Sunday, 31 March 2013

Palm House II

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

Kew holds the National Collection of Musa species, this here is Musa balbisiana. Bananas are as tall as trees, but are in fact herbaceous plants and the ‘stem’ is merely the tightly packed sheaths of the enormous leaves! The male flower hangs at the end of the flowering stem, while the female flowers are further up and after pollination form the banana fruit

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

Alocasia x amazonica and Philodendron melanochrysum are typical of many tropical leaves, featuring a pronounced ‘drip tip’, an adaptation at the end of the leaf which enables the exceptionally large amounts of rain to drain away from the plant quickly

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!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

AGS Harlow Show

At this time of year the experts who meddle with miniature blooms are having their moment in the sun; revelling in their alpine gems and racing up and down the country to attend one of the many Alpine Garden Society shows. One of the first in the calendar is the Harlow Show in Essex, and last Saturday several Kew students headed up there to help out, ‘do our bit’, and assist staff from the Kew Alpine Nursery. This is the first such show I have attended, and it was dashed good fun! The highlight was undoubtedly seen in the main hall, which was resplendent with row after row of pristine alpine specimens all displayed by amateur growers and AGS members from across England. The competition is broken up into classes, such as ‘1 pan Fritillaria’ or ‘3 pans Primula’, with each exhibitor offering up their best plants for any category of their choice. The judging process takes about an hour, with a rabble of old alpine experts thrashing it out amongst themselves, and the atmosphere getting somewhat heated in the process! A truly splendid specimen of Gymnospermium albertii (see previous post) was on show, and won a ‘Certificate of Merit’ for being judged one of the most outstanding plants on display. Unfortunately I was unable to find one in the plant sales next door, but did come away with a beautiful Adonis amurensis from the chaps at Edrom Nursery. I hope you enjoy these following spring gems, and if you are interested in witnessing such splendour first-hand there are many shows left on the calendar (see here). Back to the tropics next for more Palm House glory!
The Farrer Memorial Medal for best plant in the show was won by this mass of Iris ‘Frank Elder’

Glorious variation in colour from Ranunculus calandrinioides

Hepatica japonica ‘Utyuu’

Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis ‘Tricolour’

The dainty stripes of Crocus reticulatus subsp. reticulatus

This is the Adonis amurensis, cheery blooms and fascinating foliage

Crocus x jessopiae, selected and named by the great plantsman E.A. Bowles

Heads held proud above the foliage, Crocus chrysanthus ‘Ladykiller’

Crocus malyi, crisp and elegant!

An explosion of colour and form in one pan! Crocus abantensis

Crocus minimus provided one of the best colours of the day, and the dark hints on the outer petals are a joy!

Some creative eggs displayed their gems with stone dressings. Outstanding efforts as seen here with Callianthemum anemonoides!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Spring flowers

In spite of a brisk north easterly rolling across the garden, spring has sprung apace here at Kew with buds breaking, ducklings waddling about near the pond, and hundreds of tiny flowers appearing amongst rocks and grass. The hybrid colours of the Orchid Festival are certainly a tonic at this time of year, but Kew horticulture is based more upon the species and this can fortunately be just as floriferous in these early months! In other news the herbaceous shoots are up, and I recently spotted a Verbena bonariensis seedling. Onwards!
The cheery succulent glory of Cheiridopsis denticulata

One of the best Pelargonium selections in the Kew collection, P. 'Rubicinctum Cordifolium'

This gem is Veltheimia bracteata, commonly known as the winter red hot poker! It grows native in the Eastern Cape and is tolerant of all but the harshest frosts

A delightful mound of Dionysia tapetodes

Kew grows many of the small iris cultivars, and this is one of my favourites Iris reticulata ‘Cantab’

Buttery blooms and grass-like stems; Gagea wilczekii

Fritillaria raddeana, an amazing miniature Crown Imperial! An orange species exists too, F. eduardii

Iris aucheri from Western Asia. I may be finally cracking up but surely the flowers resemble the stance of one of those martial art fellows

The Juno Irises are the largest group of bulbous irises, characterised by their fleshy bulbs and with most found growing native from the Middle East and across to Central Asia. This floriferous hybrid is Iris ‘Sindpers’

The jewel-like Scilla mischtschenkoana, planted freely around Kew and an absolute joy to behold!

Probably the best thing I have seen around the place this year, Gymnospermium albertii! Perfectly hardy coming from Central Asia, but requires free-draining soil and dry conditions during the summer months