From plants to plate: growing food at the royal palaces

Food growing has always been an important part of gardening at royal palaces. However, the aim was not about being self-sufficient, as kings and queens had a whole country to grow food for the royal table. ​

By Historic Royal Palaces

Citrus limon, watercolour (2015) by Claire CollinsHistoric Royal Palaces

The Height of Fashion

From the Tudors to the Victorians, new foods have been brought back from far-flung countries for centuries. Eating sumptuous meals prepared with these exotic treats, and displaying them at court, was considered the height of fashion.

Watercolour of Ananas comosus (Pineapple) (2005) by Tony BarrettHistoric Royal Palaces

The ornamental value of rare fruits such as citrus, pineapples and melons was as important as the taste, but getting hold of fresh produce was not always easy.​ It was the royal gardeners' job to grow rare and unusual fruit and vegetables in the British climate.

First Page of Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

The myth of Raleigh and the potato

The potato was introduced by the explorers of the Tudor era, but it wasn't until the late 18th century that the common spud became a staple food.​ 

There is no evidence that Sir Walter Raleigh brought it back from the Americas and it was treated with deep suspicion in the Tudor period, as it is a member of the poisonous nightshade family.

In fact, it was the sweet potato that was considered a delicacy after Christopher Columbus brought it back to Europe. The first definitive mention of sweet potatoes in England comes from John Gerard's Herball in 1597.

Gerard's Herbal (1597) by John GerardGarden Museum

"Howsoeuer [sweet potatoes] bee dressed, they comfort, nourish, and strengthen the body."

Kitchen Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Modern varieties of sweet potato fare much better in our current climate. In recent years, gardeners in the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace have grown Beauregard, O’Henry and T65 successfully.​

Many methods of cultivation used by gardeners in the past are still used today.​ Deep, raised flowerbeds full of horse manure, which generates high temperatures as it rots down, were found to be a good way of growing fruits such as melons. 

The heat from 'hotbeds' in the Kitchen Garden helps ripen the fruit.​ In the cooler months of the year, the hotbeds are also used to get plants growing earlier than if they were planted directly outdoors. 

Kitchen Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Herbs from the Kitchen Garden

We've all heard of parsley, basil and thyme but have you ever considered adding some sorrel to your salad? 

Herbs in the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court PalaceHistoric Royal Palaces

In this short video, Hilary Theaker, Keeper of the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace, shows us some of the more unusual herbs she tends to, from the cucumber scented salad burnet to the liquorice tasting horehound, a herb used to make Henry VIII's favourite spiced ale.

Citrus trees, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Mary II's marmalade

The first recorded glasshouses were built at Hampton Court Palace in the 17th century to house the Exoticks that Queen Mary II had collected.

Citrus myrtifolia, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

These included many rare varieties of citrus, which were grown for display outside in the palace gardens during the summer.

Citrus myrtifolia, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

While the fruits would have been too bitter to eat raw, Mary used them to make marmalade.  

The interior of the Great Vine House at Hampton Court (2017) by James Linsell ClarkHistoric Royal Palaces

Grapes from the Great Vine

In 1768, Lancelot 'Capability Brown' planted a small grape vine cutting on the site of the Tudor latrines at Hampton Court Palace. This cutting has since grown into the largest grape vine in the world.

BW image of Great Vine house (Late 19th century) by Underwood & Underwood (active 1881-1940s)​Historic Royal Palaces

By the Victorian period, the Queen had the grapes from this vine sent to her at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.  

Kitchen Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Produce for everyone

Today, our gardeners use both traditional and modern methods to grow fruit and vegetables in the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace and the Walled Garden at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens. These two restored productive gardens still supply food for the palaces.

The visiting public can buy the produce in the Hillsborough Castle Café all year round, and from a market stall at Hampton Court Palace during the summer and autumn months.

Autumn harvest in Hillsborough Castle's Walled GardenHistoric Royal Palaces

Hear from our hard-working staff as they harvest autumn produce in the Walled Garden, ready for delicious meals in the Hillsborough Castle Café.

Credits: Story

Watercolour artists are all members of the Hampton Court Palace Florilegium Society, which creates botanical paintings and drawings of the plants growing in the gardens and glasshouses at the palace.

Find out more and visit the palaces in our care at the Historic Royal Palaces website

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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