Brother Kaiser, a snip at pounds 10,000
Tuesday 11 May 1999
You have 15 minutes. There
will be no photography. And
pounds 250 up front wouldn't go
amiss, either. Just your
average celebrity interview,
then, complete with over-the-
top security and a truculent
minder. Except that this
stellar interview is with an
eight-inch high orchid...
It's not easy being a celebrity. I understand that. You have to deal with the constant publicity, the interviews, the pressure to keep your figure, the intrusions into your private life. Why, the only thing worse would be no publicity, no interviews, no figure, no probing questions. That's why most celebrities hire a minder whose job it is to control the likes of me. I understand that, too. But what I hadn't understood fully was that a flower could be a celebrity. I thought that a flower was, well, a plant. There was nothing more complicated here than a bit of photosynthesis, a dash of colour, a bee or two. And I certainly didn't think for a moment that such a thing would need a minder.
Jim Durrant of McBean's Orchids made little attempt to hide his irritation with my call. I told him I had heard that McBean's had a pounds 10,000 orchid that was being guarded by a gaggle of geese and 24-hour security guards. He said that he was tired of the press, fed up with the publicity. How was ever going to have the time to prepare all his little blossoms for the Chelsea Flower Show which was only two weeks away now? To stop the madness, he had now started to charge pounds 250 for anyone to come and take a picture of the Red Orchid. Was I willing to pay? I said that I only needed an interview, I wouldn't bother anybody and that I was, in fact, almost invisible. He said I could have 15 minutes for free. I agreed. Andy Warhol would have considered that a bargain.
I didn't think that Mr Durrant meant it. That 15 minutes would turn into 30 and then grow higgledy piggledy - just as the plants in my garden so often do - into something quite lengthy. Why, I'd probably have to stay to lunch! But first I needed to find out a bit about orchids. A few months ago I had interviewed two men who were minimalists, and whose apartment was so trendy that I'm surprised anyone other than Harvey Nichols lived there. They didn't have many objets - on principle, you understand - so the few on show were easy to remember. One was a handkerchief that lit up and turned out to be a lamp. The other was a beautiful white orchid.
"These are the spider plants of the Nineties," said one of the men with a hint of embarrassment, which inferred I had caught them cherishing something that came from Homebase.
He needn't have worried, because I thought that spider plants were the spider plants of the Nineties. But now I realise he was right, though, if you separate your houseplants from your pot plants, then orchids are probably more like the cyclamens of the Nineties. In the beginning was the African violet, then the chrysanthemum, the azalea, the cyclamen and now the orchid. Dr Henry Oakeley, the chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society's Orchid Committee, says that the biggest nursery in Europe alone sells 15 million orchid pot plants per year, and the most popular by far is the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. This is what I had seen in the minimalists' front room - which is, I now discover, actually sold at Homebase. Still, I stumbled over the name at first. "Oh, just call it Phal," said Janet Plested, the secretary of the British Orchid Growers Association. "Everyone does."
McBean's orchid nursery is in a small village called Cooksbridge, a few miles north of Lewes in East Sussex. The most exciting thing here is the level crossing. It is the kind of place where a gaggle of "territorial geese" should stand out a mile. I looked. I listened. But there was not a honk to be heard. The nursery is just off the main road. I parked my car and wandered into various huge greenhouses, looking for Mr Durrant. Instead I found thousands of spindly wands of luscious flowers. It was a gorgeous detour - and not a goose in sight.
Mr Durrant was wearing gardening clothes and wellingtons. He had a smudge of something on his forehead. He clearly wanted to get back to his potting as soon as possible which was, he reminded me, in 15 minutes. So - where were the machine gun-toting geese? "That was all made up," he said. By whom? "The press. The thing has mushroomed out of control. It is nothing to do with us."
He walked over to a long table full of graceful pink and white Phalaenopsis and picked up a smallish pot. This was it. It was short, about half the height of the other Phalaenopsis, and had one wand of waxy flowers. They were mahogany, perhaps brick, red. Like a lot of celebrities, the orchid was kind of disappointing up close. Perhaps it would have looked better in sunglasses. Its name turned out to be Brother Kaiser Lewes Festival, which is also rather difficult to fit into a tabloid headline. Only Bro, or Fest, or perhaps Lew, would do. Kaiser was out for obvious tabloid reasons.
Did Brother Kaiser Lewes Festival have a nickname? "No!" said Mr Durrant. So did he ever talk to it? "No!" Did anyone at the nursery talk to it? "No! We are quite fed up with it, to be honest." But is he at least proud of it? He paused. "Yes. It is the best red Phalaenopsis in the world at this point in time. It may not be tomorrow. Somebody might flower a better one. We just don't know. But for the moment this is number one."
Mr Durrant kept saying that this story has got out of control and, as he talked, I could see what he meant. McBean's bought this plant several years ago, as one of thousands of very small seedlings, from a nursery in Thailand. "This is the only one out of the thousands that has actually come out red. Others are less red," he said, pointing to an orangey one. "And this one was the most red."
The Royal Horticultural Society gave the plant its Award of Merit. Evidently it gives out about 60 of these a year so it is, in fact, not that special an event. Basically it means that the plant is registered and given a name. In time, Brother Kaiser Lewes Festival will be cloned and its babies will be sold for pounds 15 a pot. And, because McBean's figures that it will sell at least 700 or so of these pots, the original plant is calculated to be worth pounds 10,000 in the long run. But then, as Mr Durrant pointed out, he has quite a few stock plants in the nursery worth that much, if not more.
Gradually I was beginning to understand that this was a flower that had become a celebrity by mistake, really. Brother Kaiser Lewes Festival was not the product of an obsessive who eats, sleep and drinks red Phalaenopsis. It was just the way the orchid business operates. The Red Orchid was not the Black Tulip, though, in its small way, it was something to thrill to. If you've got a terracotta theme to your front room, then the Red Orchid will be the Phal for you. So it was special, but the Red Rose of Labour need not worry too much about any upstart orchids. I could see why Mr Durrant was a little red-faced.
It all began with an article in the local paper, and since then the nursery has been swamped with requests for television, radio and press interviews. "They've come from Holland, Brazil, Mexico." Mexico? "Yes. It's an international story, but unfortunately it's detrimental because they are focusing on saying that the plant is worth pounds 10,000. It is missing out on the point that you can buy an orchid for pounds 15. We don't want people to think orchids are expensive."
The plant does not stay at the nursery overnight. It is too "high profile" for that. So it lives in a secret location like, say, Garbo? "That's right. It's ridiculous, but we have to do it." He said that mine was the last press interview (and there was only five minutes left at this point), and that there would be one more television spot. That was then it. "I'm charging everyone pounds 250. That seems to have stopped it."
It has to be said that interviewing a Celebrity Flower is not unlike interviewing a Celebrity Person. Most of the latter say very little, but the plant has gone one better. The Red Orchid says nothing at all. It does not even have interesting gestures. So exactly what have the film crews been filming all day? Not much, says Mr Durrant. And then he told me about the barbed wire.
Mr Durrant: A newspaper came round the other day and took a picture of the plant with a bit of barbed wire around it. All of this arty-farty sort of thing.
Me: So who brought the barbed wire?
Mr Durrant: The photographer did.
Me: They actually brought barbed wire here to do this?
Mr Durrant: Yeah. Just to do this picture.
Me: But that is bizarre.
Mr Durrant: Of course it's bizarre. That's what I'm saying. It's mushroomed out of control.
At this point, the celebrity had to retire. And so that's it? Not quite. Mr Durrant said that the Celebrity Flower would be making a public appearance at this year's Chelsea Flower Show.
Mr Durrant: And then that is it. We are going to cut the spike off and clone it.
Me: You are going to kill it?
Mr Durrant: No. We're not going to kill it. We are going to take the flower spike off.
Me: You are going to behead it, then?
Mr Durrant: Yep - and then we are going to clone it up in our laboratory, so there'll end up being thousands and thousands of them in a few year's time.
Me: Right. But it still seems fairly brutal.
Mr Durrant: That's what we've got to do, I'm afraid.
My 15 minutes was up and I couldn't help but think that Brother Kaiser Lewes Festival's 15 minutes of fame might be drawing to a close as well. Mr Durrant will be pleased.
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