RHS London Orchid Show & Plant Fair 2018

Orchids are extraordinary flowers. They display remarkable diversity in colour, size and form. Some are scented, some are designed to entrap insects and few, like vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), produce edible seed pods. Among the 28,000 currently known and accepted orchid species, many are cultivated and inevitably there are still new species to be found in the wild. I regard orchids as beautiful, often elegant, occasionally surprising and endlessly fascinating flowers, but I do not love them. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but there is something about orchids that prevents me from developing a passion for them.

Responsibility for the lack of affection sits firmly with me, not the orchids, but I can’t be the only one that finds them, well, a little unapproachable? It could be that orchids are notoriously tricky to grow and flower, which isn’t surprising when you consider that many grow in quite extreme conditions – up trees, in bogs, on cliffs and atop mountains. You name the habitat, and it’s likely there’s an orchid adapted to live there. Such specific habitats are not easy to recreate at home, hence their occasional reluctance to perform as they would in nature. It could also be that orchids are not especially attractive when they are not blooming, which seems to me to be a lot of the time. There are subtle variations in leaf form and arrangement, but most orchids are quite plain and unexciting. Their aerial roots give some people the creeps. Perversely, the fact that orchid flowers last so long also puts me off. The waxy petals have something of an embalmed body about them. Too preserved and artificial, despite their undeniable good looks. Rather like certain celebrities I could mention.

Of course, I am generalising wildly. I won’t deny a certain affection for simpler orchids such as our British natives and the delicate little pleiones which I have collected on and off for about five years. I consider these charming and jewel-like, maybe because of their diminutive size and scarcity. I won’t argue that massed displays of orchids, such as those staged by the great botanical gardens, are not spectacular. Yet when I visit these floral extravaganzas I find myself looking but not touching, and certainly not falling head over heels. I’m happy to appreciate orchids at arm’s length, but like a Tiffany lamp, a Fabergé egg or a Ming vase, I don’t especially want one at home.

Consequently The Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Orchid Show is safe territory for me when it comes to expenditure. I am happy to admire, but not to purchase. As RHS London shows go, this is one of the more popular and extravagant. I arrived for the evening preview at 4.45pm, to find a long queue had already formed, extending around the corner into Vincent Square. Thankfully we were blessed with the first fine spring evening we’ve had this year and it was a pleasure to stand for a while and soak up some sun.

Inside the Lindley Hall were exhibits by British growers such as Laurence Hobbs Orchids, Burnham Nurseries, Double H Nurseries and The Orchid Society of Great Britain. The stand-out display, as always, was staged by Writhlington School, where the majority of orchids shown bore white flowers. It was hard not to be impressed by the cascading blooms of Coelogyne cristata (above), an epiphytic orchid that can be found growing in cool, moist areas of the eastern Himalayas from India to Vietnam. It blooms every spring before the snow begins to melt, while the weather is still cool and dry. However it requires high humidity at other times to mimic the monsoon climate it’s adapted to. Alongside was a pure white variant, Coelogyne cristata ‘Alba’ (below). Both orchids are delicately fragrant and particularly floriferous.

Cymbidium orchids are considered among the easiest orchids to grow as house plants, although I’ve never had a great deal of luck persuading them to re-flower well. Placing them outside in summer is supposed to help with that problem and I’d try it, if only I had the space. Two cymbidium varieties stood out for me at the show, both exhibited by Burnham Nurseries of Newton Abbot, Devon. The first C. ‘Cliff Hutchings’ produces racemes of lime green flowers lightly marked with maroon spots. All the cymbidiums I’ve purchased have had upright flower spikes supported by a cane, but ‘Cliff Hutchings’ has cascading racemes which plunge well below a tuft of long green leaves. This makes it suitable as a hanging plant or as a specimen for a high shelf. The second showstopper was C. Cali Night ‘Geyserland’, a plant that produces deep maroon-brown flowers on arching stems. As a houseplant it must be an interior designer’s dream, and it would make a good companion for C. ‘Cliff Hutchings’ in a cool greenhouse display.

Other orchids that caught my eye were Dendrobium densiflorum its egg-yolk yellow flowers almost resembling daffodils, and a very striking Phalaenopsis called ‘Marmalade’. I’ve not seen a butterfly orchid with antique-apricot coloured flowers before I am not certain I liked it, but one attends these shows to see something a little different and this certainly was. Love it or hate it? Marmalade or Foie gras? Do let me know your thoughts.

Finally, from a genus of orchids I know nothing about, was Sarcochilus, presented in great variety by Akerne Orchids from Belgium. These little beauties are from Australia and New Calendonia and grow mainly on trees (epiphytes) or rocks (lithophytes). Low-growing Sarcochilus orchids produce arching stems of flowers and come in all sorts of colours. They like cool shade, humidity, good ventilation and humidity. Excessive heat and cold may see them off.

Neighbouring Lawrence Hall hosted a general spring plant fair packed with plants perfect for brightening up drab patches in the garden. There were primroses aplenty; potted narcissi and muscari, unfurling epimediums, and large displays of nerines and clivias. There was much I was tempted by, all of which I resisted, except for the purchase of 6 pots of narcissi (3 x N. ‘Oxford Gold’ and 3 x N. ‘Little Oliver’ which I have already used to enhance my fledgling gravel garden. They look mighty fine popping up in between clumps of lavender-blue Anemone blanda.

The RHS Orchid Show and Plant Fair continues today, April 6th 2018, until 8pm and tomorrow, April 7th 2018 from 11am to 6pm at the RHS Lindley and Lawrence Halls in Westminster, London. Tickets cost £5 for RHS members and £9 for the public if purchased on the day. Not all exhibitors take bank cards, so do take plenty of cash with you if you’re planning to make purchases.