa. Tufa is a type of limestone, formed when deposits from water saturated with calcium carbonate build up to make a soft rock filled with tiny holes. Alpines can be planted directly into the rock where the roots work their way through the crumbly texture to find moisture, while the upper part of the plant is kept dry - just what many alpines like. The two photos below show the same area before and after the addition of the tufa, which was recycled from an old garden.


 West side of Alpine House in May 2006

  West side of Alpine House in March 2011 

Top, the west side of the Alpine House in May 2006, and bottom, in March 2011


The next two photos show how the tufa and additional sandstone rocks have made a more interesting landscape and fully utilised the height of the surrounding walls:


Rocky landscape inside Alpine House in 2006  Tufa and new rockwork in March 2011

Left, May 2006, and right, March 2011


Another new feature in the glasshouse is the construction of two dry stone walls, like cairns, to show another way of growing alpines. Plants are grown between the stone pieces, which have soil behind for the roots to reach into. One of these cairns is shown here, with the yellow Verbascum dumulosum in front, which flowers in May.


Cairn for alpine plants

Stone cairn for growing alpines, in May 2010


The plants in the Alpine House have responded well to their new environment, especially the improved ventilation, the cooler summer temperatures and the higher light levels than in the previous alpine house, all essential for successful alpine cultivation. This is well illustrated by the next two photos showing the cushion plant Draba rigida. It was planted in 2006 between sandstone rocks on a vertical cliff. The first photo is from 2007 and the second from 2011, showing how well it has done. The high light levels inside the glasshouse have ensured the characteristic cushion shape has been maintained.


Cushions of Draba rigida in 2007   Cushions of Draba rigida in 2011 showing growth

Left, Draba rigida in 2007, and right, flowering this week.


There are currently 443 accessions permanently planted in the Alpine House landscape and these are joined by the constantly changing displays of up to 100 additional plants brought in from the Alpine Nursery when in flower. Whatever the time of year, there is always something worth seeing


View of Alpine House inside in March 2011

General view of the Davies Alpine House, March 2011


I hope this has given you an idea of how the Davies Alpine House has evolved over the five years since it opened. If you haven't visited recently then now is the time to come along to Kew Gardens and see how it has changed for yourself - over the next couple of months the display of plants will reach its peak.


- Richard -  

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About us

Looking north towards the Davies Alpine House from the Rock Garden

Several people contribute to the Alpine and Rock Garden Team blog. Richard Wilford is the Collections Manager in the Hardy Display Section at Kew. His responsibilities include all the areas where alpines are grown at Kew Gardens. The three team leaders, Joanne Everson, Graham Walters and Katie Price, each have their own particular parts of the Gardens to look after. Between them, these four experts have over 55 years experience of growing alpines.

Alpines at Kew Gardens are not only grown to create colourful and informative displays, they also play an important role in the research Kew carries out around plant naming, classification, biodiversity and conservation.

Mountains are found on every continent and each range has its own unique alpine flora, but these plants are under threat from climate change. As temperatures rise, alpines are forced higher and will eventually have nowhere to go. The alpine collections at Kew are studied to help us all understand the mountain flora better and make informed decisions about protecting its future.

"Probably the most beautiful glasshouse in the world is the Davies Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew", John Hoyland, Gardens Illustrated, April 2011

Richard Wilford has written a book on alpines, 'Alpines from Mountain to Garden', published by Kew Publishing. You can buy it in the Kew shops or from

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