In September 2015, we celebrated the Orchid Study Group’s tenth birthday, so perhaps now (May 2016) is an appropriate time to take stock of all that the OSG has achieved during the last decade.
Establishing an orchid group in this remote corner of Wales was not like establishing one elsewhere for a number of reasons. In general, historically, Wales had no tradition of orchid growing. True, there were some estates and large houses where orchids, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had been grown in ‘stoves’, but Wales back then was largely rural and its people poorly paid, working mainly off the land or in coalmines. Such grand houses included that of ship-owner Joshua Neale of Penarth; Penllergare, home to pioneer orchid grower and photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn; Dyffryn, seat of the Cory family who made their fortune in coal, and in particular home to the horticulturist Reginald Cory; and Craig-y-Nos Castle, home to the world-famous diva, operatic soprano Madame Adelina Patti, who, at the time, was said to be the world’s richest woman. And how she loved her Welsh home in the mountains – adopting the popular ‘There’s no place like home’ as her signature song. On her death, her possessions were sold at auction. We don’t know exactly what or how many orchids she had, but the auction catalogue certainly lists ‘cypripediums’ (note that Paphiopedilum orchids were also known as cypripediums at that time). They were probably grown in greenhouses, or perhaps in her winter garden at Craig-y-Nos, which, on being granted the freedom of the city, she donated to the people of Swansea, where it was re-erected and became known as the Patti Pavilion. Orchids were considered exotic, rare and expensive at the time, and growing them was undoubtedly seen as the pastime of the rich and privileged, and a world away from the experience of average Welshmen. Conversely, their counterparts across the border in England, had by now experienced a rapid increase in the number of orchid nurseries and importers being established there, and had begun to try cultivating these plants for themselves. Since propagating orchids at the time was very slow and difficult, and thus, plants expensive, this attitude towards orchids has prevailed in many parts of the UK until quite recently, when great advances in micro-propagation have enabled orchids to be grown cheaply and in large numbers, with the result that by now, they are available at remarkably low prices, even at local supermarkets. For many, this ‘green revolution’ was their first experience of orchids; and at such low prices, for the first time, they could afford the risk of losing them. Even today, Wales remains largely rural and orchid growers here are still relatively few and scattered. It was for this reason that I established the OSG at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, so as to provide a focus for orchid growers and orchid lovers across the Principality.
Another important reason why it has taken so long for orchids to catch on in Wales is that most UK orchid nurseries were in England. A couple eventually made it to Wales, but the increasing cost of fuel bills and increased competition in the wake of the import of cheap plants from the continent have meant that many nurseries throughout Britain have been forced to shut. At the time of writing, our nearest orchid nursery is Burnham Nurseries, located in Devon! This is why we at the OSG decided to hold an annual Welsh Orchid Festival at the National Botanic Garden of Wales and to invite orchid nurseries along to meet potential new customers on their home turf. This year (2016) will be the Festival’s ninth anniversary, and there is no doubt that this event has introduced many to orchids and rekindled the interest of others. It has also been a means of making new friends, networking and meeting others with similar interests.
Soon after establishing the OSG, it became apparent that not all our members grew tropical orchids. Some grew native orchids and many preferred to see them growing wild in their natural environment, both here and abroad. Helping conserve the local orchid populations is important to us, especially with so many suitable and varied habitats on our doorstep. As a result, the EOS (European Orchid Sub-group) was founded, and every year, our programme of events includes talks relating to native orchids, aspects of their conservation and field-trips. The field trips, in particular, have been very popular with the members.
Most of our members, naturally, grow tropical or sub-tropical orchids and scholarly talks on all aspects of orchid cultivation, conservation and orchid biology are supplemented by other events such as laboratory sessions and trips to orchid shows and other orchid-growing venues. Some of our members have even visited Sikkim and Ecuador in search of orchids, no doubt inspired by the travels of our patron, plantsman and TV presenter Tom Hart Dyke. We have a very full programme of events, and meet on a monthly basis. A number of orchid growers and eminent orchidologists have visited us or presented talks, some coming from as far as Greece, Colombia and Poland. Meanwhile, I continue to undertake and publish my own research on the floral anatomy and micromorphology of orchids, while maintaining links with my scientific colleagues and botanical gardens world-wide.
Considering the small size of our membership (fewer than 50), I feel that we have achieved much in a short time, especially since our members are scattered across South and Mid Wales and beyond, and only have an opportunity to meet for a couple of hours at monthly events. However, we should never rest on our laurels, and therefore, on May 7th 2016, we embarked on our brand new and latest venture – we held our first Orchid Day at Dyffryn Gardens, near Cardiff. Although the South Wales Orchid Society, in conjunction with Burnham Nurseries, had held an orchid sales event there in the 1990s, this was the first time for a full orchid day to be held at this venue, including orchid sales, talks, demonstrations, displays, books and other orchid-related stalls. The Orchid Day attracted visitors from across Wales, Somerset, Gloucester and further afield, and despite ten minutes of torrential rain at one point, most of the day remained dry and was such a success that we intend to repeat the event again next year and thereby establish it firmly as an annual fixture in the orchid calendar.
The OSG is currently considering a number of other exciting projects to popularize orchids, unite growers and consolidate efforts. Finally, just a word in support of groups such as ours everywhere. Since the advent of internet searches, fora and social media, clubs, societies and interest groups of all sorts have generally declined. This has largely been due to the widespread misconception that one can acquire all the required information off the internet without having to pay a subscription, travel to a venue or even speak to anyone. Those who are brave enough to risk conversation may even attempt social media, but the truth remains that there are certain principles, methods and practices, regardless of subject, that can only be learnt by experience and can only be taught in a practical way or by someone who is more experienced (and therefore, probably older than you!). Generally, those who use social media correspond only with those of their own age and thus never gain this invaluable experience. Besides, there’s something more wholesome and honest about speaking to someone face-to-face. After all, the eminent zoologist Desmond Morris in his books The Naked Ape and Manwatching went to great lengths to point out the importance of body language in human communication, something that isn’t always possible online. Small wonder then that many ‘friendships’ made in this way tend to be superficial and ephemeral. By contrast, actual (rather than virtual) interest groups provide an environment where you can learn the practical aspects of your hobby and pick up tips, where useful information is transferred from one generation to the next and where friendships are made that last a lifetime. So why not give it a go? We would love to have you join us! You might just learn something!
Dr. Kevin L. Davies (Chairman and Founder of the OSG)