Saturday, 29 December 2012

Honour for orchid educator

Simon Pugh’s work in 'Education and the Orchid Project' has been recognised with an MBE in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List.

Mr Pugh said: ‘This is recognition for my fantastic team of students at Writhlington who have achieved so much over the last twenty years and for all those who have supported our work both in the UK and abroad.’

The West Country school WSBE orchids project involves propagating fragile orchids in a bid to save plants in the wild, and produce vital income for communities around the world.

The Writhlington School orchid project in Radstock is a fantastic example of education enabling pupils to learn laboratory skills and discover other cultures, along with business skills.

The Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim, Laos in South East Asia, South Africa, and now Rwanda, are just some of the countries to benefit from lessons learned in the school's laboratory and greenhouses.

The school recently hosted an international gathering of orchid experts when the British Orchid Congress held its triennial meeting and show at the school.

Wish there’d been a teacher of this calibre in my school.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Orchids or triffids?

'The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour.' Who wrote this? HG Wells.

Not showing off, well maybe a little, my aunt used to work for a Professor Waddington, who was in turn a students of Wells.

Ghostly stories sit well this time of year, and I share with you a little known and deliciously dark tale about orchids.

Indulge yourself with this micro-Gothic tale for the New Year. Read it here. Meanwhile, a small cutting to tempt your tastebuds:

THE FLOWERING OF THE STRANGE ORCHID by H.G.Wells (originally published in the Pall Mall Budget of 2 August, 1894).

'Wedderburn had lost a good deal of blood, but beyond that he had suffered no very great injury. They gave him brandy mixed with some pink extract of meat, and carried him upstairs to bed. His housekeeper told her incredible story in fragments to Dr. Haddon.

"Come to the orchid-house and see," she said. The cold outer air was blowing in through the open door, and the sickly perfume was almost dispelled. Most of the torn aerial rootlets lay already withered amidst a number of dark stains upon the bricks. The stem of the inflorescence was broken by the fall of the plant, and the flowers were growing limp and brown at the edges of the petals. The doctor stooped towards it, then saw that one of the aerial rootlets still stirred feebly, and hesitated.

The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and putrescent. The door banged intermittently in the morning breeze, and all the array of Wedderburn's orchids was shrivelled and prostrate. But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the glory of his strange adventure.'

Friday, 21 December 2012

Burning issue

Contrary to expectation, rare orchids are blooming near Bonegilla in Northeast Victoria – all because they are regularly scorched, it seems.

According to Australian local press, experts say burns for 20 years have led to a tenfold increase in the native orchids and authorities are using the lessons from these burns to improve other native grasslands. The burns replicate what happened before Europeans arrived.
 Sustainability and Environment Department and Parks Victoria firefighters lit five hectacres of reserve not far off the Murray Valley Highway. Firefighters doused still-smouldering trees, reducing the landscape to a smouldering mass.

Senior flora and fauna officer with DSE, Glen Johnson, said the burn was perfect for the native plants. ‘This area has been intensively managed for more than 20 years and is now seen as a barometer of how to manage other areas,’ he said. ‘We have seen the orchids that once were as few as 10 now number in the hundreds.

‘The orchids are adapted to fire, the burn helping to reinvigorate and rejuvenate the less competitive elements by reducing the biomass and creating space between the tussocks of kangaroo grass.’ Get a glimpse of the local flora on this virtual trail.

Pictured: Spotted Sun Orchid, a native to Australia

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Flowers in the press

Quirky orchid fact for you. A certain Bolivian orchid is named after Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union. It’s called the Maxillaria gorbatschowii.

All new species need names, and recently, desperate scientists are going for celebrities – no doubt to guarantee a headline.

Apparently, there’s a jellyfish named after musician Frank Zappa and an ape named after comedian John Cleese. One horsefly is named after singer Beyonce – just hazard a guess why.

According to a recent article, the namesakes don't have to be asked for permission, but spider researcher Peter Jaeger (who has personally named spiders after David Bowie and a half dozen other prominent people) says it’s not just a gimmick. ‘It's about sending a message that the species is endangered,’ said Jaeger. ‘I find it good when science comes down from its ivory tower.’

Private people can also be immortalised, but there's a price. In exchange for about 2,600 euros ($3,400), the association Biopat offers the right to name an organism. Orchids are the most popular, along with butterflies, frogs and bugs. The money goes towards environmental projects in the organism's land of origin or for the good of science. To date, over 120 species have been sponsored.

Now, I for one think they deserve more publicity.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Out soon ...

If you’re an orchid addict, you'll soon be able to download THE LOST ORCHID from Bluewood publishing. It's a Gothic-inspired tale of horticultural skulduggery set during the heady years of ‘Orchidmania’, when Victorians went mad for the latest, rarest and most exotic flowers of the day.

It is the first in a three-part Gothic-inspired series set in the 1880s, featuring Flora McPhairson, a young florist and her roller-coaster relationship with enigmatic journalist William Carter, whom she encounters after seeking refuge from social disgrace with her uncle, a veteran plant-collector and nursery owner.

It deals with deliciously dark, roiling Gothic themes of loss and rejection, the plight of ‘fallen women’ and obsession against the backdrop of Victorian hypocrisy and repression. It is planned as the first in a romantic trilogy:


If you don’t like blurbs, ignore the next three paragraphs. Or, in the modern parlance, spoiler alert!

Early spring 1885 ...

Florist Flora McPhairson elopes, but is jilted and nearly dies of pneumonia. Her reputation in shreds, she is obliged to stay with her bachelor uncle, veteran plant collector John McPhairson. She works at his plant nursery where he hybridises orchids, much prized by high society.

Flora then disturbs some vandals and prevents further damage. After scandal-mongering at a major auction, her uncle confesses that he fears he is the target of a dirty tricks campaign. There are plenty of suspects, including a rival orchid house, a thwarted suitor of Flora’s and even religious zealots who believe her uncle’s unique ability to create hybrids is an abomination.

Disaster also strikes abroad as their own plant collector falls victim to foul sabotage. Flora is obliged to seek the help of enigmatic journalist, William Carter, to avert ruin.

Events take a sinister turn, and her uncle vanishes. Carter is a useful ally, and their mutual distrust turns into respect. Pushed to the edge of their endurance, they find help in the most unlikely of places, but it seems that even Carter is not to be trusted, and things become strained. As they fight unseen forces, she discovers that there is much more at stake than her own livelihood – the reputation of the British Empire is at risk, and they both have to overcome their personal demons and work together to expose the plot.
Botanical crazes
The stories are set against the real-life backdrop of the botanical crazes of the day. Much of Victorian society was a veneer, beneath which lurked darkness and corruption. Horticulture was no exception. Behind the image of the genteel greenhouses, fortunes were lost and won as rival plant dealers plied their trade, many indulging in shady practices to ensure their success. Meanwhile, dealers sent their agents, often using an alias, to scour the most remote – and dangerous – parts of the world where they would go to almost any lengths to collect hunt down new species.

Orchid Wars explores the phenomenon of orchidmania, a documented obsession for ever more exotic blooms. Most prized were so-called ‘lost orchids’, rare plants which had been identified earlier, but subsequently lost. Huge rewards were posted for their rediscovery.

In the story, Flora’s uncle has shunned the ruthless world of orchid hunters and is developing a method to produce viable hybrids to satisfy the market – and save many species from extinction. This is based on John Dominy, pictured, an authentic hybridiser who had a monopoly on the process until 1885.

Flora and Carter are caught up in this cut-throat world, and are soon drawn into a darker political arena, when power-hungry nations were secretly sowing the seeds of espionage as world conflict loomed. 

Tournament of shadows
For almost a hundred years, the British Empire and the Russia of the Tsars, the two most powerful nations on earth, engaged in a secret war in the remote lands of Central Asia. It was known as the ‘The Great Game’. 

The phrase was ascribed to Arthur Conolly (1807-1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry, and brought into common parlance via Rudyard Kipling's book Kim. Both sides used personnel with a plausible reason for being there, such as surveyors, geographers, collectors, army officers. These secret agents often risked their lives to gather information on enemy forces, discover secret routes across difficult terrain and cultivate useful native allies.

At the outset, the two rivals lay nearly 2,000 miles apart. By the end of the Турниры теней, or the Tournament of Shadows, as the Russians called it, some Russian outposts were within 20 miles of India. Some might argue The Great Game has never ceased.


Cattleya Warneri: received by Low and Co. from Binot who collected plants from Espirito Santos and Minas Gerias. A certain Mr R. Warner of Broomfield is reported as having over 600 cattleyas in bloom at one time was the first to flower this species.
John Dominy (1816-1891), head gardener, plant grower at the nurseries of James and James Veitch in Exeter, 1834-1841, and Chelsea, 1846-80. He grew the first known artificially produced orchid hybrid, Calanthe dominii, in 1856
Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his ‘friends’ the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878), published on 30 November, 1878


Wildness in the Wolds

Sad to say, thousands of orchids in a roadside area of North Yorkshire have been destroyed by workmen digging up the ground to lay pipes.

The Yorkshire Wolds location, which is never publicised to deter rare flower hunters, has been described as a ‘sea of pink’ in the summer, thanks to the blooming of orchids. But last week, builders dug a 140-foot trench right through the site, threatening the growing conditions of the common marsh orchids, pyramidal, and common spotted orchids, which need hard chalky ground.

Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller, is heart-broken, describing the sad scene as a ‘squashy mess’, according to local press.

Of course, it’s important to keep such places secret, but surely the council must have known?