I’ve always been nervous of orchids. Partly because I’m not known for my skill with houseplants. Things that grow outside always fare better than those reliant on my care indoors.
My lack of confidence wasn’t helped by a delivery of plants from friends in Australia. Alarm bells rang when the accompanying leaflet opened with ‘Instructions for attaching your tropical orchid to a tree’. These were plants that needed far more than my usual neglect and hope regime.
But perhaps it’s the fear of becoming too attached to these exotic blooms than makes me keep them at a safe distance. I’ve interviewed many orchid growers over the years and all shared the same all-consuming passion.
It’s a trait that Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda, the authors of The Book of Orchids, obviously have. This book oozes enthusiasm and even devotion to plants that “have gripped the psyches of many humans”. They are in good company: Darwin was so entranced by orchids that he dedicated an entire book to them.
And orchids are now the top seller when it comes to ornamental plants with a huge industry devoted to filling supermarket and garden centre shelves.
Yet, as the book, produced in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, reveals, there’s far more to them than just a beautiful flower.
The range is vast: there are 260,000 species, making them one of the two largest families of flowering plants, and they cover all but the most inhospitable parts of the planet.
If that were not enough to make them worthy of study, orchids are consummate deceivers. They have an awe-inspiring ability to trick pollinators into assisting them in reproduction for little or even no reward, while their relationship with soil fungi is decidedly one-sided.
Naturally, with such a huge topic boundary lines have been drawn and the book covers just 600 species, illustrating the diversity of habitat and the range from showy blooms to the smaller species.
Some, such as the ‘Yellow Grass Orchid’ are not obvious members of the family while the ‘Northern Banana Orchid’ lives underground until it flowers and ‘The Mother of Hundreds’ is so named because of its wide use in commercial hybridisation.
There’s no stinting on detail within the 600 featured with size – both flower and plant – habitat, flowering time, type, family details and even conservation status listed. There are details of pollinators and explanations of common names, some as eye-catching as the flowers themselves; I loved ‘Enchanted Dancing Lady’ and ‘Spotted Pixie Orchid’.
What brings the book to life though are the colour photographs that illustrate each flower while the accompanying captions are more than just merely a name label and give even more information.
The opening sections, covering everything from evolution and pollination to the threats facing wild orchids, are easy-to-read and informative, making this far more than just a book for the collector.
I learnt a lot: vanilla is an orchid; some orchids are eaten; chemical extracts from orchids are used in cosmetics and shampoos. The latter the authors believe is unsustainable and they urge us not “to purchase any products that contain orchids, regardless of what the labels on these products might say”.
Will the book tempt me to grow them? Let’s just say I’m intrigued and a step closer to joining those who are “wildly obsessive about orchids”.
• The Book of Orchids by Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda is published by Ivy Press, priced £30 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Ivy Press.
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