Orchids are one of the most celebrated plants on the planet. Renowned for their glorious beauty, diversity and complexity, they can grow almost anywhere.
But nowhere are more exquisite orchids grown than in Kenya, a fact that will be indisputable for those who attend the 62nd Orchid Show which opened last Thursday running through Sunday at Nairobi’s Sarit Centre.
The exhibition hall is brimming over with more than 20 exquisite orchid displays, all of which were in competition for a wide array of trophies.
On Wednesday, eight judges, headed by one senior judge, Michael Tibbs, spent hours appraising every flower and floral display.
The evening before the trophies were handed out, lifelong orchid society members, like Heather Campbell, aged 91, came early to ensure she got a good seat so she could hear the judges’ selections and see if their choices tallied with her own.
“I’ve been a member since 1964 when my family first moved to Kenya,” says the nonagenarian who judged past orchid shows for several decades.
“I also won trophies for my orchids, and I still have a lovely garden. But I no longer play an active part in the show. There’s too much hard work involved,” she admits.
Yet Heather fits in well with this year’s Orchid Show theme which is ‘The Vintage Collection.’ For just as she is a ‘vintage’ society member who has witnessed the way the orchid show has matured and changed over the years, the theme was also in keeping with the Orchid Society itself.
“This is the oldest orchid society in Africa,” observes Michael, who flew in especially for this year’s 62nd annual exhibition.
“But what’s exciting about this show is not just its being the oldest. It’s also one, if not the most beautiful show in the region and possibly in the whole world.”
Having been a qualified judge of orchids for many years, Michael travels all over the world appraising orchid shows.
“This year alone, I have done it in the US, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru as well as in China, Taiwan and the UK,” he says.
“The Kenya orchid show never fails to amaze me with the quality of members’ orchids and their dazzling displays.”
Noting that he has been coming to Kenya for the past 22 years, Michael says he has observed big and beautiful changes over the years.
“One reason the Kenya show has such fabulous orchids is because its members make the effort to bring in new species [and hybrids] whenever they go out of the country and come back with new orchids to plant,” he says.
One other thing that Michael finds impressive about the Kenyan orchid show is that it displays plants every year that have been there since the society’s inception. As he speaks, he also points the Dendrobium orchids that are hanging near the entrance of the show.
“There are also Ansellia Africana and Cymbidium which, like the Dendrobium, were in the first orchid shows over six decades ago,” he says.
Asked what he thinks has contributed to the longevity of these species of orchids, Michael is quick to respond. “It’s because they have been well looked after, well cared for.”
Admitting he has a deep appreciation of those older orchids, he says, “I prefer old orchids that have been looked after well more than I do newer hybrids that are grown badly.”
Michael can easily tell the difference since he has been raising orchids since he was six years old. Growing up in the fertile Franschhoek Valley, not far from Cape Town, South Africa, he recalls how his father built him a greenhouse as a child.
“It was just four poles that he covered in plastic sheet, but I loved it and learnt early about caring for my plants,” he adds.
Michael is like many of the Orchid Society members that I met, who grew up surrounded by flowers.
For instance, Nishi Raja grew up on a coffee farm with a father who also loved tending orchids. “I grew up surrounded by plants,” says Nishi whose joint display with Nita Shah at the show earned several trophies this year, including one for having the ‘Best Phragmipedium species’.
Anand Savani also comes from a family that loved to grow orchids. His display at the show is beautifully decked out with an elegant array of both exotic and indigenous orchids.
“We call our display ‘The Whiskey Room’,” says Anand who created his exhibit to embody the show’s ‘vintage’ theme.’
Whisky rooms were popular back in the 1920s during the pre-prohibition days.
“We only included tiny whisky bottles since we knew children would be passing through the show. We didn’t want to offend anyone,” says Anand as he sits casually on a cushy leather sofa meant to be a cozy prop in his display.
Anand is not the only one who has included aspects of vintage culture in their displays. One extraordinary exhibit features an old (but well-maintained) Mercedes Benz from the late 1950s.
The owner has filled the front seat with a beautiful display of orchids. He also has opened up his Mercedes’ boot and filled it with even more pots that host more multicoloured plants.
“I believe this display set the record this year for the highest number of trophies received,” says Nishi shortly before the winning orchids were announced.
“I think it won 11 trophies altogether.” Other displays that have paid attention to the vintage theme include one that has an antique bicycle with carriers filled with exotic species of orchids.
Another one has a wooden sculpture of an ancient African man seated amid a gorgeous orchid display. And right above the old man is a beautiful blood-red Oncidopsis hybrid that also won a trophy.
The other group that has stayed true to the vintage theme is the students who took part in this year’s Orchid art exhibition.
Organised by Jackie Guest who’s been running the exhibition for the last 12 years, the entries came in from all over the country from 23 schools. The youngest artists to take part are six years old and the oldest 19.
“When we launched the art competition, we only received 300 entries. But this year we received 750, all of which we included in the exhibition,” she says with a touch of pride.
“The idea is to get young people interested in orchids and the environment generally.”
That interest is evident in the way the youth include all things ‘vintage’ in their paintings, everything from old cars, bikes and an antique Victrola to 19th century ladies fashions and a dusty scull.
One student even sculpted an ancient tortoise which reminded us of the 344-year-old Alagba, who died recently, his owners claiming he had been the oldest tortoise in Africa.
Fortunately, she had plenty of room to display all the artworks. Jackie says young people’s exhibition can be found at the far end of Loita Hall.
“But none of us was quite sure how we would fit into the new exhibition hall since this is the first time we held the orchid show in the new wing of Sarit Centre,” Jackie says.
In fact, the new hall is more spacious than the old expo space. There is even room for a glorious display of Michael’s cut flowers that he flew in from Thailand and the Netherlands.
“The cut flowers are purely for display, but I do sell plants for a living,” says the man with an encyclopedic mind when it comes to orchids and other plants.
Explaining that every species and hybrid of orchid has a designated name, Michael (who also lectures on orchids and other plants all over the world) says there are approximately 25,000 species of orchids and between 300,000 and 400,000 registered hybrids.
Asked if orchid species are more highly valued than hybrids (which are simply the result of a cross-pollination process, when two or more different kinds of pollen are used during the planting process), he explains that both plants are of value.
“What elevates the value of an orchid is its rarity,” he says.
Others won special Firth trophy for including no less than six healthy indigenous orchids in their display.
“Most of these orchids come from forests in Kenya. They are classified as Epiphytes or plants that grow on trees, but they are not parasitic,” says Nishi.
What is extraordinary about orchids that are epiphytes is that they are aerial and never touch soil in contrast to terrestrial orchids that only grow in the ground.
“The one other classification of orchid is the Lithophyte, meaning it’s a plant that grows on a rock or a stone,” adds Michael, who admits that he like millions of plant-lovers all over the world is deeply fascinated by the infinite variety of orchids.
“But one thing that is not always understood about orchids is that they are not nearly so difficult to grow as some people think. In fact, orchids grow everywhere in the world apart from on permanent snowcaps and in arid deserts,” he says.
That is to say that anyone can grow orchids almost anywhere. The secret to being a successful orchid-grower is looking after your plant with tender loving care. That is how the Dendrobium has lived for many decades and how your orchids can also thrive.