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An orchid for all seasons from the Lea Valley Orchid Society

PUBLISHED: 15:23 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

Orchid flowers are often exquisitely patterned

Orchid flowers are often exquisitely patterned

Exotic, flamboyant and often fragrant, orchids are the ultimate houseplant that can flower for months in the right conditions. Philippa Pearson finds out about Lea Valley Orchid Society and how orchids came to this country

PERHAPS you will have been lucky enough to receive a flowering orchid plant for Christmas? The endless variety and fascination of orchid flowers is unsurpassed in horticulture: some are like dancing butterflies; others resemble hovering moths or delicate spiders.
Many people have told me that once you start collecting and finding out about them, it is difficult not to be gripped by orchid fever. To find out more, head for Lea Valley Orchid Society which meets regularly at Waterford near Hertford. It's the place to go for advice, talks, demonstrations and the chance to mix with like-minded orchid lovers.

Sharing their love
The society was formed about 30 years ago by a group of orchid lovers in Ware and membership is drawn from a wide area including Hertfordshire, Essex, North London and Bedfordshire. Members range from complete novices to others with national or international reputations; some only have windowsills to grow their plants while others have greenhouses or conservatories to house their collections. Two members are also on the Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) Orchid Committee and several others are qualified RHS Orchid Judges.
Meeting each month from January to November at Waterford village hall, the society has a varied event programme which includes members' shows in spring and autumn and informative talks ranging from cultivation to tips from commercial growers and plants growing in the wild. Information on where to buy orchids to increase your collection is available as is abundant advice on how to grow and show them. On May 24 they have an Orchid Show open to the public in the Church Hall of St Stephen's Church, St Albans.
The widespread cultivation of orchids is a relatively recent pursuit in the gardening timeline. It was in the early 19th century they hit the horticultural headlines in England when a spectacular tropical orchid flowered in the hot-house of William Cattley, an eminent horticulturist and importer. That it flowered at all was down to considerable luck as gardeners of the day knew very little about the cultivation and care of orchids and it was only by accident that the plant found its way to England in the first place. A shipment of plants sent from Brazil contained some unusual foliage that had been used as packing material and, intrigued by the bulbous stems, William potted some of them up and they flowered in November.
Dr John Lindley, a leading botanist at the time and prominent member of the RHS, named the plant Cattleya labiata var. autumnalis in honour of the discoverer, the flower's beautiful ruffled lip-like lower petal and the fact it had bloomed in autumn. News of Cattley's orchid soon spread and the plant immediately caused a sensation, starting a wave of orchid fever. Commercial growers and wealthy enthusiasts began searching and collecting orchids across the globe in a frenzy unmatched by any botanical adventure before or since.

Easy to care for
One of the myths faced by early orchid collectors was that the plants needed hot, humid conditions to grow like the tropical forests they mostly come from. Whilst humidity is necessary, the plants do not require excessive watering or an intense hot atmosphere and are quite easy plants to maintain. Air circulation is important and many orchids can be kept in unheated greenhouses, conservatories and windowsills, depending on type.
More than 30,000 orchid species are found on all continents except Antarctica while in the UK we have more than 50 native hardy species growing in the wild. Of the tropical types, Cattleyas and laelias are the most sumptuous and exotic of all orchids and chosen for corsages whilst cymbidiums are widely available and easy to grow. Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid, is another easy and rewarding orchid to try, as is the slipper orchid, paphiopedilum. Orchids are unlike any other plants in their botanical make up and require free-draining compost with plants generally preferring their roots restricted in pots.
Lea Valley Orchid Society welcomes beginners and orchid lovers of all levels but be warned, you're likely to get totally hooked on these plants.

Article taken from January issue of Hertfordshire Life

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