Ancient cycad, the king of Kew's Palm House, gets a new home
Press release, 29 July 2009
The oldest pot plant in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – believed to be one of the oldest pot plant in the world – is re-potted in Kew’s 250th year.
King of the Palm House, the huge Jurassic cycad, Encephalartos altensteinii (i), was collected by Kew’s first plant hunter Francis Masson, from the Eastern Cape region of South Africa in the early 1770s. Masson was commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks to step aboard the Resolution and join Captain Cook’s second voyage around the globe. This ancient plant, commonly known as the ‘Eastern Cape giant cycad’ arrived back at Kew Gardens in 1775, and has thrived in Kew’s majestic Palm House since it was built in 1848. This cycad was one of the first living collections to arrive at Kew, kick starting a legacy which makes the Gardens what they are today – a living collection of over 30,000 species of plants.
Growing at an average rate only 2.5cm a year, the old knobbly trunk has slowly grown to its current length, reaching out 4 metres 40 centimetres. Due to its weight, unlike species in the wild this unique specimen stretches out sideways. It is supported by metal stilts, to ensure this fragile and historic plant is conserved and continues to grow. Now brimming from its pot, and in need of fresh compost, this is the first time Kew’s expert gardeners have re-potted this Kew icon, re-housing it into a brand new pot, a bespoke mahogany hardwood box hand crafted on site.
Three months in the planning, the team have been working hard to ensure that everything is ready. Weighing a staggering tonne, a huge 4 metre high lifting gantry has been bought in, and the staff specially trained, to lift and support this large bulk of the cycad. While the root ball is lifted, it was all hands on deck as a team of 5 Kew gardeners were on hand to support its outstretched trunk with stilts. The team worked quickly to pull out the old pot and quickly construct the new one around the lifted root ball. All the plants surrounding the cycad have been moved away, to allow for enough space to carry out this technical procedure.
The last operation of this level and complexity was in 1984 when the cycad was top dressed with earth and compost and removed from the Palm House for 4 years while the building was restored.
Wes Shaw, Keeper of the Palm House, says "cycads are fascinating prehistoric plants, and this one is one of the most unique plants in Kew Gardens. It’s the don of the Palm House, and has been slowly growing year by year since the Gardens began.
"Although it was hot and humid work, the repotting of the Encephalartos altensteinii went very well. The months of planning paid off as the team got the job done quickly and efficiently and most importantly without damaging this precious plant.
"When I think of how many gardeners have cared for this plant over the years, it gives me a real sense of the heritage and importance of the living collection that we are all responsible for here at Kew - and the incentive to ensure it keeps on thriving through my time in the Palm House. This year is Kew's 250th anniversary and it is quite fitting that we re-housed one of oldest residents in our anniversary year."
Pre-dating flowering plants, the cycad family is a botanical throw back to the dinosaur era, producing large cones(ii) rather than flowers. They are a very primitive type of plant which can live to 500 years or longer, and therefore provide clues to botanists as to what early plant life was like. Kew has one of the oldest and most diverse cycad collections in the world, including the now extinct Encephalartos woodii, which is located in Temperate House.
- For more information please contact the RBG Kew Press Office on 020 8332 5607 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Notes to Editors
The name Encephalartos is derived from the Greek, and means ‘bread in the head’. This refers to the Hottentots’ practice of removing the pith from the cycad's stem and burying it in the ground for 2 months before kneading it into bread and baking it in embers. During the 2-month burial, toxins within the pith are destroyed.
At its reproductive maturity cycads produce a large yellowish green cone. This has only happened once and on that occasion in 1819, Sir Joseph Banks came to view the plant on what proved to be his last visit to Kew.
Kew Gardens visitor info
Admission: Adults £13, Concessions £11, FREE for children under 17 (accompanied by an adult). Admission to Kew Gardens includes free entry to all Glasshouses, Galleries and the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway
Opening Hours: Now until 1 September 2009
- Monday - Friday : 9.30am – 6.30pm.Glasshouses, Galleries and the Treetop Walkway close at 5.30pm
- Weekends: 9.30am – 7.30pm. Glasshouses and Galleries close at 5.30. Treetop Walkway closes at 6.30pm
Visitor Information line: 020 8332 5655 or email@example.com
Encephalartos altensteinii - A brief history
- The plant was brought to Kew in 1775, by one Kew’s first plant collectors Francis Masson (for more information see http://www.kew.org/heritage/people/masson.html), most probably as a seed from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
- The Cycad has grown in the Palm House ever since it was built, only been removed for four years in the 1980’s of the restoration of the Palm House.
- It was last re-potted and re-boxed in the early nineties by Dave Cooke, Kew horticulturist.
- There can be long intervals between plants producing cones, in the case of this plant it last coned in 1819, and was witnessed by Joseph Banks on his last visit to Kew before he died.
Where to find cycads
The main hotspots for cycad populations are; Southern Africa, South and Central America, and Australia.
- Cycads are cone bearing plants that grow as either male or female plants. Male plants produce long slender cones; female cones are shorter and wider.
- Cycads grow very slowly at 2.5cm a year. Might be better to say that cycads ‘generally’ grow slowly as there are saps that do grow faster, and that our specimen has been recorded at growing 2.5cm a year.
- Cycads pollinated by weevils, beetles and the wind.
- All parts of the plant are toxic.
- On average plants grow to 3-4 metres tall
- Cycads can live for over 500 years
- The cycad family of plants, predating flowering plants, are a botanical throw back to the dinosaur era. They are still relatively similar to how they were millions of years ago, so they are important to scientists as a clue to early plant life.
- There are many economic uses for cycads; they are used as a food source when properly detoxified. Used to make alcoholic drinks, used in ornamental horticulture, and used medicinally to treat ulcers sores and boils.
Different kinds of cycads
- Encephalartos are xerophytes and need a period of summer rainfall only.
- Encephalartos altensteinii is common in cultivation but like all other cycads threatened in the wild.
- Encephalartos species found growing among rocks in mountainous regions, ands in soils that are usually sandy gravelly and well drained.
- Not all cycads are large plants; some can be much smaller and even have subterranean stems.
Cycads at Kew Gardens
- Kew has one of the oldest and most diverse cycad collections in the world, including the now extinct Encephalartos woodii. This is located in the Temperate House.
- For more information: http://www.kew.org/plants/cycads/index.html
Events the Kew cycad has lived through
- 1775 The cycad arrives at Kew Gardens
- 1775 Jane Austen is born
- 1806 The Cape colony in South Africa surrenders to British rule
- 1824 Beethoven’s ninth Symphony premiers on May 7, in Vien
- 1842 English palaeontologist Richard Owen coined the term ‘dinosaurs’
- 1845 The Great Famine
- 1848 The Palm House opens at Kew Gardens
- 1858 The Great Stink
- 1859 Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, putting forward the theory of evolution
- 1879 The Second Boer war begins in South Africa
- 1914 The First World War begins
- 1929 The Great Depression
- 1945 The Second World War ends
- 1952 The Great Smog
- 1969 First man on the moon
- 1987 The Great Storm sweeps across Southern England and France
- 1994 Nelson Mandela becomes President of South Africa, officially ending thirty years of apartheid.
- 2000 The Millennium Seed Bank opens at Wakehurst Place
- 2002 HM Queen Elizabeth ll celebrates her Golden Jubilee
- 2005 England win the Ashes series
- 2009 Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States of America
- 2009 Kew Gardens celebrates its 250th anniversary
The Palm House
In 1841 the Gardens came under the control of the Government and increased in size. To celebrate this new status Sir William Hooker, the new Director, ordered a prestigious glasshouse high enough to house its tallest palms. Built between 1844 and 1848, the Palm House was a creative collaboration between architect Decimus Burton and Irish ironfounder and shipbuilder, Richard Turner. It was Turner who proposed the use of a wrought iron ‘deck beam’, commonly used in shipbuilding, which was strong enough to span greater widths without support – to give more space for palms to grow. The house resembles the upturned hull of a ship.
Around a quarter of the palms planted in the lush green conditions are threatened in the wild; as are more than half of the cycads, the 'living fossils' of the tropics.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
In 1759 Princess Augusta, mother of King George III, started an ambitious nine-acre physic garden around Kew Palace. Every generation has added to the charms and curiosities of Kew, now a major international visitor attraction. Together the landscaped, 132 hectares of Kew Gardens and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew Gardens is a UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage Site and houses over 40 listed buildings and other structures including the Palm House, Temperate House, Orangery and Pagoda as well as two ancient monuments, Queen Charlotte's Cottage and Kew Palace. RBG Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world.
Wakehurst Place is also home to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. By 2010, RBG Kew and its partners will have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25% by 2020 and funds are being actively sought in order to continue to develop this vital work. Further information on the MSBP
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