Orchids have been seducing mankind with their glorious colours, extraordinary shapes and erotic tendencies for hundreds of years. My passion for them, and for all things green, was kick-started, when I was three, by my dear inspirational granny when she gave me a packet of carrot seeds.
By adolescence, the UK’s 50 species of native orchid had captivated me. Then came cross-channel forays to continental Europe to observe one particular genus: Ophrys. Vernacularly known as “bee orchids” this genus is erotically mind-boggling, not so much in its appearance and pheromone-emitting qualities but in the overwhelmingly seductive effect it has on certain insects. Ophrys flowers are cleverly adapted for pollination because their labellum (lip) is bee-shaped, complete with hairy bumps and markings. The result bears such a remarkable resemblance to a bee that the insects are seduced into pseudocopulation with the flower of many Ophrys species and, in the process, collect pollen for transmission to another plant.
This was just a schoolboy introduction for me. Aged 21, I spent an entire year plant-hunting in southeast Asia – laying my plant-hungry eyes on a host of countries, cultures and landscapes – and above all, plants. One plant from that time – yes another orchid – lingers in my cerebral cortex. The critically endangered, ornamental, royal pin-up Paphiopedilum sanderianum – “The Queens Slipper Orchid”.
This is what I wrote in my diary in August 1998:
“After days of arduous trekking deep into the humid, mosquito-ridden tropical rainforest in the upper reaches of the Mulu National Park located in northeast Borneo I knew that the Holy Grail of The Orchid World was close-by. I could ... sense it. The hairs on my grimy, sweaty back stood to attention in ... anticipation. After scaling near vertical razor-sharp, detritus-capped limestone cliffs and crags, slicing the top layer of my kneecap in the process and quite literally clinging onto dear life, gazing down into the plunging chasms below, I first laid eyes on this lithophytic plant with its ginormous inflorescences ... 3-foot long tapering and twisting petals that resemble fleshy pieces of curled up wrapping ribbons ... dangled over a 200-foot sheer drop. Stretching my ... weary, body to the limits I ... gazed into the glistening, internal structure of the flower head. I instantaneously forgot about the blood suppurating from my battered and knackered knee cap. I was in love ... ”
Similar emotions overcame me when I first laid eyes on Clitoria ternatea – or “the Clitoral Pea”, which is part of the Papilionaceae family. The name gives a bit of a hint about its appearance. Its rich blue lower flower parts are soft to stroke and delightful to look at. And it is frost tender and easy to cultivate.
So is the plant that probably helped save my life 13 years ago. Back on June 16 2000, I was threatened with execution during a nine-month hostage ordeal in the depths of the Darién Gap in Central America, where I had been hunting for orchids.
“You’ve got five hours till I blow your head off,” said an AK-47-totting 14-year-old, pushing his weapon into my sheet-white sweaty temple as I lay on my stinking banana-leaf mattress. Incarceration in this rampantly malarial, dark and fetid palm hut was where I thought I was going to have to say farewell to this gorgeous green globe of a world.
As I looked up, I felt that I might have respite. First, my left retina, then my right, spotted an erotic curiosity. This was my life-saving distraction. With my eyeballs heavily straining, blood vessels at bursting point, through a small crack in the palm-slatted wall I spied a fine epiphytically inclined specimen of Mother Nature: an Anthurium, probably A. crystallinum – a widespread species in this region but not one I had seen before with its delightful mottled foliage. What a sex symbol of the plant world. I immediately felt a case of plant lust coming on. What a distraction. This Anthurium had a huge inflorescence with a red waxy spathe around its characteristically suggestive dirty-white columnar spadix. Focusing closer on this phallic structure, I could observe glossy engorged black berries internally laden with seed and precariously being suspended by threadlike structures. This arresting plant helped save my sanity and, ultimately, my life because it took my mind off the prospect of imminent death and sent it back into the wondrous world of plants.
That day I had my first flickering brainwave about the World Garden, the place I have since created at my family home, Lullingstone Castle in Kent, southern England. The garden celebrates plant hunters with a vast diversity of unusual plants from across the world. The garden is open to the public and thus helps to keep Lullingstone Castle afloat financially.
I survived that day in 2000 because, like me, the 14-year-old guerrilla got distracted, although I will never know the object of his distraction.
Three months later on December 10, out of the blue and with no explanation, the comandante of the guerrillas turned to me and my fellow hostage, Paul Winder, and said “Happy Christmas, get lost and if you return we’ll kill you. This is the path to the peace.”
We were eventually picked up by the Colombian Red Cross. I think my constant gardening and talk of all things horticultural – from orchids to that Anthurium – drove the guerrillas round the bend. One thing is for sure: they are never going take a gardener from England hostage again. My passion for plants also proved I was not a CIA agent or drug runner as they suspected at first – I’m just a gardener. No ransom was paid. Nothing.
Back home, as I started to create the World Garden, I naturally included some rude plants – some too rude to mention here. Those who wish to delve further into the subject should take a look at Capsicum annuum var. annuum, Kigelia africana, Solanum mammosum, or visit the diverse range of plants at Lullingstone Castle.