When someone says orchid, what springs to mind? Probably the beautiful and showy hybrid orchids you can buy in the garden centre, or possibly the tropical orchids Kew does such magnificent displays with during its annual orchid festival. The cultivation of tropical orchids became popular in Britain in the seventeenth century. At the time, no one knew how to propagate orchids from seed, and wild plants were dug up and imported en masse, devastating their native habitats. By the nineteenth century, people had realised that the common British wildflowers they had been overlooking were also orchids. They too became popular with collectors, with some species being driven to the brink of extinction by over-collection and the intensification of agriculture.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that French botanist Noel Bernard figured out that orchids have a crucial symbiotic relationship with soil fungi. In 1922, American plant physiologist Lewis Knudson discovered that the fungus breaks down complex sugars and starches into simple sugars that the orchid can use. Orchid seeds are tiny and do not contain any food resources. A germinating seed must form a relationship with its fungal partner, which provides the seedling with food until it unfurls its first leaves and beings photosynthesising.
Knudson was able to develop a growth solution that provided orchid seeds with the nutrition they needed without the need for the fungus, and cultivation from seed became possible. Around the same time, Gavino Rotor developed the micropropagation technique that allowed the commercial production of hybrid orchids.
Before I moved here five years ago, I had never seen any of Britain’s native hardy orchids. I live close to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which is home to a sizeable population of bee orchids. The local area is home to several other orchid species, and earlier this year we watched them pop up in new locations, in a meadow left to flower. Although I pondered trying to grow some of these beauties in the garden, I believed it would be a tricky proposition.
Not so, says a new book – How to grow Native Orchids in gardens large and small – by Wilson Wall and Dave Morgan, published by Green Books. According to the authors: “native orchids are neither difficult to cultivate nor require special conditions to thrive, and while a large meadow may be beyond the reach of most, the corner of a garden lawn can provide the perfect setting for naturalized orchids.”
The first part of the book focuses on explaining orchids. There’s a brief run-down of British orchid cultivation history, and then a look at our species in their natural habitats. From there it moves on to their structure and life cycle, before focusing on the species that lend themselves to cultivation. Not all of them do, but the book outlines 14 that are relatively easy and 12 more that are a little more tricky.
Part two moves onto more practical details of how to grow orchids in your garden, even if the only space you have is in pots on the patio. The easiest way to get started is to buy plants from reputable suppliers, and there’s a list of those at the end of the book. For the more adventurous, there are instructions on how to grow orchids from seed, which requires some special kit and the growth medium. This section ends with a list of the potential problems – pests and diseases – orchid gardeners may encounter.
Part three is a fascinating look at how to move from growing single species to orchid communities. You’ll find advice here on creating a garden meadow, a garden orchard or glade (using shade-tolerant species that would be great in a forest garden), adding orchids to rockeries or damper ground, and even repopulating wild areas beyond the garden.
It’s a beautiful book, packed with colour photographs and illustrations of all the radiant orchid species we could be growing in our gardens. It’s detailed and an incredible manual for anyone wanting to take up this rewarding hobby. And it’s also a manifesto, encouraging us to value and preserve an essential and beautiful part of our natural heritage.
How to Grow Native Orchids in Gardens Large and Small:
the comprehensive guide to cultivating local species
By Wilson Wall and Dave Morgan
Published by Green Books, 5th September 2019
Hardback, 176 pages, RRP £19.99 (ebook also available)