An orchestra of Orchids

PUBLISHED: 11:40 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

Orchid flowers are often exquisitely patterned

Orchid flowers are often exquisitely patterned

Exotic, flamboyant and fragrant, orchids are the ideal houseplant. Philippa Pearson explains how to care for them and why joining The Essex Orchid Group will help

ORCHIDS were a popular Christmas gift this year, and it is easy to see why.

The endless variety and fascination of orchid flowers is unsurpassed in horticulture: some are like dancing butterflies while others resemble hovering moths or delicate spiders. In fact, once you start caring for and collecting them, it is difficult not to be gripped by orchid fever.

The widespread cultivation of orchids is a relatively recent pursuit in the gardening timeline. Early in the 19th century they hit the horticultural headlines 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 came to England in the first place. A shipment of plants 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 put them in his hot-house. He was later rewarded by a stunning lavender flower with purple markings.

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 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 that is unmatched by any botanical adventure before or since.

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. While humidity is necessary, the plants do not require excessive watering or an intensely hot atmosphere and are generally quite easy plants to maintain. Air circulation is important (as for most houseplants) 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 while Cymbidiums are widely available and easy to grow. Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid, is another easy and rewarding orchid as is the slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum. Orchids are quite unlike any other plants in their botanical make up and require very free-draining compost, mostly a mixture of bark and perlite, with plants generally preferring their roots to be restricted in pots.

The Essex Group of the Orchid Society of Great Britain meets regularly in Billericay and is a great place to go for advice, talks, demonstrations and the chance to mix with like-minded orchid lovers. The varied event programme covers a wide range of orchid matters ranging from cultivation advice, talks from commercial growers and plants growing in their natural habitat.

The annual Spring Show on April 18 at Billericay South Green Memorial Hall will have lots of orchids on display and a plant auction. The Essex Group welcomes orchid lovers of all levels and you'll find abundant advice on how to look after your orchids, cultivation tips and where to buy plants to increase your collection. Plants are also for sale at meetings and visitors are welcome.

HOW TO GROW Cymbidium orchids

Temperature The ideal is 14C in the day and 10 to 14C at night
Position In dappled, not harsh, light. Place outside from June to September to encourage flower bud development
Watering and feeding From spring to autumn allow excess water to drain away. Reduce watering in winter and allow pots to dry out between watering. Add liquid feed during the growing season
Re-potting Do this with very congested plants after flowering in spring using special orchid compost

Learn more about the Essex Orchid Group

The Essex Group of the Orchid Society of Great Britain meet every second Saturday of each month at 1.30pm at the Billericay South Green Memorial Hall on Southend Road in Billericay.

For details contact Margaret Dalton on 01702 218533 or email

This year's Spring Show is on Saturday, April 18 at Billericay South Green Memorial Hall, from 1.30pm to 4pm

RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson is a garden designer and professional horticulturalist.
Call 01767 651253 or email Philippa at


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