Magazine article The Spectator

My Orchidelirium

Magazine article The Spectator

My Orchidelirium

Article excerpt

Being mad about flowers can help you stay sane

The lady's slipper orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, is both a beautiful and silly-looking plant. It is the strangest of our native orchids, with a fat yellow pouch and burgundy twisting petals. It doesn't quite look as though it belongs in the gentle English countryside and, for a while, it didn't belong at all. Why did I drive for two hours just to see one flower? In part because of its strange backstory. It's not just a fabulous flower; it's a plant that tells us about our society and the madness of all human nature.

This flower sent Victorian botanists bonkers. They were so gripped by what was known as Orchidelirium that they couldn't stop digging up the poor Cypripedium or picking its flowers. Orchid mania meant that by 1917, the plant was declared extinct in the United Kingdom -- and that would have been that, were it not for just one lady's slipper which managed to cling on, out of sight, until the 1930s, when a botanist found it in bloom in the Yorkshire Dales.

That discovery triggered a whole new order of madness involving round-the-clock surveillance, police protection, and a secretive committee to protect the plant. Orchid maniacs crept towards it, eager to steal a cutting worth thousands of pounds. Policemen and volunteers in tents with tripwires kept guard during the flowering season. That particular native Cypripedium is still alive today, and its location is still a secret. The Cypripedium Committee are the only ones trusted with the details of where it grows; even they rarely visit.

In the 1980s, scientists at Kew Gardens set to work trying to propagate it, a struggle as orchid seeds are grumpy little things, germinating only if they've been picked at just the right time and with help from a special sort of rare fungi.

Eventually they cracked it. Thousands of seedlings were raised and planted out at other special secret sites across the north of England. But few of the plants made it to flower -- and then they needed police protection once again.

The one place in the country where the Cypripedium has now become so widespread that it doesn't need to be kept secret any more is the Gait Barrows nature reserve near Silverdale, Lancashire. Natural England, which runs the reserve, is so proud of the lady's slipper that it has hammered in little signs along the route to show the way. …

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