Orchid fever: Enter the exotic world of Britain's favourite pot plants...and their owners

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Matthew bell joins the festival-goers at the Royal Horticultural Society's orchid show to discover how this most exotic of flowers, once hunted in the jungles of the tropics and worth £100,000 for a single specimen, became the world's most popular pot plant (and a snip at £6 from the supermarket).

There's no getting around this – the orchid is mainly about sex. Admittedly, most flowers are: the rose is all tight buds and extravagant climaxes; the lily is a pungent phallus. But the orchid is unashamedly raunchy: it wants hot and steamy rooms; it has provocative lips; it poses like a geisha.

It is also a decidedly masculine plant: the name derives from orchis, the Greek for testicle, because the root is shaped like one. According to Greek myth, Orchis was the son of a nymph and a satyr, who attempted to rape a priestess at a drunken Bacchanalian festival. To punish him, he was turned into a flower, a throbbing ball-shaped one. In a previous life, its name was "ballockwort". So what to expect of the Royal Horticultural Society's celebrated orchid show? Knee-tremblers between the seed trays?

The exhibition takes place annually in Lindley Hall, an airy temple of Edwardian confidence in Pimlico, central London. Purpose-built for the RHS at the suggestion of the King himself, it was completed in 1904, when the empire was booming. This was a heyday for the orchid, a time when exotic flowers were a rich man's plaything. They became so sought-after that an army of ruthless "orchid hunters" would scour foreign climes for the fanciest species.

Thousands of specimens were swept from the forests of Colombia and the Philippines and shipped home. They changed hands for vast sums: in 1890, someone is recorded to have paid £1,500 for one plant – the equivalent to £100,000 today. They were carefully reared in hothouses, and grown men with names such as Rothschild and Schroder would compete to own the biggest.

Today, the orchid is as common as the muck it grows in. That is, you can pick one up for £6 at Asda, and they sell in their millions. Once considered the most difficult plant to look after, selective breeding has toughened them up, and they are now mass-produced in giant greenhouses in Taiwan and Holland. At least, the phalaenopsis is – the type most commonly seen in UK households, but just one example of an extraordinarily big family: there are about 25,000 varieties in 880 genera. An astonishing range is on display at the RHS event – big, small, elegant, hideous. But what is it about orchids that so fascinates?

"They have that exotic, strange allure," says Johan Hermans, chairman of the RHS orchid committee. "But I think what attracts people coming to the show is the variety. From tiny orchids with complex structures you can hardly see, to the big blousy phalaenopsis that everyone knows. Plus, I think there's always that slightly exclusive, mysterious, steaming jungles thing. It will always have that."

So how did orchids turn from prissy rarities to the world's bestselling pot plant? The shift came in the 1960s, with the development of meristemming. This is the process by which a core cell – equivalent to an animal's stem cell – is taken and used to produce more cells, which are then broken off and grown into separate plants. "It's mostly done in Taiwan, where they have cheap labour," explains Henry Oakeley, former president of the Orchid Society of Great Britain. "That's how orchids became cheap. You can take a meristem now, and in two years you could have a million orchids."

But even if they are now toughened-up and mass-produced, orchids still demand care, as I recently found out. Having bought an orchid as a present, I ended up looking after it for a fortnight, at the end of which the brilliant pink petals had wilted to tragic brown flakes. Oakeley reassures me that this isn't entirely my fault. The same happened to him, and, now 72, he's been looking after these flowers since he was 15.

"You do have to get the conditions right," he says. "And you have to get your watering right; it's a skill. Some orchids are very fragile and have very specific requirements – but the phalaenopsis you buy in a supermarket have been bred to enjoy the sort of conditions you and I like."

It is Oakeley who takes me around the show, the highlight of the British orchid-grower's calendar. Every kind of flower is here, from Triffid-like slipper orchids, with their deceptive, insect-trapping pouches, to the blowsy, white filly numbers such as the Oncidium Alexandra, named after Princess Alexandra on the occasion of her wedding to George V.

The show may seem peculiarly British and old-fashioned, but participants flock here from all over Europe. "It is one of the best shows," declares leading Parisian dealer Philippe Lecoufle, 65. And the passion isn't dying. Several exhibitors are in their twenties, and one vast stand has been created by the pupils of Writhlington School, a comprehensive near Bath.

I leave minutes before the doors open to the public, and pass a queue champing round the block. Those orchids may not be the rarest flowers in the hothouse, but they still know how to pull.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing