Hitting the glass ceiling at Wisley

Luckily it's the plants, not the people, who are hitting the roof...

Ravenala madagascariensis - the traveller's palmMany people who come to visit The Glasshouse want to know about our massive traveller’s palm, the beautiful Ravenala madagascariensis, which has been growing in the Tropical Zone of The Glasshouse since it opened in 2007.

A little background information on the plant: Ravenala may be known as the traveller’s palm, however it isn’t actually a palm, but a member of the Strelitzia family. This relationship can be seen more clearly in the flowers; although Ravenala doesn’t have the colourful bracts seen in Strelitzia reginae (the bird of paradise flower), the shape is similar.

Ravenala grows in Madagascar and it is pollinated by lemurs, ruffled lemurs to be exact, and these are thought to have evolved in tandem with the Ravenala, with the shape of the bracts fitting the lemur’s long nose.

It is possibly known as the traveller’s palm for two reasons. One, the leaves trap water for thirsty wanderers (although the water is not very appetising); and two, it grows on an east/west line, so it can be used for navigation. The plant is very useful to the people of Madagascar; the heart is eaten, and the trunk and leaves are used for building, a very functional plant!

Traveller's palm in The Glasshouse at RHS Garden WisleyNow to our Wisley Ravenala. The reason we get asked about it, is because it has now grown so big that it has hit the ceiling pipes and it just keeps on growing. The unfortunate tree has already been moved once and it is now in the tallest part of the Tropical Zone.

Quite simply, there is nowhere left for it to go, so I’m afraid at some point soon we will have to cut it down. We are trying to delay the inevitable for as long as possible and some photos shown here are of Greg and Valeria removing a few of the leaves that became entangled, to give it a little more space to keep going.

Palming off on someone else?

Traveller's palm in The Glasshouse at RHS Garden WisleyConcerned visitors ask if there’s anybody we can donate it to, but although there are a few glasshouses larger than ours (Kew for example), nobody wants it enough to take on the very complicated logistics in getting a plant of such size out of Woking and into another glasshouse (just getting it out of the door would be tricky).

A real advantage of tropical plants is that they grow incredibly fast - remember that this massive plant is less than 10 years old. In preparation for the day when the Ravenala can no longer cope in the small space, we have been growing a few new plants from seed. They are already several feet high and in no time at all we’ll have a Ravenala touching the ceiling again.

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