How many policemen does it take to guard an orchid?

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Their sensuous grace can excite passion and longing, but also, unfortunately, light fingeredness. So when some of the world's rarest, most beautiful and most valuable orchids go on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, it will be under the watchful eye of Kew's own police force.

Their sensuous grace can excite passion and longing, but also, unfortunately, light fingeredness. So when some of the world's rarest, most beautiful and most valuable orchids go on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, it will be under the watchful eye of Kew's own police force.

Blooms from all over the world will feature in Kew's annual orchid festival, which starts next week and attracts an international stream of visitors. Among them will be orchid obsessives, some of whom go to any lengths to acquire a coveted plant.

So Kew is not taking any chances. The display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory will be monitored by closed-circuit television and guarded by the two sergeants and 12 officers of the Royal Botanic Gardens constabulary, who are ready for anything. Even little old ladies have been known to try to steal orchid seeds.

"People who get the collecting bug will do anything to get the things they desire," said Phillip Cribb, curator of the Kew's orchid herbarium and its leading orchid expert. "People love orchids because they are charismatic, exotic flowers of tremendous beauty and diversity: you can have everything from a green orchid to a blue orchid to a black orchid."

They are so spectacular, Dr Cribb explains, because in the crowded tropical forests which are their home they have to "wave a flag" of bright colour to attract pollinators such as bees, or even birds.

Kew is the world's leading orchid research institution, with about 5,000 of the estimated 20,000 species in the world growing in the gardens in south-west London, and between 300,000 and 400,000 dried specimens in the orchid herbarium.

New species are being discovered every year and Kew plays an important role in orchid conservation: its scientists have successfully propagated the lady's slipper, which is Britain's rarest wild flower.

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