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A glasshouse trainee in the Tropical Nursery

Miranda Janatka
18 November 2013
Blog team: 
Miranda Janatka describes life as a glasshouse trainee in the Tropical Nursery.

Inside the Tropical Nursery

As a glasshouse trainee at Kew Gardens, I get to spend six months working inside the Tropical Nursery, the biggest area of glass within the whole grounds. It covers 6,500 m² and we cultivate 46,000 plants inside the 21 climate controlled zones. They are grown not only for display in the great glasshouses of Kew, but also for scientific research and conservation work carried out here and at Wakehurst.

I work in the Tropical Nursery’s arid section, which is made up of a ‘tropical warm arid’ zone as well as two ‘cool arid’ zones. Here we cultivate plants especially adapted to life in the arid regions of the world, such as those in the Cactaceae, Aizoaceae, Geraniaceae and Euphorbiaceae families, as well many others. As a trainee, I am continually learning through hands-on experience looking after the living collections. I work closely with staff, volunteers, interns, students and my manager Paul Rees, who teaches me and encourages me to ask questions.

Paul and I talking about plants at the Tropical Nursery Open Day

Themed displays

One of my favourite jobs is creating displays for the Princess of Wales Conservatory. Each Friday, as a team, we choose plants that are of notable visual interest that week, or are significant because of their conservation status.

Many of our plants share similar habits or adaptations and we are able to use the displays to communicate and illustrate these to the public. A few weeks ago we developed a theme on ‘summer dormancy’, showing how plants such as various Tylecodon and Conophytum burst back into life at this time of year and the various stages of their growth and re-emergence. We entitled the display ‘Sleeping Beauties’ and, alongside the plants we presented information, written by Paul, explaining the processes and why they occur.

Our ‘Sleeping Beauties’ display

Madagascar display

More recently, we assembled a display of Madagascan plants, positioning spiny succulents close together in order to simulate a dense and spiky desert jungle. Paul was keen to highlight the biodiversity crisis this unique environment currently faces, so we presented information that highlighted the threats, as well as the hope offered by the research and conservation team that Kew coordinates both in Madagascar and the UK. We also wanted to attract the attention of younger visitors, so diploma student David Richter set up toy lemurs among the plants, an instant draw for our younger visitors.

Children looking at our ‘Madagascan’ display

It is also important that the displays have great visual impact, so Lorraine Barker, who has a wealth of experience designing and creating horticultural displays, leads our group with the positioning of the plants, creating balance, symmetry and contrast.

Janaka Balasuriya, Lorraine Barker, Paul Rees and David Richter prepare the plants to be put out on display.

Cacti display

Our current display project is entitled ‘Solution to a Prickly Problem’ and focuses on the adaptations for pollination in some of our cacti. We wanted to show and explain how some plants evolved to protect themselves from predators while simultaneously protecting pollinators, such as birds, that visit their flowers. For example, Melocactus produce a soft red cushion, called a cephalium, on top of the stem which prevents pollinators from being harmed by the cacti’s own sharp spines as they feed from the flowers.

We also wanted to explain how staff such as Noelia Alvarez are collecting seed for the Millennium Seed Bank, based at Wakehurst. They hand pollinate flowers and then cover them with a very fine mesh bag to prevent any inadvertent pollination taking place via insects, as Noelia explained in her recent blog post on the subject.

Our ‘Solution to a prickly problem’ display with mesh bags on Melocactus

While not only being interesting to visitors, we feel that by communicating what is special about our plants or why they happen to be endangered, we contribute towards the conservation of them in their natural habitats. There is much work done behind the scenes at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst, and displays such as these enable us to give the public further insight as to what is going on. The succulent displays can be found in the arid section of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

- Miranda -


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