Nestled inside the warmest zone of the behind-the-scenes Tropical Nursery at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a giant orchid, Grammatophyllum speciosum – also known as the Queen of Orchids – is growing in a wooden slatted basket which was especially made for the plant by Kew. A large, and naturally top-heavy, epiphytic orchid, Grammatophyllum speciosum can be found growing within the branches of tall trees in tropical regions of the world, where it flowers every two to four years. In cultivation it’s very rare indeed to hear of a Grammatophyllum speciosum flowering, this particular specimen measures 5.5 meters from one side to the other, which although huge in comparison to most orchids, is surprisingly small for a flowering-size plant of this particular giant orchid species.
The Grammatophyllum speciosum specimen at Kew is held in place by chains, which secure the orchid protectively to the two benches that this plant has rather ceremoniously spread itself across, during the many years that this orchid has been growing in this area of the behind-the-scenes glasshouse, at Kew.
This Grammatophyllum speciosum specimen was collected back in 1983, by Phillip Cribb and Christopher Baines, in Sabah, Malaysia; the plant was then given to Kew, and has been cared for by the orchid specialists at Kew, ever since. It has taken 32 years of expert care and cultivation to encourage this orchid to bloom, an amazing achievement for the glasshouse team at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, especially Horticulturist and Orchid Expert, Richard Taylor, who has cared for this large orchid for a number of years.
The flower spike on this Grammatophyllum speciosum specimen first appeared in August 2015, and has been busy growing ever since, enchanting both Kew’s visitors and orchid experts alike.
I was lucky enough to be shown this very special orchid by Christopher Ryan, the Tropical Nursery Supervisor at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Christopher was kind enough to tell me more about this Grammatophyllum speciosum specimen, and the interesting history of this orchid at Kew.
During the first week that the Grammatophyllum speciosum flower spike appeared at Kew, it grew vertically until the flower spike reached over a meter in height. At this time it was propelling itself upwards, growing 15cm – 20cm a day! The orchid’s growth rate slowed, as the flower spike began to produce flower buds. On the day that I visited this Grammatophyllum speciosum specimen at Kew, the flower spike measured 2.5m – 3m (6 to 8 feet) in length!
On the 22nd September 2015, Christopher Ryan counted the number of flowers at 102; up from 84 the previous week, 75 the week before, and 50 the week before that. As the orchid’s stem continues to produce flower buds, it keeps growing – so by the start of October 2015, it will probably have over 150 flowers on the stem! Although, naturally some of the earlier, older flowers are just starting to fade, being up to 4 weeks old.
The leaves of Grammatophyllum speciosum are linear, they are arranged in two rows, and are 50cm to 100cm in length. As the leaves age, they droop from the base. The foliage of this orchid is thought to resemble that of Sacchaarum officinarum, also known as sugar cane, which has led to one of its many common names – sugar cane orchid.
Grammatophyllum speciosum has many common names – Queen of Orchids, sugar cane orchid, tiger orchid, and perhaps unsurprisingly, giant orchid. Grammatophyllum speciosum is reputed to be the largest orchid in the world!
Kew advise that the ideal growing medium for Grammatophyllum speciosum orchids, comprises equally sized particles of four parts course coniferous bark, two parts course pumice chips, and one part charcoal.
The large size of this orchid makes it prohibitive to consider growing yourself, unless of course you have a spacious glasshouse, with room to accommodate this large plant. If you’re tempted to try growing your own Grammatophyllum speciosum, the minimum temperature for this orchid is 15 C, this plant will require good light, heavy watering throughout the year, high levels of humidity, as well as the space to grow. This orchid doesn’t like to be disturbed or moved often, and will require regular feeding.
As with most Orchids, the flowers have a lip adapted for pollination, but interestingly some of the earlier flowers are incomplete, with only 4 floral parts.
Orchids of this type are very rare indeed to flower in temperate regions of the world, although they are grown more widely in the tropics – a Grammotophyllum speciosum orchid is growing outside the curator’s office in Singapore. It has been reported that this Singaporean plant measures over 10 meters in circumference!
Christopher plans to pollinate the flowers in the next week or so. Although waiting for seed will require a little more patience – it’s expected that the seeds will take 12-16 months to fully develop.
The length behind the flower stem will produce the seed pods – each will measure around 10cm by 10cm, and will contain tens of thousands of seeds if pollination is successful. If pollination is successful, some Grammotophyllum speciosum seeds will be stored in the Millennium Seed Bank, and the Conservation Biotechnology team at Kew will also attempt micro-propagation.
Kew are generously offering free tours to see this special orchid while it’s in flower, the tours are on Wednesdays at 1pm and 2pm, starting at White Peaks café. The tours are free-of-charge, but there are limited spaces available, and so pre-booking is essential. There is access for disabled visitors, so everyone can see this very special orchid. For all the details of how to book your place on a tour at Kew, please click here.
To read about the National Collection of Miniature Phalaenopsis Species and the National Collection of Miniature Aerangis and Angraecum Species, please click here.
For a Calendar of Orchid Shows, Orchid Visits, Orchid Garden Openings, Orchid Plant Sales, Orchid Zoom Talks, & Events, please click here.
To see more articles about orchids, please click here.
To see my plant pages and view pictures and info on orchids, houseplants, ferns, roses, perennials, climbing plants, trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruit, herbs, and more, please click here.
To read my interview with Nick Johnson, the Public Glasshouse Supervisor at Kew and find out about his interesting carer in horticulture, please click here.
To read my interview with Scott Taylor, the Supervisor of the Temperate House, where you can see photographs and find out all about the restoration and opening of the Temperate House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, please click here.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is an amazing and inspiring place, Kew is one of the world’s leading plant and fungal science and conservation organisations. The scientists, horticulturalists and gardeners at Kew work together to find plant-based solutions to global challenges such as biodiversity loss, food and water security, poverty, disease and changing climate. Kew scientists are discovering new ways of using plants sustainably for the benefit of our people and our planet, while working hard to conserve and restore the world’s habitats, particularly those most in danger. The vitally important work Kew carries out is impossible without support and funding, to discover more about the ways in which you can help to support Kew, please click here.
Kew Gardens are a great place for disabled visitors to visit, the typography of Kew is rather flat, but also Kew have put a huge amount of work in to ensure that disabled visitors have a great time – the paths are wide and smooth, so it’s not bumpy or uncomfortable to travel around the gardens and you can be alongside your fellow visitors.
You’ll find all the information for disabled visitors to Kew here.
To go to the opposite extreme and read the first part of my Miniature Orchid Trial – Growing Miniature Orchids in a BiOrbAir terrarium, please click here.
To read about Christmas at Kew and find out about visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew over winter, please click here.
To see photographs from the Orchid Extravaganza at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, please click here.
To read the first part of my White Orchid Terrarium Trial, please click here.
To read the first part of my Madagascan Orchids Terrarium Trial, please click here.
To read about the Writhlington Orchid Project, please click here.
To read about Aerangis luteo-alba var. rhodosticta, please click here.
To read about terrariums and bottle gardens, please click here.
To read about my Sweet Pea Trial, please click here.
To read my articles about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, please click here.
To read about carnivorous plants, please click here.
For tips and advice on protecting your plants from slugs and snails without using slug pellets, please click here.