I’ve never been sure whether I like orchids or not, possibly because they look so artificial in all their frivolous splendour. In fact it took me several visits to my sister’s house before I realised that her glorious, perpetually-flowering specimen really was a fake. In my defense, some orchids do flower for ages. And then I rescued a couple that were being chucked out at a garden centre and I discovered that some orchids not only flower for ages, but thrive on neglect, so long as they are in the right place. Since those two plants, I’ve been given a few more and I now have a small collection sitting happily in a couple of north-facing windows. They are all just about in flower right now and this one (below) has the most delicious scent.
And so for the most part we (the orchids and I) live quietly side-by-side, minding our own business, without getting interested in the details of family etc. … until last week that is.
It turns out that Cambridge Botanical Gardens is staging an orchid event right now called ‘How to build an Orchid‘, see Twitter #Orchids2018. It runs from 10th Feb – 11th March and we stumbled on to the festival a week ago when we hid in the main glasshouses to escape the bitter cold.
Each zone in the glasshouse is being used to focus on a different part of an orchid’s morphology, specifically: seed, flower, pseudobulb and root.
We wandered through the zones enjoying the colourful displays (and warmth). It was only when I got home that I realised that the giant exploded-view model had told me nothing and that I’d only read one of the various information boards scattered around. I was none the wiser, but what a great opportunity I’d missed!
So I went back, during the week, to read the signs properly and I managed to join a guided tour of the orchids to fill in any gaps. Now that was an interesting visit, because guides can tell you so much more than the particular points that the exhibition addresses. The guides have been briefed on lots of background information about their adaptations, their uses, cultural history and cultivation. They are also enthusiasts, which is, happily, contagious.
We learned about the Power of Three (orchids are monocots): three sepals and three petals. Those petals can be quite different, especially the labellum or lip which can be coloured, patterned, curled or ridged and acts as the main beacon for pollinators.
We were shown examples of amazing mimicry to enable pollination through sex (think Ophrys genus – bee orchids etc), territorial instincts (Onicidium genus), predation including oviparity (parasitic wasp in Brassia hybrid example):
“Each and every species of flowering plant has its own unique evolutionary story that’s closely coupled with the animals that pollinate it. But one family of flowering plant has developed this relationship in more complex ways than any other, and in doing so has become the most numerous, and diverse, on the planet.”
– David Attenborough on Orchids.
The orchid family, with over 25,000 member species, is one of the largest plant families in the world. They occur on every continent except the Antarctic and while most are epiphytes (growing on tree trunks in the tropical rain forests), there are also lithophytes (growing on rocks) and terrestrial (in soil – for example, our UK hardy orchids), plus a strange Australian example which grows underground (Rhizanthella).
Here are a few of my favourites from the CUBG exhibition:
There is a lot to learn. The Cambridge Botanical Gardens display is an accessible starting place, especially if you manage to include a guided tour.
Other large glasshouses are hosting similar events at the moment e.g. Kew Gardens’ Orchids Festival, so it is worth checking for one near you.
The question is, have I got Orchidelirium yet? No, but I know that my collection will continue to grow. How about you?
*CUBG – Cambridge University Botanical Gardens