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Rare Cycads Bring a ‘Great Lift’ to Meise

14 November 2007
The Flying Cycad 

 A crane was needed to move the rare cycad
Image © National Botanic Garden of Belgium

When staff at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium, Meise, decided to renovate the north side of their monumental glasshouse, the ‘Plant Palace’, they faced a tremendous problem, how to move two of their heaviest, most valuable and oldest pot plants, Encephalartos altensteinii, to a temporary location.

With each plant weighing in excess of three tonnes and over five meters in height, extraordinary measures were required. Staff soon became aware that the only way to perform this exercise was to lift the specimens through the roof of the glasshouse using a tower crane. In order to facilitate the great lift, an iron cage was welded around each plant and their large trunks securely fastened.

A section of the roof of the Plant Palace was then removed and the hook of the crane lowered into position over the plant and attached to the cage. Inch by inch, the crane gently eased these priceless specimens through the opening into the dank November air.

The c.400 year old specimens hoisted from the house were almost certainly collected from the wild during the early eighteenth century. “Research on our specimens revealed that they probably arrived in Europe around the 1820s, as ballast in the hull of a ship voyaging from Africa and distributed, with others, to European botanic gardens. The first definitive accounts we have of these particular plants have only recently been unearthed from our institute’s archives. They relate to their acquisition on Valentine’s Day, 1859”: said Glasshouse Manager, Viviane Leyman.

Ancient Species Now Under Threat 

Cycads form a group of ancient, often long-lived, plants that have persisted since the time of the dinosaurs 280 million years ago. E. altensteinii, commonly known as the Bread tree, due to a practice performed by the indigenous South African Khoi tribe, of making a bread-like food from the pith of trunks after burying it in the earth to rot, digging it up to knead and finally baking it in embers of a fire.

Today, the thought of eating E. altensteinii would bring shivers down the spine of any botanist. This species is protected by international law, CITES Appendix 1, because they are in peril in the wild and extremely collectable. As a result, this species is also listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

The Meise cycads are now safely stowed in one of the Garden’s large orangery buildings for the winter period. “The plans for the future are to use these plants to facilitate our educational activities. Plants like these bring to life a wide range of subjects including evolution, conservation and palaeontology”: says Koen Es and Gert Ausloos of Meise’s Education Department.

Viviane Leyman concluded: “The work to re-house the cycad involved superb efforts from our horticulturists, but special attention should be given to those of Jan Van Grimbergen, Jan Van Den Eede, Leo Albrecht, David Willems, Marc Van Herp, Paul Sammels and Ken Van Holsbeeck”.

Renovating the Plant Palace

The monumental Plant Palace situated in the village of Meise, covers an area of almost 10,000m2, of which 6,700m2, larger than the average sized football pitch, is accessible to the public. It comprises one of the largest collections of indoor plants in Europe with around 10,000 fully documented taxa from around the world. They are displayed in 13-interconnecting houses representing different biogeographical regions from dry deserts to the steamy tropics. Opened in 1965, the glasshouse, like many others of its time, is undergoing a systematic restoration programme.

The relocation of E. altensteinii marks the beginning of the most recent and ambitious phase of renovation, transforming a 160m stretch of the glasshouse into a single tropical display providing an innovative educational tour into the tropical rain forests of the world with particular focus on conservation, human interactions and the garden’s specialism, the flora of Central Africa.

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