Review: The Book of Orchids


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.

Bulbophyllum lobbii

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.

Bletia purpurea

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.

Anguloa virginalis

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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Orchids: fancy not fussy

Orchids are a mass of contradictions. Their dainty blooms suggest a fleeting delicacy and they have a reputation for fussiness that scares many away. In fact their exotic flowers last weeks longer than most houseplants and specialist glasshouses and expert knowledge are not necessary for success.

The secret, believes grower Tom Price, lies in knowing what you’ve got. He blames too many impulse buys for orchids’ unfair image and believes that once you know what they want, they are no more difficult than any other plant.

“The worst thing you can do is to see an orchid somewhere and think ‘I like that’ and buy it,” he says. “If you cannot supply the right conditions, it is going to fail and will put you off the plants for life. Find out what it wants first.”

Cymbidium yowie flame x putana

Tom, a member of Cheltenham and District Orchid Society, has been growing them for 22 years and has a collection that runs into nearly a thousand plants. On a cold, grey winter day, their vibrant blooms are a welcome sight and go some way to explaining why they inspire such loyalty among enthusiasts.

The biggest flowering plant family in the world touching every continent except the Antarctic, with more than 25,000 species and around 100,000 hybrids, orchids range from those with flowers the size of a matchhead to others with blooms eight inches across. They come in every possible colour – apart from blue, although some commercial growers are known to inject dye into plants to achieve that.

Jewell orchids are grown for their foliage

Tom’s collection spans the colour range: ‘Hsin Buu Lady’ has deep pink flowers with a beautiful velvety sheen, Phalaenopsis ‘Taida King’s Caroline’ has paler white and pink blooms while a Cambria type is two-tone chestnut and burnt orange and Dendrobium harveyanum has delicately fringed yellow flowers.

Some, the ‘jewel orchids’ are grown more for the foliage than their by orchid standards insignificant flowers. Looking at the intricately veined leaves in deep bronzed purple and emerald green, it’s easy to see why Tom says “they don’t all need flowers”.

Phalaenopsis ‘Taida King’s Caroline’

Just coming into flower are pots of pleonie, which will produce a single bloom per plant before the leaves.

“They are a bit like the orchid version of a crocus,” says Tom.

The most commonly available orchids fall into three main groups – phalaenopsis, cymbidium and dendrobium – and are straightforward to grow, providing you follow a few simple rules.

Phalaenopsis need  a night-time temperature of between 18-21C – keep them away from single-glazed windows – rising to 23-27C during the day and give them regular food and water as they have no pseudo bulb for storing these.

This Cambria-type orchid has wonderful two-tone flowers

“You can water from the top, just don’t get it into the crown and water before midday so it has a chance to evaporate,” advises Tom.

When the flowers die back, cut just above the next node down on the stem and a second flower spike will grow and flower within two to three months. Like this, a plant can flower for several years but should be allowed to rest once the new leaves start diminishing in size.

“The plant is telling you it wants a rest.

Cut the flower spike off and reduce feeding and watering to once a month, instead of once a week.

When it comes to feeding, Tom recommends a ‘weakly, weekly’ regime, using quarter strength feed – high potash for any that are reluctant to flower and a general feed for the others.

Cymbidiums need a day-night temperature difference of 13C-25C when in growth from June to August to ensure flowering later in the year. Standing the plants out in dappled shade during the summer will help to ensure the right growing conditions. Give them plenty of light for the rest of the year and water when dry to the touch.

Dendrobiums are prolific when it comes to flowering. They enjoy a moist atmosphere while in growth, such as a bathroom, but should be kept on the dry side over the winter. The most commonly grown are the D. nobile types.

In the right conditions orchids will bloom for weeks

Get the conditions right and some orchids can flower for several years, a feat that few other plants can match. No wonder they inspire such devotion.

Cheltenham and District Orchid Society holds its annual show on Saturday March 5 at Churchdown Community Centre, Churchdown, Gloucester. The show runs from 10.30am to 4pm and admission is £2 with free parking. There will be nursery and society displays, plants for sale, including alpines, advice and a re-potting service for orchids.

More information about the society and growing orchids: