One of the joys of living in London is the horticultural magnificence of Kew Gardens, just as winter seems infinite Kew’s crocuses bloom, reminding us that hope springs eternal in the human breast (Alexander Pope). The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew were created for Augusta, Princess of Wales by the architect Sir William Chambers in the mid-C18th. The famous glasshouses were added during Queen Victoria’s reign and until Sunday 11th, The Princess of Wales Conservatory features the most exotic explosion of colour with Kew’s 23rd Orchid Festival. Kew has a perpetual revitalisation of plant life to refresh the senses all year round. Tropical orchids, particularly Phalaenopsis in their numerous varieties, are now Britain’s preferred houseplant and some orchids can live over 100 years. This columnist’s grandfather was a well know orchid collector and cultivator, many happy childhood days were spent repotting orchids under his beady eye.
The Orchid Festival is hosted in partnership with the Royal Thai Embassy, Thailand is home to 1,100 species of orchid. Botanists have been naming and describing orchids for more than 250 years; Kew is a world leader in this field, last year 600 new species were discovered worldwide, including three from Thailand. Visitors enter through a Vanda tunnel, with three arches delicately covered with hanging orchids. Vandas are hybrids from Thailand (where the hybrids are made) but they come from a species called Vada coerulea from Assam, India. The tropical Dendrobiums are also from India. The Phalaenopsis used as hybrids are originally from Taiwan. Orchids on display are from South America such as Cattleya, Miltonia, Oncidium, Odontoglossum and Cambria (these last 2 are man-made hybrids) and an unusual Disa tripetaloides from South Africa, plus many Cymbidiums hybrids (originally from South Himalayas) and the rarest orchid at the moment is the Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, a litophytic orchid from Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. It attracts parasitic flies that think that the red and green spots on its petals are aphids. In a miraculous reproductive manoeuvre, the flies try to lay eggs on the petal as they brush against the stigma previously collected pollen is released and new pollen is collected from the anther.
Many orchids have important medicinal properties as well as being revered globally for their delicate beauty. Indeed there is much interest in the role of plant chemicals in our diet that may help protect against diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Kew scientist Melanie-Jayne Howes is currently looking into the role that plants may have to support health and to prevent or alleviate some diseases such as dementia.
The exhibition features handcrafted floating Thai umbrellas leading to an exquisite Bang Pa-In inspired orchid palace. A traditional Thai market boat and rice paddy are central to the water display, representing a typical bucolic scene complete with a special Thai cart on loan from the Royal Thai Embassy in London. Specially commissioned cultural soundscapes play to enhance the intoxication of beauty, from the grinding of culinary ingredients and the sizzling of spices in a pan, to the tranquil sounds of a spa and chattering forests or the regal stirrings of palace life. There is a pop-up shop with Thai-themed products and Thai afternoon tea is offered as an extra if anyone feels like indulging in king prawns, lemongrass and coriander tartlet, satay chicken, sweet and sour baby back ribs or sticky coconut cream rice and mango salsa to name a few.