GARDENING / The orchids of North Britain: Next week Glasgow hosts the World Orchid Conference. A hundred years ago, a tropical collection flowered near Edinburgh. Wilma Paterson on its recent rediscovery

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FOR WEEKS Marjorie Campbell has been anxiously inspecting the flower spikes on the plants in her greenhouse, wondering if they can bloom in time. Some are already flowering in exotic, waxen splendour, and she has moved these to the bedroom of her house in Paisley, near Glasgow, where she is keeping them cool with a fan blowing on them, day and night. Her hope is that they will remain in perfect condition for judging at next week's World Orchid Conference and Show at Glasgow's Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre.

Mrs Campbell doesn't profess to have a scientific approach to orchid growing, but she has been tending them lovingly for more than 30 years and has learnt to respond to signs of plant stress in a practical manner. She currently has about 150 specimens, which normally thrive in tropical climates, crammed into a tiny gas-heated greenhouse beside moisture-loving native ferns and mosses. At one time her collection numbered nearly 500.

'It's an absorbing hobby,' she says. 'It takes a hold of you. And now it's not so much a snob thing, because nearly everyone has central heating, and the plants are no more expensive than any other houseplants of quality. You don't even need much space, especially for the smaller masdevallias.'

She and her late husband bought their first two orchids in 1958 from the suppliers Mansell and Hatcher. Having heard that they liked to be wet and shady, they put them under a bench in the greenhouse and poured a bucket of water over them every morning. 'It was the last thing we should have done,' she says. 'But miraculously they survived, and we just went on from there.'

The World Orchid Conference is held every three years; previous hosts have been Bangkok, Dubai and Miami. About 1,300 delegates - both professional and amateur horticulturalists - will be gathering in Glasgow to discuss the latest scientific and horticultural developments, as well as the conservation of orchids. Thousands of plants from all over the world will be arriving at the exhibition centre.

Today, there seems to be a renewed interest in this genus; the Scottish Orchid Society is growing rapidly. But orchid mania in Britain was at its height in the last two decades of the 19th century, when it was seen as a status symbol to have a glasshouse full of orchids that needed both jungle heat and humidity.

There were many spectacular Victorian collections. The Duke of Devonshire's was one of the most magnificent, and his glasshouses at Chatsworth were packed with orchids as early as 1839. But Sir Trevor Lawrence, Sir George Holford and Baron Schroeder - even Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace - had splendid collections too. To grow orchids you needed stove houses, kept constantly warm, and the automation in those days consisted of lots of little boys opening and closing windows every time a cloud went over. Sadly, few of these great collections have survived their owners, leaving little trace of their existence other than the names of some species and hybrids.

Books on the famous orchid growers and nurseries of late Victorian times give the impression that orchid cultivation in Europe was confined to London and the south-east of England. But while novelties from the tropics did generally appear first in the metropolis, fine collections were also being nurtured on the Continent - and in Scotland. The ninth Marquess of Lothian created one at Newbattle Abbey, Dalkeith, near Edinburgh.

Schomberg Henry Kerr (1833-1900) was a diplomat and politician who had served in Portugal, Persia, Iraq, Greece, Germany and Spain. He succeeded to the title in 1870. Somewhere along the line he developed a passion for tropical orchids, and began to grow them in 1880 at Newbattle. He amassed a fine collection, and found a committed gardener in John McHattie, who went on to lay out the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.

Strangely, there is no record or family memory of what happened to the Marquess's orchids. They appear not to have survived their owner's death, though McHattie may well have taken them with him to Edinburgh. Experts feared that the scale and variety of the Newbattle collection would never be known.

Then, two years ago, Michael Ancram MP - son of the present Marquess of Lothian - happened to read a story about an orchid smuggler in The Independent. This jogged him into action and resulted in the discovery of a comprehensive artistic record of the ninth Marquess's Newbattle collection.

Phillip Cribb, an orchid expert from Kew Gardens, is often asked to look at botanical paintings tucked away in lofts and attics. He was initially wary when asked by Lord Ancram to assess some books owned by the family. But scepticism turned to delight when he saw just one of these volumes: he realised this was a complete and stunning botanical record of the Newbattle collection, meticulously painted.

The ninth Marquess had in fact commissioned artist Florence Woolward - who had compiled an earlier book for him, The Genus Masdevallia, completed in 1896 - to paint his orchids as they flowered. The magnificent collection of her paintings is bound in 17 enormous volumes weighing about 16kg each. Though Lord Ancram recognised their aesthetic value, he had been unaware of their significance in botanical terms.

During the Marquess's lifetime, the books were shown to interested friends but otherwise kept in obscurity. Dr Cribb rates Florence Woolward as one of the top 10 of all botanical artists, but she is unlikely to have enjoyed anything more than the status and prosperity of a craftsman. 'A careful and conscientious worker' is how the Keeper of Botany at the British Museum described her in an obituary notice.

She was certainly fast, sometimes producing as many as three paintings in a day. Judging by the neatly inscribed dates on each, it is clear that she was at the Marquess's beck and call every time an orchid flowered, all year round between 1879 and 1898.

There are actually 20 volumes, containing 412 paintings in gouache. Seventeen are devoted to orchids, including the original paintings for The Genus Masdevallia lithographs; two are of the fungi found on the Marquess's estate; and one lies empty awaiting an index. Only the smallest degree of foxing, and the odd blemish due to the enhancing of the painting with gum arabic, betrays their age. Otherwise, they are in remarkably pristine condition.

Next week's Glasgow Conference provides the perfect occasion to commemorate one of Scotland's most important orchid collections, and to celebrate the work of a superb and practically unknown botanical artist. Two of the volumes, normally kept at Monteviot, near Jedburgh, will be on public display there for the first time. The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew has combined with Missouri Botanic Garden to publish a limited edition of 60 of Woolward's orchid paintings in a set of four parts; it will be launched at the conference.

The edition costs pounds 35 a part, pounds 120 the set, plus p & p. Further information from Edward Brown, The Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB (tel 081-332 5219).

(Photographs omitted)