Ostentatious Orchids at Kew

by Drucilla James

On gale-blasted, rain-soaked, drab winter days what could be better than to enter the warm and brilliantly-coloured world of the orchid festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew.

Orchids, now taken for granted as garden centre and supermarket house plant staples, in Victorian times, were the subject of a mania, on par with the tulipomania of the Dutch Golden Age. Plant hunters travelled the world in pursuit of rare and exotic specimens for private collectors or for scientific research as at Kew.This year, the Kew festival, which takes a year’s planning and four weeks and 3,200 man and woman hours to create, has the experiences of orchid plant hunters, both ancient and modern as its theme.

“The orchids have to be planted and ordered at just the right moment for just the right amount of time to catch them at their peak. The intensity of the colours as well as the speed of their life-cycle, will depend on the level of light the glasshouse gets in February, and obviously this varies year-on-year. Our challenge is to keep the glasshouse looking magical for a month. The display’s transience is part of what makes this festival so special, and its beauty depends on man and nature,” says Phil Griffiths, Kew’s Glasshouse Displays Coordinator.

On entering the conservatory, first impressions are of the sheer abundance of orchids – 6,500 of them cascade from orchid chandeliers , wind around pillars, flame in reds and yellows in bamboo- supported  bowls and insinuate themselves around arches -culminating in a whole wall of cream, shocking pink and magenta Vanda orchids.

arch and wall

Further on, around the pond area, is the re-creation, complete with yet more orchid displays – this time Oncidiums, of the Victorian plant hunter’s experience – the rain forest camp where he lived, complete with charts, instruments, botanical paintings and pith helmet; the landing stage with canoe and collection baskets; and then the Wardian cases for the transportation of the orchids back to Kew.

camp and tree

Orchids flourish from the tropics to the sub-Arctic, but the greatest numbers are found in tropical forests- 70% on trees. They typically grow in places where there has been little human disturbance in relatively unspoilt natural habitats. These were the environments the plant hunters explored.

Their story is made more vivid with displayed extracts from the reports sent back to Directors of Kew. From George Parker’s poem to Sir William Turner Thistleton-Dyer-“And scented creepers trailing grew, Where’re the eye could see” – to Alexander Lawrance’s account from Venezuela in 1927 to Sir Arthur William Hill of near escapes from wild pigs and “stumbling along in moss and rotted vegetation all day long up to one’s waist- all too marvellous and eerie- all shadows, not a sound of any sort, only an occasional humming bird.”

And there is also Charles Parish’s report to Sir William Jackson Hooker of loading Vanda gigantea – “as much as I could load on my elephant” -on his expedition with 17 elephants and 70-80 men in Mawlamyaing, Burma in 1859.

Victorian orchid hunters for private collectors could be profligate in their methods –as in Colombia where the search for one of the most fashionable orchids Odontoglossum crispum led to the felling of over 4000 trees from which 10,000 plants were culled. Hunters would destroy plants they couldn’t ship to prevent other collectors obtaining them and many orchids were destroyed by the vicissitudes of the journey – as with 21,000 Philippine Phalaenopsis orchids which were lost in a hurricane before they could reach England.

single flowers

This is in stark contrast to the modern day plant hunters of Kew. Although the display of e-mails shows researchers still in far-flung places, in this case- Zambia or eastern New Guinea, and still experiencing their share of discomfort -like being attacked by leeches, the focus now is on simultaneous conservation at Kew and at the site of discovery. Amongst the rare orchids on display is Epidendrum montserratense – a critically endangered orchid whose habitat on the island of Montserrat was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the 1990s. Scientists have saved this plant, growing it on the trees at Kew – ladies tights have been part of the secret of their success. They have also worked with the Montserrat community to establish a botanic garden there and to help discover the best ways of holding on to native flora, passing on techniques developed at Kew.

The orchid festival is a reminder of the extraordinary beauty of these flowers, the stories of adventure and derring-do connected with them and also of their fascination as plants -like the rare Gongora truncata orchid from Central America, which attracts male Euglossinae bees with its strong fragrance to collect scent for their mating rituals.

There is a lot more to learn – there are talks and at half-term there is an explorers’ camp for young plant-hunters to learn about modern day collecting using GPS, look at rare orchids and also make herbarium specimens. If an individual plant from the many spectacular orchids on display catches your eye, then there is also a living plant-finder, a special area to check out the names of different species. And if you want to buy a souvenir, then Kew is premiering an orchid never seen before, a Phalaenopsis hybrid called “Diamond Sky”, which is available to buy during the festival and which will provide a lasting reminder of the exhibition’s transient beauty.


Gongora truncata and ‘Diamond Sky’

Orchids: A Plant Hunter’s Paradise takes place from 8th February to 9th March at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Entry is by the usual admission ticket.

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