On a recent visit to Burnham Nurseries I was given a guided tour of not only the main growing houses, but also the Orchid Paradise glasshouse. My guide around the nursery was Sara Rittershausen, the third generation of the family who started this specialist orchid growing nursery.
In 1948 the nursery was set up in the Croydon area by Sara's grandfather, Percy Rittershausen, who in 1951 relocated to Kingsteignton in Devon to allow for the expansion of the thriving business. Further developments and the need for more growing space necessitated another move in the mid 1980’s to its present site near Newton Abbot, Devon. As the business developed further, and with more customers visiting the site, the orchid display houses became tourist attractions in their own right. In 1990 one of the glass houses was transformed into an all year round tourist attraction and this is now called Orchid Paradise.
The stunning displays of plants offer visitors the chance to get up close to some rare and beautiful flowering specimens. These plants form the basis of an impressive collection amassed over the past sixty years by the Rittershausen family. Plants for this area are selected from the growing houses as each comes into flower so here is always a display of flowering plants for visitors to see. Many of the display plants have small information cards giving useful details about the plants on show.
The plants held in the orchid collection form an important part of not only the visitor attraction, but also in the ongoing orchid research, breeding and propagation programmes carried out at the nursery. The propagation of orchids is an integral part of the work carried out here. New plants can be grown from seed, division and micro propagation. This is where minute sections of vegetative growth are cut from the mother plants growth tips, placed in sterile medium in test tubes and then grown on into plantlets within a climatically controlled growing room. Burnham Nurseries is putting the finishing details to their new micro propagation facility and I hope to make a return visit next year to see this unit when it is fully operational.
The vast amount of knowledge gathered by the family over many years is being used to benefit orchid growing and conservation around the world. Some of the nursery staff travel around the UK to approximately thirty shows each year to exhibit and sell their plants. Up until 2009 Burnham Nurseries were regular exhibitors at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show where over the years their stunning displays in the floral marquees have won them twenty gold medals. In the trophy cabinets there is also evidence of the numerous awards from many other major shows they have attended over the years.
Around the glasshouses you may see white tie on labels with plant names and numbers indicating that they have been cross pollinated with other known plants in order to try for a new cultivar. The proof of success will not be seen only in the swelling seed pod hanging from the old flower stalk but perhaps only after five years when the seedlings have been potted up and grown on to their first flowering. It is only then that the true characteristics of a plant can be assessed to see if it has a chance of becoming a new cultivar. After further growing trials it could be considered for naming and propagating into sufficient numbers to make it commercially viable. Two cultivars bred at Burnham Nurseries have been named with local connections, the hybrid ‘Widecombe Fair’ and ‘Coelogyne Lyme Bay’.
The mother plants and growing stock are grown on wire mesh benches. This ensures good drainage following the watering, all of which is carried out by hand to ensure that each plant receives sufficient water when needed. The bark based potting compost replicates the free draining conditions essential for successful growth. Sara Rittershausen emphasised this by saying: “Orchid plants need to have sufficient water each time but it is essential that they ‘dry out’ between each watering. They must never stand in waterlogged conditions. Soft water is ideal watering orchids”.
Many people, including myself have thought orchids difficult to grow and to keep flowering. No doubt the rare species are but Sara Rittershausen assured me that many of the Phalaenopsis varieties are relatively easy - by following the do not over water rule and placing them away from extreme heat and cold but sufficient indirect sunlight or dappled shade positive result should be achieved.
For those who are keen to learn more about orchids take a look on the Burnham Nurseries website for details of their many workshops and master classes. Details of their opening times and mail order sales can also be found online. The nursery cafe also offers a good range of refreshments for those who visit.
Whatever the time of year, it should be possible to see orchids in flower at Burnham Nurseries.
With over 30,000 known species in the world and approximately 100,000 man-made hybrids orchids are a truly amazing group of flowering plants, for those who would like to get up close and see some fine examples then a trip to Burnham nurseries will be rewarding experience.