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The World's Oldest Potted Plant
Transcribed by Maurice Levin, Jurassic Garden

The world's oldest potted plantEven my watering regime couldn't kill the world's oldest pot plant, says Ursula Buchan

By Ursula Buchan 03 Sep 2009

You may remember seeing recently an item in this newspaper about the world's oldest pot plant, Encephalartos altensteinii , in the Palm House at Kew.

This extraordinary "living fossil" cycad from the Eastern Cape was collected by Kew's first plant hunter Francis Masson, and arrived at Kew in 1775. To give you a feel of its great age, that was the year that Jane Austen was born. It has grown an inch a year ever since, and now stretches out sideways more than four metres and has to be supported by metal stilts. Its repotting into a handmade mahogany box took three months to plan. This story may have engaged your interest for a few minutes but, for me, it set off a chain of memories.

In the mid Seventies, I was a student at Kew and chronically hard up (I was trying to pursue a girl-about-town social life on a gardener's wage).

So I volunteered for more than my share of weekend duties in the Palm House, since I was paid overtime to do so. What a pleasure it was to unlock the door at 8am on a Saturday in summer, and hear sparrows chattering away among the bananas high up under Decimus Burton's extraordinary curved glass roof. And what a pleasure to know that I had the place entirely to myself for a couple of hours before the public was admitted.

This was when the watering was done, and I developed a neurotic fantasy that, if I did this vital task in an incompetent way, I might, just might, kill off Encephalartos altensteinii (then known as E. longifolius). How would I cope if the finger of blame was pointed at me? Would the shame of it cast a blight on my career? I have always had a propensity for killing house plants; this cycad was a house plant writ very large indeed.

I consoled myself with the thought that, if I did harm it, it would take a long time before such a knobbly old thing showed any moribund tendencies; by which time I would be long gone.

What I didn't know then is that this is a relatively easy plant to grow, revelling in lots of water but capable of surviving long dry spells.

Nevertheless, it was with some relief that I read the news story, knowing that this cycad had survived my imperfect care; and, presumably, that of countless other students like me. Wes Shaw, keeper of the Palm House, is reported as saying: "When I think of how many gardeners have cared for this plant over the years, it gives me a real sense of the importance of the living collection that we are all responsible for here at Kew and the incentive to ensure it keeps thriving through my time in the Palm House."

I can certainly empathise with that!

Ursula Buchan's latest anthology, Back to the Garden, is published on 23 September (Frances Lincoln, 16.99).

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The world's oldest potted plant