Kenyans' Deepening Affection for Orchids

Ingeborg Gonella with her AOS award-winning 'Onc Cheiro Kukoo' orchid (left) and the display that won Gold award for best ‘Balcony Garden (right). PHOTO | FILE 

What is it about orchids that could cause the former regional senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Anne Eriksson, to look forward to retirement so she could grow the elegant flowering plants?

And why would orchids inspire a medical specialist like Dr Janak Gohil to forego her lucrative work as an anaesthesiologist for even a day just to arrange her award-winning flower display at Nairobi’s Sarit Centre where the 65th Kenya Orchid Society’s annual showcase of both indigenous and exotic plants was on show?

I would ask the same question of a well-established lawyer like Alexandra Kontos who is qualified to practice law in three different countries. Why would she devote so much of her life to not only growing orchids? She also mentors future judges like the four who helped evaluate this year’s orchid show held last week.

“It takes years to qualify to be a judge,” says Alexandra whose orchids won many awards this year, both from Kenya society and the American Orchid Society which is the largest and most active group in the world, according to Ingeborg Gonella.

Ingeborg like Alexandra is a former chairperson of the orchid society and a long-standing member. She’s also seen as ‘encyclopaedic’ when it comes to orchids.


Like Alexandra, Ingeborg killed off her first orchid plants by not knowing how easily they can die if watered too much (as she did) or too little (as did Alexandra).

“They can also be smothered to death in soil,” she says.

Orchids are not terrestrial plants, meaning they do not grow in soil. They are ‘epiphytes’, or plants that grow on trees.

“What I tell people is that orchids are not difficult to grow; they are just different,” she says as she begins to unravel exactly why people can be so passionate about growing orchids.

“It’s because they are not only beautiful; they are also so diverse. You can find some that smell heavenly and others that stink; some as small as a pinhead and others as large as a dinner plate,” she adds.

“You can never get tired of orchids because they are so varied. They come in all colours, including some which are almost black. And to find that it’s the biggest flowering family in the world (with over 30,000 natural species) is extraordinary in itself,” she says.


Orchid lovers at the Nairobi annual showcase. PHOTO | FILE

This year’s theme was ‘Garden of Eden’ which is what Alexandra’s display looked like. Her floral exhibition contained no less than 60 different plants. (The minimum number to qualify for entry in the annual show is 30 flowers.)

But it was clear that Alexandra, who received multiple awards this year, worked hard to cultivate the quality of orchids that could meet the high international standards.
“But when I was given my first orchid plant, I took it home and it soon died,” she confessed.

“My mistake was watering it only once a week.”

After that, her friend, Roger Danahy, brought her 15 more plants. By then, she had read up on the best techniques for growing healthy ones such that she is now been able to grow so many exquisite orchids that she enjoys returning hundreds of them to natural habitats like in Karura Forest, Nairobi National Park and Brackenhurst Ecology Centre.

“In future, I want to do more with orchid conservation and education,” says Alexandra who trained the current chairperson of the Kenya Orchid Society, Salima Tejani.

Alexandra only developed her passion for growing orchids after she came to Kenya from Addis Ababa in 1979. She attained the rank of judge a decade late, which was no small feat. She recalls that it required passing a rigorous exam set by an international body of botanists and orchid experts.

“It required a lot of reading, but since I am an avid reader, I qualified after two years,” says Alexandra.

“Normally, it takes between four and five years to become a judge. We even have one member who has taken 10 years and still hasn’t qualified,” says Ingeborg, who also received an award for growing the ‘Best Primary Hybrid’ which is named after its creator the late Ria Meyer, who gave Ingeborg the flower 20 years ago.

“When Ria gave it to me, it was quite small. But it’s grown tremendously since then.”
Ingeborg also received a Certificate of Merit which entitles her to give her bright yellow orchid an official name.

“I named it Christine in memory of my sister who passed on last year,” she says.

Alexandra Kontos

Alexandra Kontos' exhibit was awarded the Best by the American Orchid Society.

Rare species

A few years ago, orchids used to grow in the wild on barks of indigenous trees. But now, the flowering plants face extinction and are among the species sighted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as their natural eco-systems are being destroyed.

But Ingeborg notes that the situation with orchids has rapidly changed in recent years, due to both hybridisation, which is the cross-breeding of different species to produce a hybrid plant, and the cloning which has brought down the price.

Orchids range from Sh3,000 upwards. Most of them are imported from nurseries in Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia as well as from Holland and Germany.

“We would have loved to import African orchids from Africa, but there are very few exporters in the region,” Ingeborg says, noting that there are nurseries overseas that export African orchids but not vice versa.

Curious about what I would do if I bought one of the colourful plants on sale at the Orchid Show, Ingeborg says I could take it home and “tie it to a tree” and let it attach itself to the bark.

“Orchids are not parasites, however. They do not steal nutrients from trees. Instead, they simply attach themselves to trees to the bark and then grow naturally.”

It may sound strange, especially as orchids are thought to be terribly delicate. But Ingeborg says they are very sturdy plants and prefer to grow out of doors in the open air.

Nonetheless, orchid advocates are very strict about one important point. That is, to never pick an orchid plant from its natural habitat. It’s actually against international law.

“We only get our orchids from registered nurseries,” says Ingeborg.

But when Mrs Eriksson travelled to Borneo in Asia and saw orchids in their natural habitat, she admits it was breathtaking.

“But I would never think of removing an orchid from its natural environment,” she says.

10 meetings

That is how protective orchid lovers are about the plant.

In Kenya, the orchid society has about 200 people which is relatively small by comparison to the American society which has more than 9,000 active members.

Members attend 10 monthly meetings which are virtually like mini-tutorials filled with practical information and colourful tales about orchids that grow both in Kenya and all over the world.

The US group had sent 30 representatives to attend this year’s multi-coloured, multi-flowered display of orchids, according to the Kenya’s chairperson Salima.

Their leader, Robert Fuchs, is the one who described the Kenyan flower show, after making the rounds of all 24 orchid exhibits, as one of the most “spectacular” he had seen in years.

“I have attended many orchid shows in my day,” he said as he gave Alexandra several awards, including one for having the Best Exhibit in the entire show.