Has it really been almost a month since I last wrote? My goodness! Well, since my last post I’ve been working in the Tropical Nursery for three weeks. Each week was with a different section starting with Arid, then Temperate, and my final week with the Orchids. (There is also Moist and Bromeliads, but I was unable to work in those zone.)
Each section is further divided up into zones where the whole range of zones can accommodate plant species from cooler regions all the way to the most tropical. Working in the Tropical Nursery was like slipping through the looking glass and into Wonderland – everything from the rarest plants on earth to the wackiest ones that only nature could have dreamt lived in these glasshouses.
My tasks mainly included repotting, grooming, and watering the collections, but whenever I had the chance I relished exploring the different zones and finding gems from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Though I wish I could share all the wonderful plants here, there is really too many to be able to include in one single post. So there will be a smattering of botanically delectable morsels.
First let’s start with Pelargonium appendiculatum. I spied this little cutie on the heated bench amongst the aloe collection. I love the pale yellow flowers, fuzzy, carrot-leaves, and tuberous rootstock. Who said pelargoiums are only for grandmas?
Let’s head to the temperate section next. When I first walked into this zone I first noticed the blindly bright orange flowers of Gerbera jamesonii from South Africa. This is what a wild gerber daisy looks like and this one is one of the grandparents that gave rise to the many hybrid you see in florist shops today.
After admiring the Gerbera I immediately gravitated towards the Trochetiopsis ebenus plants. This species is endemic to the island of Saint Helena (the same island Parma-violet-crazed Napoleon was exiled to) and from the introduction of goats the entire population was reduced to just two plants clinging on a steep sea cliff. Though it nearly went completely extinct like its cousin Trochetiopsis melanoxylon, luckily conservation efforts are being made a RBG, Kew to protect and replant this species on the island.
Living just two rows down is Impatiens teitensis. The delicate petals fluttered in the breeze from the glass house and giving the illusion of a swarm of white moths.
One day as I made my way down the benches picking up fallen leaves in the temperate zone I saw this weeping plant. The somber, but beautiful blue-gray flowers hung delicately amongst the narrow leaves. I didn’t think much of it as first, but then I accidentally brushed on the flowers something dripped onto my hand.
At first I thought I was bleeding, but the odd orange color helped me realize it was the nectar from the flower. This is Nesocodon mauritianus, the first ever plant to be discovered to produce red colored nectar. To make things odder it grows on the cliff edges of a waterfall in Mauritius and, though is said to be bird pollinated, it is now thought that it may be gecko pollinated. I guess never judge a book – or in this case a flower – by its cover!
On a different afternoon, but still in the temperate zone, I was chatting with Carlos Magdalena and we wandered around as we showed a few of his plants. We stopped upon his young Puya raimondii plants- a wicked plant that is endemic to the high Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia.
Being the largest Bromeliad in the world it grows to 6 feet tall and when it is mature (about 40 years) it sends up a flower stalk 3o feet tall covered with thousands of white flowers. Once it blooms and sets millions of seeds, the whole monolithic plant withers away and dies. Crazy – I know.
During another afternoon, Carlos called me over and presented me this plant. Once look and I could hardly believe my eyes, it was Amborella trichopoda! I agree that these are flowers a only a botanist would love, but this is the great, great, great, great, great…great, great, great grandmother of all flowers – the oldest flowering plant that exists on earth today! That is, this plant is one of the surviving relics of the first flowers millions and millions of year ago.
Amborella is a bit of a unassuming sprawling shrub, but they can only be found in New Caledonia. New Caledonia was far enough from the ravaging poles during the Ice Age that Amborella was untouched by frost and could continue growing. Though this plant is dioecious, oddly they can switch sexes – a ‘male’ plant can produce female flowers and visa versa. Odd, but wonderful!
In the warmer temperate zone Pavonia bahamensis is blooming. Though the color might not suggest it, but the tubular and nectar rich flowers are made for bird pollinators.
Just a few benches over this wonderfully quirky flower belongs to Turraea sericea. The little petaloid ring carrying the anthers reminds me of an Elizabethan neck ruff.
Just down the corridor in the one of the zones containing Nepenthes lives this almost unbelievable carnivorous plant. Utricularia are carnivorous plants that usually live in ponds and waterways trapping small aquatic arthropods with their bladder-like traps. However this one – Utricularia nelumbifolia – lives in the tanks of bromeliads high up in the jungle canopy of Brazil! I can’t begin to imagine how it evolved this adaptation – just amazing!
Passing through the hallway it was hard not to be drawn in by these flashy Pinguicula laueana in flower. This Mexican species of butterwort is pollinated by hummingbirds, hence the bright red flowers.
Across the from the temperate carnivorous room is the truly moist tropical zone. This room is quite pleasant with the sultry warmth and humidity enveloping everything. I caught a little glimpse of this Passiflora jussieui beginning to bloom. Though many passion flowers have a nice fragrance, when I bend down for a sniff this one turned out to be quite musky kind of wild-animal-like.
In this same room lives the another famous plant: café marron. Ramosmania rodriguesi is a coffee relative native to the island of Rodrigues. This plant was thought to be long extinct, but in 1980 a schoolboy stumbled upon the only plant in existence and cuttings were sent to RBG, Kew.
The cuttings were slow to root, but soon they began to grow and eventually reached flowering size. Despite this success the staff ran into one problem: this species was not self-compatible, that is it needed another genetically different individual for successful pollination and all they had were clones.
Long trials of many different methods were tired, but it was finally discovered that hotter temperatures encouraged some female flowers and even though the plants were identical this somehow allowed a loophole for pollination. Though this technique worked it wasn’t a run away success, since the plants were still shy to produce many fruits. Over time the staff kept at pollinating and now they have quite a few plants even enough for the beginnings of reintroductions on the island.
Ramosmania rodriguesi also has a curious adaptation of looking like a completely different plant during its juvenile stage. The leaves start out long and glossy with a pretty pinkish-white midrib that runs down the entire leaf.
Once the plant as reached flowering age it switches from the long, glossy leaves to branches with small oval leaves. If you catch the plant in mid transition, it looks as if to plants were spliced into one.
My final week was a day shorter due to the Easter holiday, but it was packed full of luscious orchids. Are you ready? Here we go!
On my final day with the Tropical Nursery, I helped the Orchid Department with their display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The best orchids in bloom were rounded up and gently carted off to the the glasshouse on the other side of the garden for an Easter display.
However there was one very special orchid that was to take center stage in the glass cases: Angraeum sesquipedale or Darwin’s Orchid.
A slow growing orchid from Madagascar, this individual decided to throw out four flowering spikes. It was a sight to behold – literally!
Angraecum sesquipedale was discovered in Madagascar in the late 1700’s by a French botanist. Later a flower was sent to Darwin to look at. The white color, fragrance at night, and long nectar rich spur on the back of each flower, Darwin surmised that a moth with a proboscis exactly the length of the spur would be its pollinator. Unfortunately he would not live to see his prediction verified, but 21 years after his death a moth with a proboscis exactly the length of the spur was seen pollinating the orchid.
After the star of the show was safe behind glass, I helped arranged the glass case display in the cool orchid zone.
Phew! What a long post this time! I started at the Princess of Wales Conservatory today and I will write a post on that towards the end of the week. Until then here are a few photos of the waterlilies in the aquatics zone.
Oh wait! I almost forgot to add earlier that I had the good fortune to meet the world’s smallest waterlily that Carlos famously saved from extinction: Nymphaea thermarum. This waterlily was endemic only to the outflow of a single hot spring in Rwanda, but because the spring was diverted for municipal use it is now extinct in the wild. (The waterlily now only exists at RBG, Kew, except for one that was stolen in January.)
Okay, that’s it for now. I’ll post post soon!