The orchid is a symbol of beauty and elegance in many societies and indeed, many equatorial countries have adopted particular species as national flowers.
But this belies much of the gritty biology and deceptive techniques exhibited by this large and diverse family of plants. They grow worldwide, from the cold tundra of northern Sweden to the tropical forests of the Amazon, and include both terrestrial and epiphytic species. The Victorians coveted these beauties as rare and collectible prizes, yet in recent years, developments in propagation techniques have made the moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) a supermarket staple and ubiquitous houseplant. The orchid’s presence in the home is not limited to decoration: vanilla essence derives from the seedpods of Vanilla planifolia, and is not only an extremely valuable commodity but was also the £1 million-winning answer for the first champion of Who wants to be a millionaire?!
From 3-28 February, we will be rediscovering the exotic allure of the orchid with a special display in the Glasshouse Range. This will focus on the orchids of the Indian state of Sikkim in the foothills of the Himalayas. A pair of orchid trees laden with orchids from the hot valleys and cool slopes of Sikkim will be constructed in the corridor and central Tropical Rainforest display, while orchids from around the globe will be woven throughout the Glasshouse plantings. The Tropical Wetlands house will focus on orchid anatomy and adaptations, with the centrepiece a spider’s web of Vanda orchids, suspended from the roof.
The orchid flower has caught the attention of botanists, writers and artists alike, but more inspiring even than its beauty is its relationship with pollinators - not always of mutual gain. One of the most celebrated examples is that of the Madagascan orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale var praedicta. Its long spur, which holds a small amount of nectar at the base inspired Charles Darwin to predict that it must be pollinated by a moth, then undiscovered, with an unprecedentedly long proboscis able to reach its sugary reward. Darwin was widely ridiculed for suggesting a moth could have a 35cm proboscis but his supposition was confirmed with the discovery of Xanthopan morganii var. praedicta in 1903.
Orchids face many threats in the wild, which will be highlighted in the Continents Apart House. One such example is the East Anglian fen orchid (Liparis loeslii), the subject of a conservation and reintroduction project that staff at the Garden are working on.
We are indebted to Simon Pugh–Jones and the students of the Writhlington School Orchid Project for their help in developing these themes and displays. Students from this award-winning conservation and engagement project, based in Bath, will be working with our Garden staff to deliver orchid propagation sessions for secondary school students during the Festival.
So as the depths of winter set in, come and experience the beautiful and clandestine world of the orchid in the warmth of the Glasshouse Range, and rediscover the exotic origins, the diversity, disguises and deceptions of this domestic familiar.