Teacher Simon Pugh-Jones started the Writhlington Orchid Project over twenty-five years ago. This amazing project has given students at the Writhlington School the opportunity to learn more about the science of growing orchids, providing the students with hands on experience of maintaining, propagating and extending, the Writhlington Orchid Project’s orchid collection.
The students working on the Writhlington Orchid Project have been given some amazing opportunities, from experiencing the beautiful, natural habitats where the orchids they grow are found naturally in the wild, to setting up orchid labs in Rwanda, Laos, and Sikkim, where the students and staff, share and pass on their orchid expertise with schools in each locality through talks and workshops, to learning about orchid conservation, to creating award-winning exhibits and displays for RHS flower shows.
I am a huge fan of the Writhlington Orchid Project. I have been interested in the work of Simon Pugh-Jones and the students at the Writhlington School, for a long time. So I was absolutely thrilled to catch up with Simon Pugh-Jones, and Jacob Coles, a student at the Writhlington School, who is also a member of the Writhlington Orchid Project, to find out more about their work, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2016.
The Writhlington Orchid Project’s exhibit at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2016 was awarded a Gold Medal by the RHS Judges.
SPJ: I’ve been teaching at the school now for twenty-seven years. So this is my twenty-eighth year, so it goes back a long while. The orchid project goes back twenty-five years. You see, the secret to growing enormous specimen plants is time. So this orchid (the large Prosthechea prismatocarpa pictured both above and below) has been at the school for twenty-five years, and generations of students have cared for it, to get it up to that size. They’re all orchid species. We only grow species orchids, none of the hybrids, because of the relation between the plants and the habitats they come from.
PB: So do you grow your orchids mainly from seed?
JC: Yes, the majority of these plants, and the majority of the plants we sell are seed grown. Some were originally bought as single bulb plants back in the 80s or 90s, and then a couple of them were bought more recently.
PB: What method have you used to grow your orchids from seed? How have you created the fungus for the orchids you’ve grown from seed?
JC: We don’t, we grow them aseptically – we don’t use fungus, we use a nutrient medium which mimics the nutrients the fungus would give the plants in the wild. We use a nutrient mix known as Phytamax, a wax stuff that loads of people use – it’s really good. We used to make our own, with bananas and a few other chemicals, but it got so time consuming. Just buying a bottle and weighing the stuff out, is so much easier than blending up bananas and weighing out all the other chemicals.
SPJ: The focus of the project, as well as giving opportunities to students like Jacob, is to be able to take the project forward, because we make enough money through orchid sales to fund the projects in Rwanda and the Himalayas. So Jacob Coles here has been to Rwanda twice.
JC: Yes, I’ve been to Rwanda twice, we’ve actually done three or four trips over there now, our main work is setting up labs. We’ve already set up one lab, and we’ve just set up another one in the last few months.
PB: So are you still studying at the Writhlington School now Jacob?
JC: I am. I’m coming to my last year now
PB: Do you have plans for the future? Do you plan to work in horticulture?
JC: I’m not sure! If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have said yes. That’s where I want to go on the botanic side, but I’ve actually been thinking about material engineering and environmental science.
PB: How exciting! Which is your favourite orchid?
JC: Of these ones here, I am a bit biased, but it’s the one at the top here. It’s one of my plants from home, I bought it as two bulbs about four years ago.
PB: It’s a great specimen! Where do you grow your orchids at home?
JC: That one’s no longer at home, but most of them are on my desk.
PB: What equipment do you have at the school? Do you have everything you need?
JC: We have pretty much everything we need – we’ve five growing houses, totalling about 240 square metres. We’ve got a big storage area, but we’ve run out of room now, so we’re converting that section into a growing section.
PB: I am so impressed. Has Mr Pugh-Jones also organised all the fund-raising for your projects? How do you raised the funds you need?
JC: All of the funds come from the plant sales; we do occasionally get money from awards, and the occasional RHS bursary, but the vast majority of it is from plant sales.
PB: That’s fantastic!
PB: Where do you get your moss?
JC: We buy it from a florist. We’re actually a little bit disappointed because the moss we got for this show is pretty awful, we don’t know why – maybe a bad year or something. We actually ran out of moss, so the last plant, we just had to do it with small pieces of moss.
PB: So how many students do you have working on the Writhlington Orchid Project?
JC: Well, it depends on how you define it. We have twenty to thirty that do something for the project, but there’s a core group of five or six of us that do the vast majority of the work.
SPJ: Beth, that’s our Masdevallia decumana. It keeps turning its head the wrong way.
PB: It’s a super orchid. I find that many of my orchid flowers face towards the cork they are growing on. I have often wondered if they do this so that any insects can more easily crawl into the flowers, and so can pollinate the flowers more easily.
SPJ: Could well be!
PB: I like your plant labels.
SPJ: We had the bamboo, and we had the laser cutter, and it’s sustainable.
PB: Good idea – they’re great! I love your archway too.
JC: It took us a while to put together. There’s a zip wire at the top; the big upright is on a big steel base, and the piece of wood that’s coming out the top has two holes which marries up to the other piece, and they have steel bars threaded through them, and they screw together with nuts. That was a fun afternoon putting them together!
SPJ: The project grew up organically. Different students bring different things to the project. There’s been a few students who have gone on to different things. We’ve got some working in plant research for example. The majority don’t – some of them, the world out there is just such an exciting place, they just can’t stop travelling. One student who’s first trip ever abroad was a trip to Brazil, and then visited southern Laos – which is the toughest place we’ve worked – and set up a lab over there. And we’ve just had somebody else who’s spent his whole time travelling, he’s had a lovely time. But that’s kind of what education is, you don’t have to get a job, there’s so many different ways of doing things. Other people move on to something totally different, but you just know plants are always there.
PB: Even if people are just more aware, and as a result are kinder to the world, and more respectful of plants. It’s so important.
SPJ: Yes, it’s easy to get depressed about it, but actually in a way the fact that it’s under threat can bring people together and make great things happen. The places I’ve found worrying tend to be really big countries. Brazil I find worrying, I think it feels like such a big country that every single bit doesn’t feel that important. Little countries – Rwanda is a great example, it doesn’t have much, but it’s got these fantastic forests, so it’s going to look after it, because when it’s gone it’s gone. We did some work in Guatemala, we were working with the private national reserves there. We took students over to do a field guide to a new forest reserve, and what they were doing there was putting groups of farmers together, around a lake, and they were just all agreeing to leave 100 yards of forest all around the lake, so there’s a continuous forest belt. Then working as a group of farmers they’d find different ways they can make money out of it. And once there was enough forest there, they could bring tourists in, so some of them had the accommodation, other ones had zip wires, and all this thing was happening – and that group of farmers just gave you such faith in the future.
PB: You can imagine that once they get that business going, they can turn more areas into reserves, and suddenly it snowballs. Wonderful!
SPJ: One small bit really counts, one chalk meadow makes such a big difference. We’ve got this tiny little planet that we’re kind of stuck on, we do really need to look after it.
PB: I totally agree.
Links and articles that may interest you………..
To visit the Writhlington Orchid Project’s website, please click here.
At the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I purchased some orchids from the Writhlington Orchid Project. To see how these orchids are growing, please click here, to read my Long-term review of the BiOrbAir review (part six).
To read the first part of my BiOrbAir terrarium review – Growing miniature orchids in the BiOrbAir, please click here.
To find out about the Rose of the Year Competition and The Festival of Roses at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2016, please click here.
For a planting list of miniature orchids to grow in terrariums, please click here.
To read about the Queen of Orchids, Grammatophyllum speciosum, the largest known orchid in the world, that flowered at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for the first time in 2015, please click here.
For a planting list of plants suitable for terrariums and bottle gardens, please click here.
To see the top twenty shortlisted plants, including the finalists, and the winner of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2016, please click here.
To read about terrariums and bottle gardens, please click here.
For a 2017 calendar of specialist plant fairs, festivals, sales and swaps, please click here.