In Victorian times London boasted several nurseries specialising in tropical plants, and recently palms in particular have enjoyed a resurgence. Not far from the hothouses of Kew Gardens is Britain's only palm specialist centre, set in what were once the spacious vegetable gardens of Ham House on the banks of the Thames. It resembles - well - a little oasis.
Run by Martin Gibbons, a veritable encyclopaedia on palms, the centre has dozens of hardy palm trees for sale, as well as tropical and subtropical hothouse plants. You can browse through this forest of vegetation at your leisure and spend anything from pounds 2.50 for a seedling to pounds l,700 for a 40-year-old, 20-ft-high Argentinian palm.
Martin, who trained as a furniture designer, became interested in palms when his brother gave him one as a present and he watered it to death. He began to travel in the East and, armed with volumes of information, opened his first shop in 1989 in Sheen, Surrey, on his return to England.
Demand for his exotic trees soon grew, and Martin soon had to seek more space. Many specialists buy from him, and he exports to Ireland, France and even Spain, where the same palms are more expensive. "Some people walk in for 10 minutes to browse, and spend pounds 5,000. Others will be here for much longer, and walk away absolutely thrilled with a pounds 5 seedling," he says.
Mediterranean fan palms are popular, ranging from seedlings to trees 10ft tall. A 20-ft Sabal palmetto palm, the state tree of Florida, has a pounds 995 price tag; there are yuccas and tree ferns from as little as pounds 20.
Martin has an avenue of Chusan palms from China - a breed brought over to England in 1840 which were among the first specimens to be kept in the palm house at Kew. They have large, fan-shaped leaves sprouting from a spectacular hairy trunk, and will grow as much as 12in a year if provided with plenty of food and water.
"They are very hardy and can take frost and temperatures of -15C in their stride," he says. "But wind is their major enemy. People associate palm trees with deserts and relentless sun, or steamy tropical weather, but many grow in China and the Andes where the weather is far from tropical."
Inside the huge hothouse there is a great variety, including the bird of paradise palm from South Africa, the pygmy date palm, Japanese and Korean palms, and plants from Cuba and east Asia.
In 1991 Martin set up the European Palm Society, which now has nearly 1,000 members, and became director of the International Palm Society. His book, The Palm Identifier (Apple Press, pounds 5.99 + pounds 1.20 p&p), has sold more than 60,000 copies.
The Palm Centre, Ham Central Nursery, Ham Street, Ham, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7HA (0181-255-6191). Open daily, 10am-6pm. A mail-order catalogue is available, price pounds 1.95.