| Modern * London |
The orchid festival at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is held annually in the Princess of Wales conservatory, a complex greenhouse with ten different climate zones representing ten different ecosystems. On a normal day, walking through this dynamic conservatory is an enjoyable and educational activity; when you’re walking alongside giraffes blanketed in orchids, it’s something else entirely.
The journey starts in the desert. Hidden among the cowboy cacti and arid plants are bowls of colourful orchids and carefully placed labels noting their species. There are 25,000 species of orchid, which together make up 10% of the Earth’s flowering plants. You will find them in almost any biome, which is why the Princess of Wales Conservatory’s mosaic of ecosystems is such a perfect space to display them, but it is in the tropics that they thrive.
The conservatory’s tropical environment was full to bursting with colour. The exhibition was inspired by the ecological life of Cameroon and sculptures of leopards, giraffes, hippos, and crocodiles can be found hidden among the plants or peering through the trees: this is the first time that this festival celebrates an African country. The central display is a magnificent Cameroon lion with awe-inspiring mane of orchids framing its feline face. Cameroon has an abundance of biodiversity, it has been called ‘Africa in miniature’ because of the sheer variety of rainforests, savannah, and arid lands that lie within its borders. It is also home to some of the rarest orchids in the world - some are so rare and vulnerable that their precise locations are kept a secret.
We love orchids. As a family, Orchidaceae has the highest horticultural value of any flowers. They are undeniably stunning, with intricately beautiful petals and unusual structures. They can also be delicious; their tubers are used in cakes and ice creams in kitchens around the world. Predictably, this rich cultural value has fuelled an illegal trade, leading them close to extinction.
But orchids are resilient. They are resourceful, curating interdependent relationships with other organisms, even bacteria and fungi. You can often see them hanging off trees or rocks to get better look at the sun and better access to falling rainwater. If we would simply abide by wildlife laws and leave the orchids to regenerate naturally, the world would be a much more colourful place.