Orchids at Kew – could it be more exciting? by Susanne Masters

February 12, 2013

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Shows

We see magnificent plant displays regularly, at Chelsea and other RHS shows. We do ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ as expected, the plants are always amazing. But could there be a different dimension to these displays?

Kew is doing an orchid show until the 3rd of March. Susanne Masters visited – and wondered whether Kew could make more use of its resources, associations and history.

Anne Wareham, editor Orchids from a nursery in Holland photo thinkingardens, Orchids at Kew

Thousands of orchids crammed under one roof can be a fast food offering for gardeners; instant visual gratification of dubious provenance and no long lasting substance. This year’s ‘Orchid Extravaganza’ at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew offers instant gratification, and a glimpse of Kew’s long standing involvement with orchids.

Most of the orchids used are shipped in from Holland, but there are two glass cabinets of species orchids that form part of Kew’s living collections. The public gardens are just the tip of the iceberg at Kew.  Living plant collections in the gardens are dwarfed by the rest of the institution’s holdings in the sliding racks of the Fungarium, shelves of pressed plants in the Herbarium, and staff working on research and conservation across the world.   Orchids in a glasshouse in chilly February is one way to increase visitor numbers to a garden at a difficult time of year.

Kew’s 2013 orchid display went ahead with short notice so only three months were used to plan an event that usually takes a year’ planning. This short notice was evident, in a good way. Time constraint appears to have endowed simplicity to the display. Phalaenopsis arranged in stacks of white to dark pink bore scrutiny from different angles. Mixing Phalaenopsis and Oncidium in shades of yellow together created towers of orchids that looked slightly different from every angle.

Tower of phalaenopsis Orchids at Kew photo thinkingardens

It may have been accident rather than design but when the misters were on clumps of Oncidium ’Golden Shower’ glimpsed through mist were evocative of dawn in their native rainforest. Phalaenopsis floating on the pond made use of the reflective properties of water,

Phalaenopsis reflection  copyright Susanne Masters for  thinkingardens Orchids at Kew

although arranging them in the shape of Victoria amazonica, a tropical waterlily, seems incongruous for an orchid extravaganza.  Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens

Set against a wall that was painted black, hanging Vanda orchids brought Venetian carnival colours to February in London.

Vanda wall Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens

I thought the black backdrop was intentional design in the style of Auricula theatres, until I had lunch with an orchid expert who commented it might be functional, rather than conceptual, to reduce the likelihood of the Vanda’s leaf-tips being scorched. Arches of Vanda orchids in single colours provide a good perspective on the colourful blooms as you walk under them, although it would be nice to have the same viewpoint to look at the mixed colours of Vandas on the wall without having to lie in a flowerbed.

Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens

Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens

Annual orchid displays at Kew started 18 years ago. Back then a mass of tropical orchids such as Phalaenopsis, Oncidiums and Vandas was an extravagant feat. Now that tropical orchids can be picked up in the supermarket they are no longer exotic plants that demonstrate gardener’s skills, so strong design is essential for an orchid display to have the same impact.

Dendrobium glumaceum Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens
Last year the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), who also hold an annual orchid display, upped their game by having Patrick Blanc, renowned for creating vertical gardens, as the designer. If every orchid show were designed by Patrick Blanc the novelty would wear off, but the technique of bringing a designer to a botanical garden to provide a conceptual approach works well. In 2011 Scott Pask an award winning set designer did the NYBG Broadway themed orchid display.  Combining an external designer with Kew’s orchid experts could be a productive collaboration for future orchid displays.  Kew has unique selling points when it comes to orchids: archives, current work and range of habitats and these USPs are woefully underused in the conception and delivery of orchid displays at Kew.

Exactly 100 years ago suffragettes destroyed orchids and smashed glass panes in one of Kew’s orchid houses. Buried in the archives are there more botanical details on an incident described briefly in public records by court documents and newspaper articles? ‘Orchid’ is derived from ‘orchis’ the Greek word meaning testicle.  Is there symbolic value in subjugated people destroying plants named after the anatomy of their oppressors? Throughout history orchids are connected to society and politics, and Kew holds a lot of the details.

A fascinating example of Kew’s current research and conservation work is the Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre. Orchids are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and displaying living plants alongside orchids processed for use would illustrate how difficult it is to identify plant products, Kew’s role in current plant identification, and highlight that orchids are more than solely ornamental plants.

Orchidaceae, the orchid family, is so diverse it is the second biggest plant family in the world, yet the sample in Kew’s display is not representative.  Most of the display is in the wet tropics area of the conservatory and relies on epiphytic orchids. February is not the right month to see temperate orchids but drawing attention to hardy and UK native orchids such as Hyacinth orchid (Bletilla striata) and Loose-flowered orchid (Anacamptis laxiflora) that grow at Kew and Wakehurst Place would be a canny way of encouraging repeat visits.  Orchids also grow in dry conditions and the arid zone in the conservatory is a missed opportunity to show other orchids, confounding the perception of orchids as plants restricted to the humid tropics.

Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne masters for thinkingardens

A few years ago information about Kew’s work on orchid conservation in Madagascar was put up on interpretation boards accompanying the orchid display, disseminated in press releases and discussed in some of the accompanying talks. However now that people can look up information on the spot on wifi phones, displays might be better directed at engaging attention using three dimensions, living plants and all the senses. For example, there are hanging baskets of Dendrobium glumaceum, but the friend I took with me only smelled the flowers when I suggested he try them out. He described the scent as vanilla rice, quite a contrast to Bulbophyllum fletcherianum, which smells of rotting flesh. Different scents attract different pollinators and orchid scents are an olfactory illustration of the diversity of pollinators that orchids rely on as well as diversity of orchid species.

Orchids at Kew copyright Susanne Masters for thinkingardens

Kew might never introduce a conceptual design to orchid display that becomes iconic, though it can certainly exert an influence by highlighting the diversity of a group of plants suitable for growing indoors or outdoors across the world, and the conservation issues attached to them. Horticulture is a threat to orchids due to collection of wild plants for trade, but also an ally as cultivation can be a conservation tool, and some gardeners take an interest in plants outside of their gardens.

Susanne Masters

Susanne (Small)    Writing for the Guardian here and orchid conservation blog here 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Susanne Masters February 14, 2013 at 12:11 pm

It would have been great to see some New Zealand orchids at Kew. There is an area of the conservatory that is cooler, although still humid, mostly occupied by ferns at the moment but it would be enlivened by some NZ orchids even if they aren’t as flamboyant as the Vandas and Phalaenopsis displayed in other areas of the conservatory.


Abbie Jury February 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, thanks. We are very keen on using orchids in the garden here, predominantly in woodland situations. We certainly can’t do the tropicals outdoors but there are a range of obliging groups which we have well established, They are remarkably easy care as garden plants in the right situations. Our New Zealand native orchids lean to the extremely modest, a little too retiring for the garden situation, unfortunately. http://jury.co.nz/2012/09/21/orchids-as-garden-plants/


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