Words Vaneesha Ritchie
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I love phalaenopsis because it has a long flower period. I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal.”
Leaving behind the screaming neon and frenzy of Tottenham Court Road and walking past the sweeping crescent of South Street with its grand, red-brick offices and the sleek Imagination Gallery, you move towards the earnest, studious calm of Bloomsbury and come across the perfectly situated Orchidya. Behind the door of Number 42 Store Street are the keys to the kingdom and mystery of Orchids.
The interior is arranged in two halves, “to reflect the history and modernity of orchids”. One half is the front room of an eccentric, Victorian orchid grower, indulging in a grand excess of ornament; the walls hung with rows of framed botanical prints, dark wood cabinets artfully cluttered with trifles and curios, gewgaws; and orchids, orchids everywhere. The other half is quiet, white, modern.
It was a 20-million-year old prehistoric bee preserved in amber, along with the orchid pollen on its wing tip, which first told us that orchids were at least as old as the dinosaurs. Given the fact that orchids have survived all this time, their incredible diversity should come as no surprise. There are presently more than 30,000 recognised species, distributed around the globe. They survive in obscure habitats – the vertiginous slopes of dense rainforests, the craggy outcrops of all but impassable Himalayan cliff edges – but also in plain sight: water lilies, magnolias, avocado, black pepper and vanilla plants all belong to the orchid family. The human desire to possess beauty plays out in the field of orchids, as elsewhere; and as in many a Greek tragedy, it can lead to a kind of madness. In Victorian times, it was dubbed Orchidelerium. Explorers and orchid hunters were sent to every corner of the earth on long and sometimes perilous expeditions to bring back the rarest, most exquisite, most unusual orchids. The danger didn’t end with the expedition’s return: orchid thieves could still be employed by unscrupulous collectors to steal the prize from under one’s very nose. Unfortunately, this desire to possess orchids didn’t always go beyond their acquisition, and despite the exorbitant expense showered on their retrieval many withered and died upon arrival; making them, of course, even more desirable – madness indeed!
Orchidya opened four years ago “inspired by a love of flowers in general and a passion for orchids in particular”. Perhaps revealing shades of Orchidelerium, the owners have between them 17 multiple-medal-winning greenhouses across the world – from Thailand, Malaysia and China in Asia to France, Poland and England in Europe – where they have been carefully cultivating orchids for 25 years.
A slightly disquieting thing about orchids, which becomes obvious once you know about it, is that the flowers are totally and completely symmetrical. Theories abound as to the significance of facial symmetry in humans – the more symmetrical a face, the more attractive it will be to others. The mesmerising symmetry of orchids appears to elicit the same response. No wonky petals; no endearing little bumps; just perfect, impenetrable, chilling symmetry: the Grace Kellys of the flower world. Normally the eye rests on imperfections, but since with orchids there are none, it can only do a double take or continue to gaze in awe at the perfection before it.
As a plant that symbolises luxury, the orchid has no shortage of customers in London; Japanese, Russian, Singaporean and British converge on Orchidya. “As London diversifies, so do the clients. Their requirements vary; more established clients and collectors pre-order particular varieties,” to be sourced and grown bespoke before being added “to their own cherished collections”. And with up to 300 new varieties of orchid named each year this is no mean feat. There is even a triannual event nicknamed the ‘Orchid Olympics’ where hundreds of participants from at least 55 countries gather to display the flowers born from the art and cutting edge science of orchid breeding; from the bizarre (e.g. Zygoneria Pine Road, which looks like two mismatched flowers glued together), to the intriguing (e.g. Coelogyne mayeriana, a fresh, green, intricately designed and striped orchid) to the breath-taking (e.g. Anguloa uniflora – pale, delicate, demure and beautiful).
So how on earth do you care for such exotic plants? I had visions of elaborate regimes… crushed pearls brought by divers from the Tuamotu Archipelago to be gently dusted on the uppermost leaves at first light; mixtures of artisanal nutrients exclusive to Amazon rainforests fed to the orchid root system every three hours, drop by drop… But no, apparently not; and that sort of nonsense would probably kill them. As my mental image of vintage laboratory glassware shatters, Sophie the store manager assures me that “the best way to look after orchids is not to look after them”. As several million years of perfectly competent evolution attests, orchids “prefer to be left alone, only needing to be watered sparingly at the root with a spoon,” (or maybe a vintage glass dropper if you are that way inclined).
As a purveyor of luxury, Orchidya offers a lot more than an orchid in a pot. Much like the rest of the Store Street shops in this little gem of a road – from the restaurants, art gallery, independent coffee shops and delis to the bespoke bicycle shop, artisanal dry cleaner and instrument makers – it goes that extra mile by way of craft and depth of knowledge. Using “only the freshest and finest flowers” Orchidya creates imaginative and memorable arrangements and helps its customers select “the best orchids for their individual styles”.
Flower arranging is an art in itself – an ancient Japanese art called Ikebana, to be precise. Established in the 15th century and originally taught by Buddhist priests, it became a disciplined art form for creative expression. By employing a series of rules, the artist could convey his or her intention via the particular colour combinations, shapes and natural lines used in the final exhibit, bringing nature and humanity together. Sophie herself studied flower arranging in Paris, “learning how to manipulate organic materials and develop concepts and designs by utilising a variety of their properties”. Then she spent a further six months at the Orchidya greenhouse in Lincolnshire, “learning to care for and nurture the growing plants”. Her enjoyment and depth of knowledge of Orchidya’s wares is evident from her answer to my question: “What is your favourite orchid?” Sophie just about managed to stop herself at five. And that was five orchid families, not five individual orchids. “I love phalenopsis because it has a long flower period, I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal. Slipper orchids look so unique and wild. Dendrobidium orchids are so elegant. Cambria orchids have a special fragrance – some of them smell like orange blossoms, some smell like delicate jasmine, and some smell like chocolate.” I suspect she could go on; and luckily for those who visit Orchidya, funds allowing, they too can choose as many as they like.