Nick Johnson, Horticultural Manager of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Through my work I have become very well acquainted with so many fascinating plants, but I have also enjoyed getting to know some interesting people, many of whom I have met at the different gardens I have visited.  I hold a deep affection for the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew.  I am a great fan and supporter of Kew’s work in conservation and plant science, and I love to visit the beautiful glasshouses and gardens at Kew; Kew’s plant collections amaze and delight me!  Earlier this year I attended the opening of the Temperate House at Kew, where I was impressed with the refurbishment and restoration of this vast Victorian glasshouse.  Over 400 people have contributed towards the success of the rebirth of Kew’s Temperate House, including Nick Johnson, the Public Glasshouse Co-Ordinator and Scott Taylor, the Temperate House Supervisor.  Sadly, after spending 17 years of his life working at Kew, Nick Johnson recently left Kew to become the Horticultural Manager of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, in the Cayman Islands.

Public Glasshouse Manager Nick Johnson and Temperate House Supervisor Scott Taylor, pictured inside the Temperate House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Tulips along Cherry Walk, outside the newly restored Temperate House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Horticulturist and Public Glasshouse Manager Nick Johnson, pictured in front of the floating Palace centrepiece of the 2018 Orchid Festival, inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Nick Johnson’s intrigue and interest in plants and horticulture was triggered when he was a young child of around four years old.  Nick’s father kept a large garden, complete with greenhouses and a kitchen garden, but his father’s real love in the plant world was for orchids – Nick’s father had a great, and lifelong love of orchids, and he always maintained a large orchid collection.  It was these special moments shared with his father that sparked Nick’s interest, Nick relished the feel of the difference in temperature, humidity, and climate, and the damp, earthy, musty, mossy smell of his father’s greenhouse, these experiences in his early years first captured Nick’s heart and piqued his interest in horticulture.  Childhood summers spent in Port Talbot and Swansea with another side of Nick’s family only propelled his horticultural interest.  Nick has a great love for Mesembryanthemums, he grows these colourful daisies each year, as they remind him of these special summers with his family.  Mesembryanthemums remind me of my grandparents too, so these vibrantly coloured, fun and magical daisies that open as the sun comes out and close in the early evenings, also hold a special place in my heart.

It’s not only Nick’s affection for Mesembryanthemums that I share, Nick has a love of practical horticulture an interest in horticultural techniques, and a passion for carrying out a horticultural task, be it propagating a plant or planting out a plant specimen in what you know and has been tested and been proven to be the best method, which I also relate to.

Kew’s Public Glasshouses Supervisor Nick Johnson, pictured under a tunnel of vibrant and cheerfully coloured Vanda orchids, inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, during the Orchid festival, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Nick began his career in horticulture working for Ian and Carole Barlow, at Barlow’s Landscapes in Godalming, where he spent seven very happy years working his way up from his beginnings as a novice gardener to become Barlow’s Landscapes Contracts Manager.  Nick learnt a multitude of skills as Ian and Carole’s apprentice, both with Ian and Carole’s instruction and through his studies at Merrist Wood College in Guildford.  By this time Nick had successfully completed the Royal Horticultural Society Advanced Course, but his hunger for horticultural knowledge persisted, he had an unabating desire to learn more about plants and continue his studies.

Pleione formosana ‘Variegata’. While Nick Johnson was the Garden Supervisor at Munstead House he took care of Lady Pile’s extensive collection of Pleiones, Pelargoniums, and South African flora.

Time moved on and Nick became the Garden Supervisor for Munstead House in Godalming, this stately home has since been converted into flats, but during Nick’s work here he was responsible for Lady Pile’s extensive collection of Pleiones, Pelargoniums, and South African flora.  Nick managed the team of gardeners on the estate.  At Munstead House Nick had a good position in a great garden, but with an unfulfilled desire to learn more about horticulture, he followed his wife’s suggestion and applied to train at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Nick spent his first six months at Kew looking after the South End of the Palm House, where his responsibilities included caring for Kew’s prized Encephalartos altensteinii specimen, which holds the record for being the oldest potted plant in the world!  There is no weather system in this area of the Palm House, so Nick was solely responsible for this ancient, cherished, and famous plant’s care and indeed the care of all of the plants in this area of the Palm House.  If the plants were dry it was because Nick had not watered them, their success or failure was dependent on him alone.

This is the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Encephalartos altensteinii specimen, which holds the record for being the oldest potted plant in the world!
The Palm House is an iconic Victorian glasshouse, inside you’ll find a tropical rainforest, this glasshouse is filled with an array of exotic plants, from trees, to climbers, and of course there are plenty of palms! The scientists at Kew study many of the plants that are growing inside the Palm House as part of their work studying plants that could be used in future medicines.

Nick has worked in a number of areas of Kew, in Zone 8 of the tropical, behind the scenes nursery, Nick looked after the Titans, the Amorphophallus collections, where Nick relished the opportunity to learn all about these fascinating plants from horticulturists Phil Griffiths and Nigel Rothwell.  Kew’s Amorphophallus titanum plant produced its tallest flower in 2005, while Nick was caring for the plants in this area of the glasshouses. Nick learnt so much from the nurserymen and women he worked with at Kew including Nigel Rothwell, Dave Cook, Carlos Magdalena, Kath Smith, and Emma Fox.

An Amorphophallus titanum flower bud, pictured inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. This plant’s flowers are known by their common name of ‘Corpse Flower’, as the blooms emit a pungent fragrance, which is similar to that of a dead animal’s rotting body. It truly is a terrible fragrance!
A closer look at Amorphophallus titanum, pictured inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

During his time at Kew, Nick went on a number of overseas expeditions, these trips hold some of Nick’s best memories of working for Kew.  Nick’s first trip was to Madagascar, where he travelled to teach orchid cultivation techniques in the Botanic Garden – Parc Botanique de Zoologique des Tsimbazaza, which is just near Antananarivo.  After surviving being caught up in what must have been a scary mini-coup, in the area’s local town, where a grenade was thrown and three people were killed, Nick spent two nights in a hut in the Andasibe jungle, which is half way between the East Coast and Tana.  Giant lemur roam through this protected area of jungle.  Nick remembers waking up early each morning to the sight of the entire jungle being cloaked in a thick mist, he could hear all kinds of strange and unfamiliar animal sounds.  In the Andasibe jungle, Nick saw a great many orchids, as he and a student horticulturist, explored the surprisingly dark jungle, where plants and trees grew in stiff competition against each other with the result that they had grown tall and wide, their leaves jostling ever upwards to capture the sufficient light required for photosynthesis.

Visitors entering the Palm House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, can explore and experience a tropical rainforest in Richmond!

Nick enjoyed discovering new environments, he wanted to make a difference to help botanical gardens who were facing serious difficulties, so after talking to the Head of the Herbarium at the Botanic Garden in Montserrat, in the Caribbean, where a huge volcano had erupted in 1997, spewing a nine meter layer of ash, which had buried and suffocated the botanical gardens, Nick applied for the for the Scott Marshall travel scholarship.  This scholarship enabled Nick to travel with Stewart Henchie, who at the time was Kew’s Head of Hardy Display, Stewart led this trip.  Nick and Stewart spent four weeks setting up a new property for the botanical gardens, they helped to build the nursery, a propagation shade house, and an orchid shade house for the nursery using their own ingenuity to make the most of the limited resources they had available.  Stewart and Nick also created seasonal Gut displays (the guts are a seasonal run-off from the mountain – they’re made from boulders) which Nick and his colleagues from the botanical garden had to cart up to the top of the slope to reach the botanical gardens.

Nick Johnson pictured inside the newly refurbished Temperate House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

After proving he could handle dangerous trips, Nick journeyed to the Ascension Islands on behalf of Kew, this time travelling with the RAF.  This trip was all about growing Pteris adscensionis – a critically endangered fern, this expedition was all about sharing nursery techniques of the optimum methods of growing ferns: what compost to use, how to mix compost, and nursery hygiene.  While he was there, Nick was lucky to see some of the newly discovered Anagramma ascensionis ferns that had to be watered by hand after abseiling down a cliff on Green mountain.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory is a remarkable glasshouse, it features ten different computer controlled climatic zones to provide the perfect growing conditions for a vast array of different plants, from cacti to orchids, to waterlilies, to carnivorous plants!

Nick also travelled to the remote island community of St Helena, Nick suffers terribly with sea sickness, so the three day boat ride was somewhat arduous, however once he arrived, Nick enjoyed this three month trip immensely.  Nick’s work on this trip focused on nursery practices in conservation, as the conservation team on the island wanted to perfect the skills required to grow around 2,000 endemic and native plants per month, with the plan that these plants would then be planted in specially designated restoration areas.  On the island of St Helena, Nick worked with two ex-Kew students, Lourens Malan and Katrina Herien, who had extensively studied and trialled every single endemic and native species of St Helena.  Lourens and Katrina had written the results of their protocols into a substantial reference book, which was full of observations, practices, and valuable tips for growing and potting on each one of St Helena’s native plants.  From a botanical point of view, because St Helena is so isolated, there are many interesting plant species which are endemic to the island, including several species of woody daisy trees.  On St Helena, Nick found small trees like Trochetiopsis ebenus, The St Helena Ebony which are so beautiful, and such great conservatory plants as well, but are critically endangered in the wild now.

Nick Johnson pictured inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Blossfeldia liliputana is one of Nick Johnson’s favourite plants, pictured inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Nick enjoyed many exciting moments while working for Kew.  During his trip to St Helena, Nick was part of a group that found a site which had a new sub-population of a critically endangered plant, Pelargonium cotyledonis, which is more commonly known as Old Father Live Forever.

Pelargonium cotyledonis, also known as Old Father Live Forever.

During another trip to Congo-Brazzaville, Dr Xander Van de Burk discovered a new species of Daniellia, which had yet to be described!  At the time of their discovery, Nick was writing notes on the plant material the team were collecting, while Xander was drilling the trainee plant conservationists in how to collect plant material successfully at speed, when a flower dropped from the tree above onto Nick’s note pad, Xander noticed how distinct the flower was and instinctively knew that they had discovered a new species!

Nick and Xander also collected vast amounts of fruit of Tieghemella africana, a fascinating tree which grows to 50-60m (165-200ft) tall.  Tieghemella africana is now sadly critically endangered, this tree has a symbiotic relationship with elephants, who delight in eating the tree’s fruit, dispersing the tree’s seed in their dung, as they travel through the area.  As there are fewer and fewer elephants to consume the Tieghemella africana fruit and disperse the tree’s seed this tree has become more and more scarce.  Nick and Xander sowed over one hundred Tieghemella africana seeds from the fruits they collected on their trip.  A year later, the team in Congo sent Nick a photo of them planting the saplings that Nick and Xander had sown in the forest nursery, which must have been an amazing sight!

The moment when Nick and Carlos Magdalena saw the first Ramosmania rodriguesii seedling in the tropical nursery at Kew is another of Nick’s favourite moments at Kew.  This was the first time that anyone had seen seedlings of this plant, whose mature specimens have green oval leaves, whereas their seedlings had taken them by surprise with their red strap like leaves.

Public Glasshouse Manager Nick Johnson and Botanical Horticulturist and Orchid Expert Bala Kompalli, pictured at the Kew Orchid Festival 2018, inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory, at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

Kew carry out a great deal of work and giving advice and assistance to communities all over the world.  At any one time there may be between 10-20 members of Kew staff working overseas in plant conservation or plant science.  The staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew provide help and assistance to conservation workers in other countries, passing on their skills and knowledge of plant propagation to preserve and conserve endangered plant species.  Nick Johnson tells me that he has worked with at least one person from every country on the planet during his time at Kew.  This is one of the many aspects of working at Kew that Nick has relished – he has loved working as part of a large team.  Nick has nothing but praise for the other horticulturists he has worked with at Kew, in every conversation I have had with Nick he has reminded me that every success that is achieved by a horticulturist from Kew is accomplished by the work of a highly skilled team.  Over the years, whenever I have congratulated Nick on any of his successes, Nick has always been the first to highlight the team of horticulturists who worked alongside him to achieve each goal.

Visitors admiring the plants growing inside the Palm House, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Nick Johnson has now left Kew to become the Horticultural Manager of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, in the Caymen Islands.

Nick Johnson has devoted the past 17 years of his life to Kew, Kew will always have a special place in his heart and Nick will always be an ambassador for this special garden, its plant collections and the work in plant science and conservation that the staff at Kew have embarked on.  Nick has now left Kew to become the Horticultural Manager of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, in the Cayman Islands, where he will be responsible for the 60 acres of gardens and wild areas.  Nick will be working on a micro-prop lab to begin propagating the island’s native orchid species, he will be looking for ways to encourage the rare orchids in this area to set seed.  Nick is keen to ensure that the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is somewhere that is a special place for the locals and the community around the gardens, as well as a popular destination for tourists.  I will miss seeing Nick at Kew, but I wish him the best of luck and every happiness in his new role.

Nick Johnson pictured pollinating Dendrophylax fawcettii in the gardens of the Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park in the Caymen Islands. This photograph was taken by the QEIIBP Director, John Lawrus.
Whatever the weather, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are a super place to visit! But there is much more to Kew than just the glasshouses and gardens, the experts at Kew carry out valuable work in plant science and conservation across the globe.

If you’d like to support Kew’s work in plant science and conservation by making a donation, please click here.

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Other articles that may interest you…………..

To read about the Queen of Orchids – the largest orchid in the world and this plant’s flowering at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, please click here.

To read about the life of the horticulturist, broadcaster, author, journalist, and nature lover John Negus, please click here.

To read about the 2018 opening of the Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, please click here.

To see photographs of the Thailand themed 2018 Orchid Festival at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, please click here.

To read about Rebecca Louise Law’s 2018 art installation Life in Death, at Kew, please click here.

To read my interview with Scott Taylor the Temperate House Supervisor, please click here.

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