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.

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29 thoughts on “RHS London Orchid Show & Plant Fair 2018

  1. Your beautiful photos of the Orchid Show are enough to make anyone lust after owning one, but I feel a bit like you about them. I’ve tried a few without much success and I don’t think I’ve ever got them to flower a second time. I do like the coleogyne though: it’s very sweet. Those jewel-like colours in the last photo are amazing, but what about the prices! That’s nearly $100 for me and I can buy a lot of other plants with that!

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  2. You’re quite right, orchids are beautiful but for some reason there is a slightly toxic quality to them, as if they might be poisonous or associated with funerals! They look artificial and too complicated and weirdly unnatural. Can’t deny their gorgeousness but there’s something else there too!

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    1. Whatever we think of orchids they are incredibly successful as plants. Only the aster family has more members in the world of flowering plants. There are 4 times more orchid species than mammal species – my fact for the day – so they must be doing something right in evolutionary terms!

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  3. weird, I share your feelings about orchids. I always thought them a bit off-standish, if not arrogant. And itchy like a thoroughbread, when it comes to growing them at home.

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  4. I feel exactly the same way about orchids. I think it is because they look plastic, and the petals are too thick. I know that last bit sounds ridiculous, but I love the movement and fabric-like qualities of petals, and orchids are just too… static! Yes, maybe that’s it. They don’t seem to change for weeks and weeks. I like my flowers to build up to a grand entrance, teasing me with their buds, maybe popping out one petal and then leaving at that, and then suddenly unfurling for three or four weeks, changing with the light, ageing grandly, and then just flouncing off for a year.

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  5. YES!!! You are exactly right. They are like an ageing celebrity all botoxed and collagened up! And weirdly SHINY!! Sorry. Must read to the end of the post BEFORE commenting. Sometimes I get excited and go too soon.

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  6. Great show report. Almost makes me want to nip up there today – except… I too am not an orchid fan. (I’ll put them only slightly in front of those lilies with willies that smell like death and that turn up in the more expensive supermarket bouquets. Absolutely cannot bear them) Surprised and delighted to learn that I am not alone in my orchid antipathy. But now I know why – it’s their overprinked immutability like, as you so tactfully put it, an ageing celebrity.

    But a huge round of applause to Writhlington School, a state school in a small Somerset town where there’s nothing much going on, and its dedicated team of staff and students. Ceri

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    1. They do an incredible job don’t they? Always by far the most interesting exhibit and the quality of the plants is superb.

      Took me a while to think about it, but I am guessing the willy lilies are anthuriums? I did smile when I worked out what you meant!! Dan

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  7. Orchids are just a bit too gaudy for me, although I do have the ubiquitous Ikea orchid at home (a table decoration from my niece’s wedding). I would be much more excited by the epimediums being sold in the Lawrence Hall so I decided to give this RHS show a miss.

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  8. As a confirmed orchidophile I feel it is my duty to try to redress such overwhelming indifference to the best and most diverse group of plants on the planet!
    I was smitten with them when I was leafing through my Dad’s ‘National Geographic’ magazine at the tender age of 11 and have been hooked ever since. As a conincidence the one photo I remember from this is of dendrobium densiflorum!
    It was probably the reason I ended up studying botany at university then moving into plant breeding as a profession. They have much to answer for!
    Please remember that at an orchid show you do tend to see a rather unrepresentative group of mainly hybrids from this family.
    I agree that the hybrids with their thick shiny petals, can be ‘marmite’ plants, but there are a wealth of cute species with intricate blooms worth looking out for.
    If you pick the right plants they can be just as easy to grow as any other house plant.
    Just look how popular the moth orchids are currently. They bloom for so long you get bored with them.
    They took over from the cymbidiums in the 90’s when these proved difficult to reflower. The tip here is to remember that they are used to summer monsoons. I keep mine sat in a small bit of water when they go outside in the summer. Works well.
    I have a house full of cattleya and phragmipedium orchids which all grow well and flower. It is just a question of knowing what to grow and how to look after them.
    There is plenty of information out there on the web.
    Don’t believe all you read in books which tells you that they are exotic and difficult to keep. Most can adapt to the lower humidity in a home given time and patience.
    Coelogyne cristata will also grow well indoors, it too likes a simulated summer monsoon outside with the cymbidiums, sat in water and a cool light windowsill over winter. My plant this year had a dozen spikes with over thirty flowers.
    So if you are tempted, have a go!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi David. Thank you for your spirited defence of orchids and for redressing the balance here in the comments. I can assure you I am far from indifferent to orchids. They fascinate me and I have also studied them closely (I went down the horticulture route having found botany a bit dry). When I have the time and the inclination I am sure I shall get to know them better, starting by expanding my collection of pleione. Thank you for sharing your helpful cultural tips too. Dan

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  9. I have a dwarf Phalaenopsis on my kitchen windowsill that blooms at the end of March each year that gives me such pleasure and satisfaction. It’s watered once each week with other houseplants, so really no extra trouble or care. I can see what you mean by the flowers looking “too preserved and artificial,” but what I remember is the excitement of mother wearing an orchid to church for Easter and how proud and special we all felt. Even today, orchids are something special to me.

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  10. I’m with David Harap—I must respectfully defend the orchid. They aren’t my branch of botany at all, so I don’t collect specimen plants, but I do have about a dozen grocery store phaelenopsis and dendrobiums I’ve been given or rescued from the trash that, on a bookcase in an east window, will rebloom their little hearts out every winter. I can get as much as 6 months of continuous bloom if a plant’s willing to throw up 2 bloom stalks, in exchange for vey little care—repotting into bark, since they seem not to like the sphagnum they come in, a fertilizer stick a couple times a year and the ice cubes out of my Saturday gin. (Better to let them melt first—phaels like warm—but I mostly don’t bother.) I will admit it’s a little weird having so much of the plant’s “plumbing and facilities” on display, but I’ve never had a houseplant so willing to bloom, not even African violets. And the do such gorgeous chartreuses and fuchsias. (I think decorators do them a disservice, treating them like any other ornament in a dark foyer or on a bathroom counter; we bring them home and think they’ll go on forever like a plastic plant.) My other half gave me a phaius at Christmas that I have to figure out, so maybe a collection is starting, but in the meantime I ❤ my marmite orchids.

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  11. I do love how unique and flamboyant orchids are, but knowing that I don’t have the conditions or the temperament to cultivate them means they are nothing more than something pretty to look. However, your photos are stunning and I’m very glad you shared them with us!

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  12. Phaelenopsis orchids are as cheap as chips and almost constantly in bloom. Given a north facing kitchen window sill they are impossible to kill.
    I agree wild ones are much more beguiling, but I wouldn’t be without my little pots of pleiones in the greenhouse.

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  13. Thanks so much for your review of this orchid show, allowing us to visit it with you from our armchairs. I think I might be with you on the orchids — I’ve only ever been able to get the Phalaenopsis to re-flower; my dendrobiums have been sitting there doing nothing despite sunlight, fertilizer, water, etc. I might have to give them away so I can have space for something better-looking…. It makes me feel better to read that you feel the same — thanks for giving me permission to let them go! Best, -Beth

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