ECape cycad recognised as oldest potted plant in the world

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Among the lush green leaves and steamy heat of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens' Tropical Palm House lives one remarkable, record-breaking plant – the Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii), writes Katie Avis-Riordan.

Weighing more than a tonne and measuring over four metres in height, this cycad is the oldest pot plant in the world.

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.

Slow grower

Now sitting in a large plant pot, the long-lived cycad moved into the Palm House in 1848 and only grows at an average rate of 2.5 cm per year.

In its younger years, this species of orn