The Story of the Botanics’ Sabal Palm Tree, a Living Vestige of the Regency, by Eliza Shearer

The Story of the Botanics’ Sabal Palm Tree, a Living Vestige of the Regency, by Eliza Shearer

I am a proud Edinburgh resident. As such, I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to reminders of the Regency, from windows and house doors to family portraits in museums and art galleries.

However, only a few days ago, one of such reminders disappeared forever. It was a living being, one already in existence when Jane Austen was alive.

The Sabal Palm Tree, A West Indies Native

I am talking of a Sabal palm tree, native to Bermuda, that arrived from the West Indies to the Port of Leith just outside Edinburgh in 1810. It was a long journey, one which the plant made in a Wardian case – essentially a terrarium, or mini-greenhouse (see picture at the top of the page).

In the early 19th century, the Royal Botanic Garden (also known as the “Physick Garden”) was to the west of Leith Walk, and that’s where the palm tree went. It was a little thing at the time: it took 40 years for it to grow a trunk, and another 80 for it to flower for the first time.

A Living Link to the Regency

I find it mind-blowing to think that the palm tree was planted in 1810, the same year that King George III was declared insane and Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. Jane Austen was very much alive, and possibly thinking about Mansfield Park.

Image source: Historia naturalis palmarum by Carol. Frid. Phil de Martius at Biodiversity LIbrary

By the way, I can quite imagine Sir Thomas admiring Sabal palm trees during his time overseas, and arranging for one to be transported back to his estate. In Miss Price’s Decision, I gave him (as well as his niece Susan) an interest in botany, which I thought suited a man with his responsibilities.

Following the Pineapple Trail

Conservatories and glasshouses as we know them today wouldn’t come until a few years after Jane Austen’s death. However, around that time, many grand houses had south-facing spaces with large windows and pitched glass roofs aimed at maximising light and warmth to grow plants.

As well as citrus, many fruits and vegetables grew in the so-called orangeries. By the Regency, heating was introduced through different means to enable the growth of exotic pineapples, which had very much taken centre stage.

The End of an Era at the Royal Botanic Gardens

But back to our palm tree. In 1821 they moved it to the present Royal Botanic Gardens site in Inverleith. They housed it in Stove House, kept warm with coal-fired boilers, until the majestic Tropical Palm House opened in 1858. It’s there that I saw the palm tree for the last time, all 60ft (18 metre) of it.

The Victorian Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, empty of all specimens

The Royal Botanic Garden is undergoing an ambitious renovation, which includes stripping back the glasshouses and thoroughly repairing them. But while moving the plants to enable the work, it became apparent that the Sabal palm was way too large to make it outside of the glasshouse. With the glass being removed, it couldn’t say in the building either.

Long story short, they fell the Sabal palm two weeks ago today. It breaks my heart to think of it. Apparently, Sabal palms have a lifespan of around 200 years, so the Edinburgh one was coming to the end of its life.

It’s a sad ending for a majestic vestige of the Regency, but I will always remember it, proud and tall, as the centrepiece of the most beautiful of glasshouses.


Plants are silent beings, but also highly evocative. Have you come across any that have made an impression on you?

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[…] city also had a well-regarded botanic garden, which contained the seed of future pharmacology and chemistry […]

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
October 17, 2021 10:14 AM

Thanks for this super interesting article!

October 17, 2021 7:37 AM

What a shame, but as you say it would probably die soon anyway I don’t think there was a choice. I myself have never had green fingers but did have success with a couple of things. I was given a small cheese plant in our first house. I suppose I neglected it terribly as the soil was curling away from the pot before I thought to give it water. I did occasionally polish the leaves. However when we moved to my current house my daughter was almost one and it had grown so much that I had nowhere to put it except the floor! Too tempting for small fingers so I gave it to my Mum. There it flourished even more to the extent that either it moved or they did so she gave it to my brother. Alas they put it in a dark draughty hallway and it died!
My second success? I planted lots of fruit pips and put them in a warm cupboard. They were there for a while and no signs of life so I tipped it into the bin but noticed a grapefruit pip had sprouted, I repotted it and it grew, and it grew until it was too tall for the house so we planted it outside but obviously it was too cold so that was that!
I no longer have indoor plants but I do love palms and ferns! Thank you!

Linny B
Linny B
October 14, 2021 11:10 PM

This was so interesting! So many fan fiction stories describe D and E meeting in the conservatory or Mr Darcy sending Mrs Bennet fruits from his orangery … love the photos. Hope you are doing well and staying safe!

October 14, 2021 7:28 AM

I have never gotten the opportunity to tour a botanical garden so I haven’t come across any that stand out. I am sorry to see this palm go as it certainly has a fascinating story.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
October 13, 2021 3:40 PM

Oh, how sad and amazing at the same time. I suppose you can look at it as they took it down while it was still majestic rather than having it slowly turn brown and die. Still, what a fabulous topic to research. Thanks for sharing.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
October 13, 2021 1:11 PM

Fascinating post, Eliza!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
October 12, 2021 6:33 AM

Nice post! Palms remind me of our Palm Sunday’s at church. They are a pretty plant. My favorite plant has always been roses.

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