Orchid-lovers pursue perfect bloom: Oliver Gillie discovers biggest is best among the exotic exhibits in Glasgow at the World Orchid Show in Glasgow

MIKE O'CONNELL and John Gay are mad about orchids - they are amateur growers but they have a stand of their own at the World Orchid Show which opens in Glasgow today.

Orchid growers from all over the world have brought their best plants to Glasgow where they will be judged for their colour, elegance, fragrance and size - biggest is best. Large commercial growers from the Netherlands, Malaysia, California and Japan will be competing with amateurs like Mr O'Connell and Mr Gay for some of the top prizes.

Mr O'Connell, who works as a charge nurse in Lancaster, spends two or three hours a day in his greenhouse tending his plants. He began 15 years ago with a starter collection, built his own greenhouse and now spends about pounds 2,000 a year on his hobby.

'This is a chance in a lifetime for us,' Mr O'Connell said. 'The next world orchid show is in Brazil and we could never afford to go there.'

Mr O'Connell and Mr Gay, director of a photocopier company in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, have spent a year or more planning for the show at the Scottish Exhibition Centre.

They have set up a jungle fantasy with two explorers beside a camp fire, surrounded by more than 300 of their exotic blooms. Next to the explorers they have placed a large tree with some 50 orchids planted in it. The most fragrant of them, Vanda suavis and Dendrobium parishii, are attached strategically to the trunk where passing visitors will catch their perfume.

'Our theme is orchid collecting 150 years ago,' Mr O'Connell said. 'You can't collect them easily in the wild any more. It is all very carefully controlled now.'

Between them the two men have won dozens of awards for excellence. Orchid growing used to be a rich man's hobby, dependent on a team of gardeners. Now most orchid growers do it all themselves.

Seventeen local orchid societies from all over Britain are exhibiting in the show, which has attracted entries from 22 countries. A white Cattleya, brought from Bristol, is among the unusual specimens. It is 5ft across and bears 250 large white and purple blooms. The amateur who grew it, Martin Rendall, bought it in 1976 for pounds 6. Many orchids can now be bought for similar sums but rare or unusual specimens are worth thousands of pounds. One Paphiopedilum rothschild ianum, grown by the Eric Young Foundation of Jersey, is worth around pounds 10,000. It is descended directly from a specimen found more than 100 years ago, and may no longer be collected in the wild.

However, most orchids grown by enthusiasts are hybrids. After generations of careful breeding and selection, growers are able to increase the size of blooms several fold and concentrate the colours.

Mary Phillips, of Ratcliffe Orchids, who are growers in Winchester, Hampshire, has developed a perfect white orchid called Miller's Daughter.

A single shoot of the hybrid may be sold at the end of the show for pounds 3,000. Perfect specimens command large prices because breeding from seed is a difficult hit or miss business.

Joyce Stewart, a scientist from Kew Gardens, who is chairman of the show, said: 'New orchid hybrids are being produced, which are bigger, more colourful and easier to grow. Orchids are now a mass crop in Japan and south-east Asia and with cheaper air freight they are available all round the world.'

(Photograph omitted)