Tropical Nursery blog
The Tropical Nursery at Kew provides a home to the permanent tropical and temperate collections. It comprises 21 different climate zones and holds an estimated 35,000 plants.
The nursery is split into four teams that each have a specialism; orchids, moist tropical, cacti and succulents and temperate and island flora. The Tropical Nursery is normally off limits to the public so this blog provides a peek into the fascinating world of the largest nursery at Kew, and the work of the staff there.
The volcano in the Soufriere Hills, Montserrat (Photograph: P. Griggs)
One of the many critically endangered plants that we look after here at the Tropical Nursery is the pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia). Pribby is restricted to one specific area in the north of this beautiful Caribbean Island: the Centre Hills. This plant species grows in dry forest and scrubland, and low altitude moist forest. Pribby generally prefers marginal habitats, particularly along forest edges and in forest glades.
Rondeletia buxifolia in flower (Photograph: P. Griggs)
In the mid-nineties Montserrat and its people experienced a devastating natural disaster. The dormant volcano in the Soufriere Hills erupted, burying the capital, Plymouth. Many of the inhabitants were evacuated to the UK (Montserrat is a UK Overseas Territory), and the remaining population moved north, out of the exclusion zone and away from the volcano. As many people moved into the area around the Centre Hills, pressures on the habitat of the pribby sparked a major drive to conserve it.
I first saw pribby when on a bursary trip helping Stewart Henchie (former Head of Hardy Display at Kew) and the Montserrat National Trust set up a new nursery and botanic garden. The previous one was buried under six metres of ash following the volcanic eruption. After several weeks shifting earth and sweating under the tropical sun, the head gardener Mappie took me out into the forest. On the way up Katie Hill, I got my first glimpse of this critically endangered plant, surrounded by Heliconia, Begonia and palms in verdant tropical forest.
Montserrat Hills (Photograph: P. Griggs)
Little did I know that five years later this plant would be in my care back at the Tropical Nursery at Kew. I monitored it closely, learning every aspect of its growth. In 2008, I was lucky enough to see the pribby flower; this was the first time these flowers had been seen outside Montserrat. Many of the plants continue to bloom producing cream, yellow and orange flowers.
It is especially poignant to write about this plant today as we have recently congratulated Stewart on his retirement after 40 years of service to Kew.
- Nick -
1 comment on 'The “Montserrat pribby” (part one)'
In March 2010, I was asked to design a dry tropical display for one of Kew’s iconic beds for the summer. I saw this is as a great opportunity to show the public the intriguing forms of some of our cacti and other succulents. These specimens are normally kept “behind the scenes” in the Tropical Nursery. The bed is situated at the north end of the Broadwalk, to the west of the Orangery; this high footfall area would allow many of Kew’s summer visitors to appreciate these unusual and often overlooked plants.
The circular bed at the north end of the Broad Walk
I hand-picked the individual specimens to ensure that there was a good selection of forms, shapes and sizes. Many succulents have a globular or hemispherical shape; this maximises the volume available in which to retain water. I chose to have a clump of one my favourite cacti species: Echinocactus grusonii. It is often called the “golden barrel” or, more unkindly, “mother-in-law’s cushion” due to it’s striking round shape and bright yellow spines.
It was the focus of an intensive rescue effort in Mexico in the 1990s when its primary habitat was due to be flooded after the construction of a major dam*. As such, it is one of our “conservation plants”. Few remain in the wild today, although conservation work in botanic gardens and nurseries in Mexico and the US has made this cactus one of the most popular in cultivation.
A clump of "golden barrel" cacti in the succulent display
I transported the plants with help from a Kew Diploma student and an apprentice. Handling cacti can be tricky, so we used a tractor, coir matting, bamboo canes and even barbeque tongs to protect ourselves from the sharp spines. We also wore gloves, leather gauntlets and safety goggles. Before planting, we laid out all the plants on the bed to get the position just right (I realised that I wasn’t going to be too popular if I kept changing my mind about their positioning).
The Dry Tropics team apply the gravel
To prepare the bed, we put down a hard-wearing, polypropylene groundcover sheet. This helps suppress weeds, and also separates the soil from the gravel that we would use as a top dressing. We plunged a few of the larger, more upright specimens straight into the ground while still in their pots. These included the 1.5m high Echinopsis and the tallest Haageocereus x espostoa. We planted the rest of the plants directly into the topsoil of the bed. Once we had finished planting, we shovelled a thin layer of gravel across the surface, which provided a great foil to their structural forms.
The completed display in June 2010
The succulents seem to have responded really well to the prolonged warm summer and wet August, colouring up nicely, producing extraordinary flowers and putting on lots of new growth. As autumn approaches, we will return them to the protected conditions of the nursery before colder, wetter weather can do them any damage.
This display will end on the 19th September. The bed will then be returned to a more traditional bedding scheme in keeping with the Palm House parterre for winter. Given the chance to create another dry tropical display, I would use Echeveria cante, Agave attenuata and the stunning Agave bracteosa. This spineless and toothless plant has bright-green foliage and is often mistaken for an Aloe.
Not only should it turn a few heads, I might be a bit more popular with the team for choosing more tactile plants.
* Reference: Echinocactus grusonii, United States Botanic Garden, no date, http://www.usbg.gov/plant-collections/conservation/Echinocactus-grusonii.cfm
3 comments on 'Planting up a succulent display'
This Sunday, the 19th September, Kew’s Tropical Nursery cordially invites members of the public to go behind the scenes and learn about the fascinating work that goes on here.
Behind the scenes in Kew's Tropical Nursery
This will be another rare chance to see the smallest water lily in the world at Kew; Nymphaea thermarum. With leaf pads 1cm in diameter, this “thermal” water lily grew besides freshwater hot springs in southwest Rwanda. It disappeared from there about two years ago due to over-exploitation of the hot springs, damaging this fragile habitat. Fortunately, horticulturist Carlos Magdalena at the Tropical Nursery has solved how to propagate them regularly and in large quantities; helping to safeguard this species for the future.
Nymphaea thermarum growing at Kew Gardens
At the Open Day there will also be information on propagation techniques, conservation work and pest control, as well as displays of the amazing tropical plants raised in the nursery, including Orchids, Carnivorous plants, Bromeliads & Cacti. There will also be a chance to see rare and endangered plants, including species from the UK Overseas Territories. This is a great opportunity to learn about the role that the Tropical Nursery plays in supporting the scientific, display and conservation work that goes on at Kew. Nursery staff and volunteer guides will be on hand to talk about the plants on display and to answer any questions.
The Tropical Nursery Open Day will be between 11:00 until 17:00 (last entry at 16:00). Please enter through the gate beside the White Peaks café.
We hope to see you there. In the meantime, I shall get back to cleaning my window panes.
- Sam Crosfield -
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This week we are in the Orchid Unit, managed by Christopher Ryan.
One of the tasks that regularly needs attention is the mounting of epiphytic orchids onto pieces of Cork Oak (Quercus suber) bark. Cork Oak provides a renewable source of bark. Kew has been growing orchids since its inception, and has one of the most comprehensive tropical collections in the world. We grow orchids that live in all sorts of habitats, from those living in rocky crevasses in southern Madagascar to species living in wet soil next to tropical rivers in Ecuador; even very rare orchids that are found in the meadows of England. However, the majority of the collections cared for by Christopher’s team are epiphytic species. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on a tree but does not tap into the tree for nutrients; it simply lives on its surface.
When I caught up with Christopher he was showing an intern the ins and outs of mounting a Bulbophyllum onto bark.
Christoper shows an intern how to mount a Bulbophyllum onto bark
“First you have to select a good piece of bark. Make sure it’s big enough for the orchid you are mounting to establish and grow on. Once you are satisfied, offer the plant up to the bark, find the right area to put it on, line the plant up with the raised parts of the bark for firm attachment, and tie the orchid tight onto the bark, the roots will naturally find their way into the fissures. We used to line the fissures with moss but recently we’ve found that the orchid does not need this to establish.”
We use ladies tights to tie the specimens on. It may sound strange to some, but it really works. Nylon tights (cut into strips and tied together to make strings) will stretch and give, so that new growth is not damaged as the plants grow and establish. When we first started using tights, we had a problem getting enough of them. Regular requests went out to the entire garden for staff and volunteers to send in their old, used (and washed!) tights for the orchids, but we still didn’t have enough... Fortunately, a well known nylon stockings company heard of our plight and now regularly sends boxes of its factory rejected tights.
The previous Orchid Unit manager, Kath Smith, is now the coordinator of the scientific living collections at Kew and she taught us all the very specific way that the orchids had to be tied. She once said to me, “take the time to make sure that you get it right first time. That bark will be their home for the rest of their lives.”
Bulbophyllum growing on bark
Similarly, Christopher has carried on Kew’s tradition for excellent horticulture, “The plant should be tied so that it doesn’t move and the upper leaf surfaces need to face upwards. The result should be tidy and well presented in the same manner that it would look in the wild. The label should be tied on the bottom right corner, with enough play so that it can be read from any angle. The hook for hanging the entire bark should be at the top in the centre and created in such a way to make it easy to take off and on the metal grills we hang them on.”
Christopher in the Tropical Nursey
Considering that the oldest accession of Bulbophyllum growing in the nursery came to Kew in 1903, this little specimen could go on to do great things. We use the orchid collections mainly as a kind of living reference library for scientists to study, and also as a great display tool. Most of the special individuals in the glass cases found in the Princess of Wales Conservatory come from Christopher and his small team of horticulturists.
- Nick Johnson -
1 comment on 'Tying orchids onto bark'
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About the Tropical Nursery
The main functions of the Nursery are to:
- Form a back-up collection of tender tropical plants used to support science, display and education within the gardens. We supply plants for use in displays in the Main Kew conservatries, for festivals and events organised by the Foundation and the Directorate.
- Supply plants for education purposes to the Schools & Families department.
- Act as main propagation facility for the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Palm House and Temperate House as well as supporting the exchange of plants between Kew and other institutions and collections.
- Provide direct education in nursery techniques and the cultivation of tropical plants for the Kew Diploma course, Apprentice and Trainee programme, Internship and work experience programmes and visiting staff from other UK and overseas institutions.
- Support conservation by working with the UKOTs team undertaking propagation and cultivation protocols on targeted endangered species.
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