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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.

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The "Montserrat pribby" (part two)

By: Nick Johnson - 12 Nov 2010
Nick Johnson explains how a new botanic garden on Montserrat used Rondeletia buxifolia as an alternative hedging plant in the garden to inspire others to follow suit, encouraging the use of island endemics instead of invasives.
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"In 2005, the Montserrat National Trust created a new botanic garden, providing a resource for the islanders and an attraction for overseas tourists. The botanic garden not only contributes to education and training for children and other residents of Montserrat, but it also undertakes scientific research into the island’s ecosystems and assist in their conservation."
(Colin Clubbe, UK Overseas Territories)

In my last blog I told you about my expedition to Montserrat, seeing the endemic and critically endangered pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia) growing in the wild. The Montserrat National Trust recognised the huge potential of pribby; using it as a native hedging plant around the new botanic garden’s boundary; choosing this endemic species over introduced exotic species such as Ficus.

Whilst on the Caribbean Island, Stewart Henchie (former Head of the Hardy Display section at Kew) and I helped to construct a shade house and misting unit at Montserrat National Trust’s newly built botanic garden. My colleague, James Beattie, visited later to provide horticultural training in propagation and collections management. Stewart had previously been helping implement the design, layout and horticultural organization of the new garden in co-operation with the Trust.

Rondeletia buxifolia growing in the Tropical Nursery

The Montserrat pribby growing in the Tropical Nursery, Kew


With specimens of pribby brought back to Kew, the Temperate Unit worked in collaboration with Marcella Corcoran from the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team in Kew’s Herbarium, to put together a guideline sheet for its cultivation.

Trials carried out in the Temperate Unit began identifying the most appropriate compost, temperature, humidity and watering regimes that would successfully produce germinating seed and seedlings. The reason to develop best horticultural practices was not only to increase the numbers of this rare plant but also to share our findings with the Montserrat National Trust and other partners to enable them to conserve the species better.


Rondeletia buxifolia flower

The dainty, orange inflorescence of the pribby

- Nick -

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The “Montserrat pribby” (part one)

By: Nick Johnson - 22 Oct 2010
As a new study shows that world plants are as threatened as mammals, Nick Johnson talks about a plant close to his heart that he is caring for in the Tropical Nursery. Here he describes his expedition, recalling where he saw it in the wild.
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The volcano in the Soufriere Hills, Montserrat

The volcano in the Soufriere Hills, Montserrat (Photograph: P. Griggs)

One in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction.

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

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

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 -



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Planting up a succulent display

By: Sam Crosfield - 17 Sep 2010
Learn how the Dry Tropics team prepare and plant up a dramatic display for the public using stunning succulents that are usually cared for in the Tropical Nursery.
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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.


Photo of the circular bed at the south end of the Broad Walk

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.


Photo of a clump of "Golden Barrel" cacti in the succulent display

 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.


Photo of the finished succulent display in June 2010

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.

Sam Crosfield

* Reference: Echinocactus grusonii, United States Botanic Garden, no date,

3 comments on 'Planting up a succulent display'

The Tropical Nursery Open Day

By: Sam Crosfield - 15 Sep 2010
Members of the public are invited to the Tropical Nursery Open Day on Sunday 19th September to go behind the scenes and see rare and intriguing plants including the world's smallest water lily.
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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.

Tropical Nursery

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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About the Tropical Nursery

Photo of staff in 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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