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9 May 2023

The quiet persistence of the orchid

The plant has a habit of flowering when we least expect it, and has turned many humans into magpie-like collectors.

By Alice Vincent

A couple of years ago I stood in a sprawling private garden in Kent that had been, over the past few years, left to rewild. Among all the green was a blue plastic agility pole for dogs, standing upright. “It’s there to mark the orchid.” Sui, the woman showing me around, had stopped mowing the lawn in recent years. Then the orchid turned up.

It’s a familiar story among those who have relinquished control over their gardens. Orchids have a habit of flowering when we least expect it – sometimes, in the case of the ghost orchid, once every two decades and being easily missed in-between. Over the centuries few plants have turned humans so persistently into magpie-like collectors. The ancient Greeks included British native species among those they named orkis, or testicle; later botanists named one genus, literally, after the dog’s bollocks (Cynosorchis).

Orchidelirium took grip of Victorian Britain, when the aristocracy spent millions transporting pillaged species back from the Tropics, whereupon they would sell for the equivalent of £100,000, according to a new book, The Orchid Outlaw: On a Mission to Save Britain’s Rarest Flowers, by Ben Jacob. The white Phalaenopsis available on most supermarket shelves for less than £20 are their curious legacy – and a far cry from the often more alien-looking varieties that can be found in the British countryside.

Jacob’s book details his illegal dawn raids on soon-to-be building sites to rescue rare species from the same fate of extinction that has claimed, and continues to threaten, many British orchids. It’s noble work in a time of great change. The Orchid Outlaw urges us to look closer and tread more carefully. In June 2021 a small-flowered tongue orchid, last seen on these shores in 1989, was spotted growing in the rooftop garden of an investment bank in central London, 11 storeys up. These are persistent, if precious, little plants.

[See also: House plants can be addictive. I should know: I own 51]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?