Flashback to 2005: Taste of the tropics on a winter’s day

Exotic plants from the hot and tropical corners of the world were flourishing in a Victorian conservatory much to the delight of visitors.

Exotic plant expert Theresa Poppwell is pictured potting a Money Plant alongside Graham Finley in the propogation house of the Victorian conservatory at West Park
Exotic plant expert Theresa Poppwell is pictured potting a Money Plant alongside Graham Finley in the propogation house of the Victorian conservatory at West Park

As the winds of mid-winter swept through Wolverhampton, staff were working in the “jungle like” conditions in the West Park hothouse.

Built in 1896, it houses an array of exotic plants that were being well tended by experts Theresa Poppwell and Graham Finley in January 2005.

The colourful displays, including strelitzias, with their great bird of paradise blooms, the bottle-brushes of callistemons and the delicate blooms of anthuriums and orchids, were popular with gardening enthusiasts and children alike who popped into the glasshouse during the winter months.

Long-time fan of the glass house, Mary Davies, of Bushbury, told the Express & Star she had been visiting it since she was a child in the 1950s and said it was always such a lovely place to spend a few minutes in.

“The plants are well tended and the staff are so lovely,”she said.

The temperature at the hothouse was kept at a balmy 20C (68F) and the building has always been popular with amateur gardeners looking for ideas for their small back-garden conservatories.

And when the plants, as they often do, go too big for the home conservatories they were often donated to West Park.

“It is interesting to have plants donated to us,” said Theresa. “The plants get too big for their homes and people do not want to throw them away so they turn up here.

Graham Finley pruning the Flamingo flower

“They then turn up from time to time to see how their plants are going,” she added.

Theresa and Graham said they had a really good rapport with the public, who would go to the park to see advice about their plants.

“People come in and see what we are doing.” said Theresa.

“They ask our advice about the possibilities of growing them at home and want tips about how they can do it.

During the mid-80s a giant callistem ran rampant along the walls of the conservatory, but after the restoration of the conservatory in 1996 it was kept under control as it put on its super show of bottle-brush blooms.

Theresa estimated that the plant is about 100 years old and could have been an original planting when the conservatory was opened in July 1896 by the widow of former Mayor Alderman Samuel Dickinson.

Built at a cost of £1,500, it’s said to have been funded by the 1893 Floral Fete, one of a series of annual fetes held between 1889 and 1939.

One thing that Mary liked was the whole wide range of plants that were available for the visitors to admire.

“There are the jungle plants which are always lovely, but then there is also a collection of cacti and succulents,” she said.

West Park conservatory

In complete contrast there were shadier spots where ferns and other plants which enjoyed a quieter time flourished.

The banana plant was also a popular specimen.

It was a particularly big hit with local schoolchildren who were fascinated to see big clumps of fruit on such a relatively small plant.

“I love listening to what local children say and I think the council is doing a really excellent thing in keeping the conservatory going. I loved it as a youngster and can remember going there from school, “ said Mary.

Also full of praise for the conservatory was Helen Worth, from Finchfield, who popped into the park a couple of times a week to take a look at the plants that were on show.

“It is a lovely well-kept park,” she said.

“The conservatory is such a lovely place to visit to get away from the cold,

“Where else would you see wonderful palms, bananas and rare plants from around the world?,” she added.

The banana plant had its moment in the spotlight in April 2005.

Theresa Poppwell and Graham Finley at work

Graham picked one of the Asian bananas to give to Wolverhampton’s mayor Councillor Alan Hart and they were certainly given a massive thumbs up.

Councillor Hart said: “They’re the best bananas in the Black Country!

“It is a magnificent conservatory.”

The mayor and mayoress were said to both be keen gardeners and, as a result, they had specifically asked to make an official visit to the West Park greenhouses.

Today the heated conservatory is staffed by volunteers of the Conservatory Project Group, members of Friends of West Park, set up in the summer of 2012 with the aim to be an active group preserving and enhancing the Park and its amenities.

Last autumn, restoration work began on the Grade II-listed greenhouse.

This work included the replacing of rotting timber on the building to help bring it back to its former glory.

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