In the early 1970s I worked at a Research Station. Whilst there I carried out micropropagation by cutting the growing tips ( or meristems) from plants and transferring the tiny specks into a growing medium in a glass flask. A prime ingredient was coconut milk and I put the strong state of my gnashers down to those five years when I chewed through coconut flesh on a daily basis.
Micropropagation ( or tissue culture as it’s often called) was comparatively new then, because most techniques were only developed between 1940 and 1960. However tissue culture has revolutionised horticulture and allowed difficult and impossible plants to be bulked up in thousands in a very short time. this has been especially usefully in propagating sterile plants, ones that set no seed. We wouldn’t have the maroon thistle Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’, the ‘it’ plant of Chelsea 2000, without tissue culture and it’s a good garden plant. Anemone ‘White Swan’, the 2011 Chelsea New Plant of the Year, was available in thousands within months although it hasn’t proved an enduring garden plant for me! Agapanthus do incredibly well though, because the rotational movement of the flasks under lights produces even thick rosettes of leaf. New varieties can be supplied to gardeners in a year or so, in large numbers.
Perhaps the plant that has gained most advantage though is the orchid and most of us have a moth orchid or two, a phalaenopsis, languishing on a shady windowsill and some get their’s to re-bloom too! Orchids were perfect for tissue culture because they have a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhizal fungi. The correct fungi could be added to the growing medium and that’s why once expensive orchids are in every supermarket. They’re the most valuable potted plant sold at the Dutch flower auctions and this could not have happened without micropropagation.
In Victorian times collectors had to be mega-rich to afford them though and the craze even acquired a name orchidelirium. The catalyst was the arrival of a Brazilian orchid called Cattleya labiata in 1822. It was sent to William Cattley (1788 – 1835) by the plant hunter William J. Swainson (1789 – 1855) as a packing material round several plants. Once in England the orchid revived and flowered, producing exotic bright-pink blooms, and that one flower sparked a mid-19th century obsession.
Having an orchid collection announced to the world that you were wealthy and that you had a first rate head gardener who could grow them. Chatsworth in Derbyshire held the largest collection in the country, under the care of Sir Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the 6th Duke of Devonshire, one William Spencer Cavendish. New introductions were sometimes christened cavendishianum or devonium to reflect their upper crust ownership. Not far away, at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, James Bateman was sponsoring collections from Central America. The famous London plant nursery, Loddiges of Hackney, also paid their own collectors and the species name loddigesii was added to some he introduced. When Loddiges closed in 1852, Veitch & Sons of Exeter opened a London branch specialising in hot house plants including orchids.
Veitch’s exotic nursery, in the King’s Road in Chelsea, was owned by Sir Harry Veitch ( 1840 – 1924). He helped to set up the Great International Horticultural Exhibition in 1866 on the profits from the shop and the proceeds from that exhibition in 1866 funded the Lindley Library, vested to the Royal Horticultural Society after his death. Sir Henry also instigated an annual spring show and its success, and the money raised from the sale of expensive orchids, spawned the yearly Chelsea Flower Show we still enjoy today.
In Sir Henry Veitch’s day those exotic orchids had to be plant hunted in the jungles in South America and Asia. These were dangerous places and Susan Orlean, writing in The Orchid Thief , tells of a 1901 expedition in the Philippines that proved worse than an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Of the eight men, one was eaten by a tiger, a second was doused in oil and burnt to death, and five more were never seen again. The lone survivor emerged with an enormous haul of Phalaenopsis and probably made a fortune.
The Orchid Society of Great Britain’s display, at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, told us about some of these plant hunters. The unfortunate John Forbes (1799–1823 ), who went out to collect plants in Brazil and southern Africa for the Royal Horticultural Society, died from exhaustion aged 24 in Mozambique. William Arnold ( date unknown) drowned in the Orinoco River and Gustavo Wallis (1830 – 1878) died of yellow fever and malaria. David Bowman (1838 – 1868) caught dysentery in Columbia. Albert Millican, the author of The Adventures of an Orchid Grower published in 1893, armed himself “with a stock of knives, cutlasses, revolvers, rifles.” This armoury didn’t prevent him from being stabbed to death on his fifth expedition to the Andes.
Micropropagation came too late for these pioneers, but it has rescued our rarest British native, the Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). It was once widespread and relatively common across the limestone areas of northern England. Records from the late 1790s even suggest that bundles of flowers were sold on the market stalls of Settle in Yorkshire. It’s now found in one top-secret site in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and guarded by the police to prevent theft and damage from modern-day orchid hunters, following attempts to steal it in 2004. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have successfully micro-propagated seeds and this legendary orchid, with the yellow and purple-maroon shoe-shaped flowers, has been reintroduced to a number of sites where it flowers in late-May and June. One of these sites, the Kilnsey Trout Farm in Wharefdale, is open to the public.
Three Easy Orchids
These are the easiest to grow and are often called moth orchids because two of their six petals resemble large wings. They enjoy warm, even temperatures which never fall below 50F (10C) and good light. The hybrids have many large flowers and can bloom throughout the year. Pink and white forms flower for longer (each flower lasts up to 12 weeks) than the yellow forms. Phalaenopsis produce aerial roots and usually don’t need repotting.
Often known as florist’s orchids, because they last a long time, cymbidiums flower from October to May, and have upright and pendant forms. They can tolerate greater fluctuations in temperature because they occur naturally at high altitudes, but in winter they need an airy, light position between 10 and 22C.
Pansy orchids are more compact and often come in rich reds and pinks. They produce fragrant flowers which are not as long-lasting. These shade-lovers peak during the summer and enjoy a north-facing window sill. They must not be overwatered.