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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
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: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'