Friday, 5 July 2013

Slipper orchids in the spotlight

My first book was published in April and guess what? My husband bought an orchid. Not just any orchid, but a lady-slipper orchid (pictured). It flowered for a month, which wasn’t bad, but gave up when the hot weather arrived. Now, I’m not the only one who has spotted a resurgence of interest in the luscious cypripedium

Orchid-fanciers delighted in seeing hardy lady’s slipper orchids at the Chelsea flower show this year. But, according to Andy Byfield, one of the founders of the wild plant charity Plantlife, they are now cropping up on a wide range of stands.

People either love or hate cypripediums with their unusual shape.

For nearly four centuries, gardeners and botanists have collected the species to near extinction: as early as 1629 – when the species was first documented by botanists – it was being collected for gardens, and such ransacking has sadly continued. By the second half of the 20th century, just a single plant survived in a secret site, following the loss of a second population near Leyburn that fell prey to collectors as late as 1956. Mr Byfield notes that only recently has the species' fortunes in Britain been reversed, following an introduction programme across northern England, from Morecambe Bay to the Durham shores.

Happily, the Chelsea lady slipper orchids came from artificially propagated plants, raised from seed to flowering wholly in cultivation. It seems that folks have realised that they crave a water retentive yet instantly draining compost made up of open, granular inorganic substrates (Andy recommends Tesco cat litter!). And second, a labour of love by a few dedicated growers in Europe and North America has perfected the science of growing these tricky subjects from seeds in laboratory flasks.

He has more tips: they favour a cool, semi-shaded spot with sun for just a few hours a day: a bed on the north side of a wall or building is ideal, and certainly better than under the shade of a bush or tree. Mix in an abundance of gritty material and some potting bark, so that the soil is moisture retentive yet perfectly free draining, and plant your plants a couple of inches deep. Keep well watered (many of the hybrids' parents come from monsoon areas), protect from slugs, and sit back and enjoy. 

By Pamela Kelt

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