Tropical Nursery blog
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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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Tying orchids onto bark

By: Nick Johnson - 01 Sep 2010
The team leader of Kew's Orchid Unit shows how we look after these fantastic epiphytes and divulges the secret of nylon tights in helping some orchids grow.
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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.

Christopher Ryan demonstrates tying an orchid 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.” 

The finished bark

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.”


Chris Ryan watering in one of the Orchid zones

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 -

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Meet Kew's Tropical Nursery horticulturists

By: Nick Johnson & Sam Crosfield - 19 Aug 2010
Find out more about what goes on behind the scenes in the Tropical Nursery at Kew.
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Welcome to Kew’s Tropical Nursery blog. 

My name is Nick Johnson and I manage one of the four teams that work in this huge nursery, which has the largest roof span in Kew. With the help of my colleague, Sam Crosfield, we will regularly be bringing you accounts of interesting things happening here.

The Tropical Nursery from above

The Tropical Nursery from above

Whether it’s the Waterlily House propagation drive, repotting cacti, how we look after the orchid collection  or simply an interesting plant of the week by one of our students, come to this page to see what we’re up to.

Introducing the Tropical Nursery & Jodrell Glass

The Tropical Nursery, rebuilt in 1998, is one of two tender plant raising and reserve facilities for the Great Glasshouses and Training Section. Jodrell Glasshouse is a support facility primarily raising plants use for scientifc research by Jodrell laboratory. The nurseries provide facilities for the propagation, establishment and growing on of plants from various habitats encountered within the tropical/subtropical regions. There are over 45,000 plants held in the nursery at any one time! These plants are grown to support the public conservatories for educational and display purposes and may by used for scientific purposes by  scientists from around the world. The nursery also houses many of Kew's conservation plants, mainly from island habitats. 

The nursery covers an area of 6500 m² and is divided into 21 climatic environments which are separately controlled and monitored by a computer. These zones are distributed managed by four teams – Dry Tropics, Moist Tropics, Orchids and Temperate/Conservation Collections.

Eleven permanent staff work in the Tropical Nursery, supported by up to ten students, apprentices and trainees and 28 horticultural volunteers. Daily maintenance of the collections involves watering, feeding, repotting plants, propagating and monitoring plant health throughout the year.

Sam Crosfield and Nick Johnson in the Tripical Nursery surrounded by plants

Sam Crosfield, left, and Nick Johnson, right, in the Tropical Nursery

Introducing Nick Johnson

Nick is the team leader of the Temperate and Conservation collections. Nick has been at Kew for nearly ten years and has worked in the Tropical Nursery for eight of them. Nick manages a small team that cares for the temperate collections and the increasingly important threatened island flora collections. Nick provides propagation training to the students in the Nursery and has had the good fortune to have travelled to some amazing island habitats, including Madagascar and St Helena to assist conservationists in their bid to save endangered plant species. 

Introducing Sam Crosfield

Sam is the second in command of the Dry Tropics collections. Sam came to Kew in 2006 as a diploma student and, after finishing the three-year course (which included a travel scholarship to study the flora of Mauritius), Sam took a permanent position in the Nursery. Sam currently looks after the warm arid zone which includes the amazing collections of Melocacti, Euphorbias and arid  Madagascan flora.

- Sam & Nick -


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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. 

If you would like to publish material from this blog in a separate publication, please get in touch with Kew’s Press Office at See our full Terms and Conditions here.

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