I’ve just come back from Kew Gardens where I’m privileged to be a visitor guide. I was taken behind the scenes in the Tropical Nursery to see the amazing Grammatophyllum speciosum otherwise known as the giant orchid.
Kew is very excited about this plant as it is flowering for the first since it was collected from Malaysia in 1983.
Although it still has some growing to do before it beats the giant orchid on display at Crystal Palace in the 1851 Exhibition, it’s pretty big already at five metres wide.
The Crystal Palace giant allegedly weighed in at two tons – but whether that was the weight of the orchid alone, or the combined weight of the orchid and the tree that it was attached to, we will never know. All the same, that one was huge!
This G. speciosum has been at Kew since 1983, but was nothing more than a bunch of leafy stems. However, in August this year, it was being watered, as per usual, when horticulturists noticed the emerging but unmistakable flower spike. A giant orchid can have as many as 80 individual flowers on a single stem. At the moment, Kew’s one has around 50 flowers on its spike with a healthy bunch of developing buds, so it could keep on flowering for another two to three months.
In the wild this plant would normally be seen growing in the first fork of a tropical tree, and as the plant responds well to humidity, these trees will often be growing along river courses. Also in its natural environment, the giant orchid flowers every two to four years, but no-one quite knows what triggers the plant to start the process – it could be a sudden change in temperature, or it could be sensitivity to changes in light levels, or even a combination of both.
Kew’s orchid is now so heavy that it’s not possible to move the plant from the Tropical Nursery to a more public place in one of the glasshouses, but visitors to Kew can go behind the scenes to marvel at this flowering giant.
The tours are free, held on Wednesdays at 13.00 and 14.00, and visitors should meet the guide outside the White Peaks café. Though these are free-of-charge, there’s limited space within the glasshouse so pre-booking is essential. All you have to do is email email@example.com.