Among the lush green leaves and steamy heat of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens’ Tropical Palm House, lives the oldest pot plant in the world
This remarkable, record-breaking plant – the Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii) weighs more than a tonne and measurs over four metres in height.
The amazing specimen first arrived here in 1775 after Kew’s first plant hunter, botanist Francis Masson, brought it back to the Gardens. He collected the plant in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, the species’ country of origin.
Put on board a wooden sailing ship, the palm-like plant’s long journey from South Africa to London would have taken several months.
During the travels the cycad was strapped to the deck to give it access to rainwater and sunlight, before being transported by barge along the Thames to Kew.
One cone wonder
Though the Eastern Cape giant cycad has been living at Kew for over 240 years, the plant has only ever produced one single cone during its time here.
This was in 1819 and was witnessed by naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, Kew’s first unofficial director, the year before his death.
Cycads have been around since before the dinosaurs walked the Earth. The prehistoric plants were widespread over 250 million years ago.
This one only grows at an average rate of 2.5 cm per year. Like some senior citizens, the elderly Eastern Cape giant cycad has to lean on props to remain standing. Without them the plant cannot support its own weight.
Palm House Supervisor Will Spoelstra says. ‘Hopefully it will live a lot longer yet, as I do not want to be known as “the man who killed the oldest pot plant in the world”. I see it as a symbol of the incredible history of the Palm House and Kew in general. Looking after this plant makes me very proud’.
It makes me very proud too
I see it as a see it as a reminder on my Eastern Cape roots, and as an opportunity to show interested visitors a dell full of cycads in Kirstenbsoch Botanic Garden or else, a hidden corner of the Cape Winelands with a stupendous array of cycads and succulents.
We have such an eye-opening botanical legacy to share with you when you visit South Africa.
Acknowledgement: Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Katie Avis-Riordan