Sadly, this was the last week of my placement in the Palm House. Three glorious months have passed by in the blink of an eye, and after a brief Easter break all first year students will be recalled to the School of Horticulture to begin a gruelling three months of lectures (pint of coffee please, barkeep!) Working in the Palm House has been an absolute joy, and I’m extremely depressed that my heady, tropical days are over. The work involved was truly splendid, from the day-to-day maintenance such as watering and feeding, plus extra tasks such as pruning the canopy and pollinating cycads. I was responsible for the centre beds in the house, the Americas, with Australasia up in the north end of the house and Africa in the south. The geographic planting works surprisingly well, and the north end in particular has a noticeably different atmosphere to the planting. Tropical plants are fascinating old devils, and it has been great fun noticing and learning about all of the quirks and adaptations they have developed and employ! Amongst the climbing plants you have the Passiflora with their delicately coiled tendrils, quite discreet in their manner, but then you also have the Rattans which lack all of the good manners of the Passiflora and have whips extending from the plant in all directions and covered in hooks! Like pirates throwing grapnels over the side of a ship they are about to board and maraud, the hooks latch on to any plant in the vicinity and enable the Rattans to scramble aboard and grow on up through the canopy. Philodendrons are another tropical climber, typified by huge pointed leaves and dangling aerial roots that look quite fantastic drooping from the host tree. Like our native ivy, this growth can sometimes become too heavy and the tree will collapse underneath. Clearly this is disastrous for our unfortunate host, but the sudden appearance of a gaping hole in the dense canopy is greeted with cheers of delight by all of the seeds, seedlings and young plants lingering around in the darkness below! This small scale clearance serves an important role in the rainforest, but some other clambering eggs are considerably less helpful in their approach. Ficus benghalensis, the banyan tree, climbs up its victim and sends down aerial roots to the ground, but these become like trunks and expand to enormous widths. Inevitably the host is croaked beneath all of this vigorous growth, but instead of opening up light for the other plants below the tree is simply replaced by the voracious fig!
The relationships between plants and animals in the rainforest are quite complex, and jolly interesting! Poison dart frogs, for example, raise their tadpoles in Bromeliad species. Bromeliads grow on the branches of trees in the canopy, and their broad leaf bases form a throat that holds water. These private pools are inhabited by the poison dart chaps, and the best territory is fought over bitterly! Cecropia form beautiful trees, and are a pioneer species that will often invade disturbed areas. Their stems have hollow sections within them, and these are inhabited by Azteca ants that protect the tree by attacking predators such as leaf cutter ants! Although banana leaves are quite tough and used as plates by native eggs, they are nevertheless the food plant for the spectacular Owl butterflies, huge beasts from South America that are often seen in English butterfly houses.
That is enough tropical prattle for now, I have caught a bug so there will be more to come!
|The south entrance to the house! Quite futuristic to my mind, it’s surprising the Victorians took to it as warmly as they did|
|Sunset at the west entrance|
|Detailing of Turner’s ironwork on the balcony, the spinning disc foliage on the left is Cecropia glaziovii|
|Bambusa vulgaris has these magnificently marked stems, although the vigorous growth needs checking regularly. This is done by digging out some of the rootstock, and every other year the dense foliage is completely stripped|
|Aphelandra aurantiaca var. aurantiaca is one of the many flowering plants, and continues its display throughout the year|
|Sanchezia nobilis is an excellent foliage shrub, good for filling gaps and providing some evergreen structure|
|Theobroma cacao is certainly not the most beautiful tree in the Palm House, but it is one of the most interesting! The beans found in the large seed pods are the main ingredient in chocolate!|
|The glorious paddles of Ravenala madagascariensis|
|Licuala grandis and some detailing of the flowers. Palm flowers are generally small and white|
|The larva and imago of Caligo memnon, the Owl butterfly! They lay their eggs on Musa species, and are seen here at Stratford Butterfly Farm|
|View from the Palm House balcony along the dramatic Syon Vista. Across the river at the end of this avenue is Syon House, the home of the Duke of Northumberland. In the foreground is the rose garden|
|A view from up in the canopy, and some more detailing on the pillars|
|Looking along the roof of the south end!|
|My manager Wes (Keeper of the Palm House) 16 metres up in the canopy on the ‘nifty lift’. Happy days!|