Human Flower Project

The World’s Oldest Potted Plant

‘Laughing Stock or Hero?’ James Wandersee and Renee Clary ask, as they consider potted plants and profile one mighty example, from Kew Garden. Thank you, Jim and Renee, for another five-star (if flowerless) project. Your work on the sociology of plants continually inspires us.

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary                                         

EarthScholars™ Research Group  

Vice President Dan Quayle remarked of his role in White House conferences,  “I am not, as they say, a potted plant at these meetings.” Brendan V. Sullivan, the famous criminal defense attorney, once exclaimed, “What am I, a potted plant? I’m here as a lawyer, that’s my job.”

Potted plants get little respect. Indeed, most people think of them as passive, trivial, dispensable, a nuisance to tend, and purely decorative. One cannot even assume that indoor potted plants are alive, given how easily today’s artificial (“silk”) potted plants can deceive the untrained eye!

However, there is a particular live potted plant you can visit that reclaims the dignity of potted plants everywhere….

imageMoving the giant cycad

Royal Botanic Gardens—Kew

c. 1980

Photo: NCCPG

This species (Encephalartos altensteinii) reproduces via seed cones, not flowers. It is a member of the Cycad family. Such plants have changed little since the days of the dinosaurs. This family’s fossils date back to the early Permian Period ~ 280 million years ago. The Ginkgo tree also appears in the fossil record about this time. Both taxa are considered “living fossil” plants.

So where can this amazing palm-like potted plant be seen? In a far corner of the Palm House at the venerable Royal Botanic Gardens-Kew (near London). Its iconic glasshouse home, 363 feet long, 100 feet wide and 66 feet high, was designed during Victorian times to house the exotic palms then being collected and introduced to Europe. Just two horticulturalists and two assistants maintain the entire Palm House plant collection today.

imageFrancis Masson (1741-1805), RBG-Kew’s First Plant Hunter

Photo: Plant Explorers

This particular cycad was sent to Kew in 1773 by the famous plant hunter Francis Masson, at the encouragement of Sir Joseph Banks. (Banks became famous as the chief naturalist aboard the Endeavour, serving on the first round-the-world voyage commanded by Captain James Cook.) In other words, this plant is at least 234 years old, or about as old as the US Declaration of Independence!

Near a side entrance to the glasshouse, atop an old, perforated, cast-iron grating, the world’s oldest potted plant resides in a large teakwood box. (Actually, this is probably not the oldest potted plant specimen alive today, but, after our after being led down many botanical-historical pathways only to find flaws in documentation or unanswered questions, it is the best known and documented candidate we have been able to find.) It has been over 180 years since this particular cycad plant grew a cone (both male and female plants are necessary for reproduction to occur). Emma Fox, Kew’s Keeper of the Palm House, watches and waits with great anticipation. When the Palm House was renovated in the 1980s, this grand old plant—weighing in with its soil and container at over 2 tons—had to be moved very gingerly to temporary quarters.

imageKew’s “ambassador from Africa”

Photo: EarthScholars™ Research Group

This unique potted plant has the potential to be a marquee plant, but for some reason, Kew doesn’t publicize its presence much. It is a potential ambassador of endangered plant species in Africa as well as a repository of rare genetic material. In Africa, this cycad is known informally as a “bread palm,” since a bread-like, starchy food can be prepared from the center of the stem.

Alas, many visitors leave the Gardens without ever seeing it! The recent, full-color, BBC book, A Year at Kew (2004) —a wonderful insider’s view of plant life year-round at the Gardens—allocates only one sentence to the huge cycad (p. 108). We have observed it many times during our studies at Kew and never cease to marvel at how long and well it has been tended, and how it continues to grow. Laughing stock or hero? We say hero!  Who of us can live and grow that long?

As for the other potted-plant prejudices, these creatures are far from passive. They simply move and grow on a scale that differs from human time, something Charles Darwin pointed out long ago in The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). Potted plants are far from trivial. B.C. Wolverton, a retired NASA research scientist, has written How to Grow Fresh Air (1997), describing the scientific research on house plants as air purifiers; Wolverton explains how air contaminants enter our homes and notes the adverse effects these chemicals can have on human health. The book provides concise, quantitative data about which substances some 50 different houseplants remove from the air. In addition, potted plants release (and use some) vital oxygen.

So potted plants have aesthetic value, health value, cultural value, and teaching value. We can testify to the latter. Our nation-wide research studies on public understanding of plants have found that the sustained, observation-driven, recursive interactions involved in tending a plant throughout its life cycle (whether a potted plant or a garden plant)  heighten a person’s visual awareness of all plants—indoors and outdoors—and lead to an increased appreciation of the importance of plants in human affairs and in the biosphere. Plant-caretakers also can recognize the missing details, subtle color differences, and false perfection of artificial plants.

Kew’s old cycad is a hidden treasure for plant connoisseurs, and we think it should be on the life list of every plant lover. Yes, we have appropriated the term life list from bird watchers because we assert that plant watching is equally challenging and interesting. Why not start your own life list of plants this year? There’s a large and fascinating kingdom of plants beckoning you!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/09 at 04:34 PM


Julie, I liked this story very much. We see smaller cycads like Sago palms growing all over Austin, but never realized one could be living in captivity since the 1770’s.

I have a 32-year old Jade plant - well- it’s a start!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Posted by Annie in Austin on 03/10 at 10:14 PM

Dear Annie,

Thanks for writing, and for telling us about your companion of three decades +. That’s amazing!

Do you have thoughts about plants (like this old cycad) or flower/plant phenomena (cherry blossom time in Japan) that you’d put on a “life list”?

(And how about this rain!!?)


Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/11 at 09:59 PM

Maybe a person would have to be more of a traveler to get that life list going? I’ve been to the temperate rain forest in Washington State, and seen the venerable bonsai collection at the Washington DC Arboretum…but have no personal knowledge of redwoods, banyans, the Tule Tree, or anything outside of the US.

Instead, I let you take me to visit the trees & flowers of the world via your website!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Posted by Annie in Austin on 03/13 at 10:26 PM

There are a number of bonsai in private collections that are generations older than this particular plant.  What this indicates to me is our western-centric focus, again.  I hope you could do an update after researching bonsai in Japan smile

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/14 at 09:52 AM

Dear C.,

Thank you for bringing bonsai into this discussion. Jim Wandersee and Renee Clary, I believe, excluded bonsai from their thinking about “The World’s Oldest Potted Plant” in this piece because they consider bonsai, created with such assiduous human care and design, in a class by itself. You are very right; there are many bonsai trees, in both the East and in the West, that are older than this cycad.

Bonsai merits an entire entry, or several, here on the Human Flower Project. Would you be interested in writing such a post or helping us to do so? We’d like to learn about this intriguing subject.. Please let us know how we can best pursue this idea.

With all good wishes,

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03/24 at 11:18 AM

My mother has a plant that’s been to England and back 2 times during my father’s tenure there with the US Air Force.  What makes this so extroirdinary is that this particular plant is older than me, and I turn 50 this year!  She’s broken off pieces at a time, rooted them, and has them growning in pots too.  I am not horticulturally “trained” so don’t know the type of plant, but it bears no flowers, just beautiful greenery all year round.  I believe, going by what my mother has said, that this plant is close to 58 years old…quite a feat for a potted plant!  It traveled to England the first time on board ship during her 2 weeks crossing to join my father…the second time, I was along for the ride (7 years later) and we took a plane.  In all fairness, your plant is certainly older, and hats off to those who have cared for it all these years!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/24 at 01:18 PM
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