A replica of a Victorian plant hunter’s campsite in the Princess of Wales conservatory at Kew. Photograph: Andrew McRobb/RBG Kew
Orchid fever has hit Kew Gardens. In 24C heat, more than 6,500 orchids and 3,000 tropical plants make the display at the Princess of Wales Conservatory: exotic hybrids in Day-Glo colours, wild orchids in all their forms, from the bizarre to the plainly erotic. Flowers cascade over walls, build bridges, and twist together in spectacular areal displays. The theme this year is orchid-hunters past and present. If the Victorians could time travel, they would most certainly need their smelling salts.
Orchid hunting began in Victorian England, and wealthy collectors went to great lengths for their treasure, sponsoring dangerous expeditions to unknown lands. Relics from the past make up the journey around the main exhibit and flame-coloured orchids in hanging baskets light the way. A collectors’ camp in the pond area recreates the plant collectors experience, with naturalist’s kit – tent, binoculars, flower press – against a lush tropical backdrop. Exotic birds sing for audio effect (robins, the real bird-in-residence, sing live) and in a dug-out canoe made from Lancashire redwood, there floats a boat-load of bright yellow Oncidiums.
New orchid Phalaenopsis ‘Diamond Sky’. Photograph: RBG Kew
A colourful variety of Phalaenopsis, Vanda and Cambria orchids make up the majority, but centre stage is a brand new plant, bred specially for Kew: the Phalaenopsis hybrid orchid, ‘Diamond Sky’, is available for purchase in the gift shop. But for all its charm, and the extravaganza of the main exhibit, it seems just another charismatic flower. The orchid collector would surely covet something rarer.
Orchidaceae are the largest family of flowering plant on earth, and have learned to adapt to every possible environment. Along with commercially-grown supermarket hybrids, there are rare varieties. For 150,000 hybrid species, there exist just 26,000 wild orchids, and these are found off the main exhibit in the species room.
Orchids make up the largest family of flowering plants on earth. Photograph: RBG Kew
Here orchids vary wildly, from the blowsy white flower of Cymbidium to the delicate Pleurothallis, which has tiny orange beads rather than petals. Most remarkable, however, is the room’s aroma. Display coordinator Phil Griffiths explains how the smell is part vanilla, part cinnamon, part Fireball gobstopper. The major notes come from a feathery Dendrobium speciosum, potted next to the display cabinet. Odour is yet another mark of this family’s astonishing biodiversity; the smell varies from the subtly floral, to the stench of rotting flesh – a trick employed by Satyrium pumilum to attract flies. Next door (but you must stoop to smell), the hanging lip of Bulbophyllum is thought to smell like semen. There are 1,400 of these plants, each with a different look but a common smell.
The show concludes in the naturalists’ room, where modern plant hunters work to conserve orchids. We find modern propagation techniques, as well as how the problem of establishing an epiphyte to a branch was eventually solved – polyester stockings give perfectly in sync with roots as they swell. But what is a epiphyte? How does the orchid give rise to a brazil nut? And did a naturalist’s passion for plants really cause mutiny on the Bounty? Find answers to these questions at Kew.
Kate O’Brien is a freelance writer and Deputy Editor of The Plant