Words Vaneesha Ritchie
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I love phalaenopsis because it has a long flower period, I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal.”
Between the screaming neons of Soho, the lively bustle of Tottenham Court Road and the studious calm of Bloomsbury lies Orchidya. Perfectly situated and perfectly hidden on the leafy oasis that is Store street. Behind the door of Number 42, a kingdom of mystery awaits you, and more to the point, mysteriously beautiful Orchids. The shop is arranged in two halves ‘to reflect the history and modernity of orchids’. One half, the front room of an eccentric, Victorian, orchid grower indulging in a grand excess of ornament. The walls hung with rows of framed botanical prints, dark wood cabinets artfully cluttered with trifles, curios, gewgaws and orchids, orchids and more orchids! The other half a quiet, white, modern space perfect for the composition of beautiful bouquets, Orchidya’s other specialty.
It was a 20 million year old prehistoric bee preserved in amber, along with the orchid pollen on its wing tip, which revealed that orchids were at least as old as the dinosaurs. Given the fact that orchids have survived all this time, their incredible diversity should come as no surprise with over 30,000 recognised species so far, distributed around the globe, surviving in obscure habitats – vertiginous slopes of dense rainforests, craggy outcrops of all but impassable Himalayan cliff edges, but also in plain sight – water lilies, magnolias, avocado, black pepper and vanilla plants all belong to the orchid family.
Human desire to possess beauty plays out too in the field of orchids and like many a Greek tragedy it lead, in Victorian times, to a kind of madness dubbed Orchidelerium. Explorers and orchid hunters were sent to all corners of the earth on long and sometimes perilous expeditions to bring back the rarest, most exquisite, most unique orchids. Unfortunately, back then, despite the exorbitant expense showered on bringing back these rarities, many orchids withered and died upon arrival, making them, of course, even more desirable – madness indeed! Standing in Orchidya, one can almost feel the intrigue and exotic adventures these intrepid globetrotters lived seeking out these flowers. But here at Orchidya, the plants prosper in the hands of such dedicated specialists.
Orchidya opened four years ago “inspired by a love of flowers in general and a passion for orchids in particular. We stand out from other orchid suppliers because of our attention to detail: when we pick the plants we look at the roots as well as the shape, colour and direction of the flowers to make sure our customers get the finest orchids.” Orchidya, who’s nursery won three Gold Medals and two Silver ones from the Chelsea flower show, also specialise in orchid arrangements, bringing together incredible bespoke combinations to suit even the most demanding clients.
A slightly disquieting thing about orchids, which becomes obvious once you know about it, is that the flowers are totally and completely symmetrical. Theories abound about the significance of facial symmetry in humans – the more symmetrical a face, the more attractive it will be to others. The mesmerising symmetry of orchids appears to illicit the same response – no wonky petals, no little bumps just perfect, impenetrable, spellbinding symmetry – the Grace Kelly of the flower world!
As a plant that symbolises luxury there is no shortage of clientele in London. Orchidya boasts clients from Russia, the Middle East, America and of course right here in the UK. “As London diversifies so do the clients. Their requirements vary; more established clients and collectors pre-order particular varieties, sourced and grown bespoke to add to their own cherished collections”. Sophie adds “Older clients like to specialise and collect, unusual, interesting orchids. Young professionals like to buy large arrangements of orchids as luxury gifts.”
So how on earth do you care for such exotic plants? I had visions of elaborate nurturing techniques… crushed pearls hand picked in the Tuamotu Archipelago, to be gently dusted on the uppermost leaves at first light… or maybe mixtures of artisanal nutrients exclusive to Amazon rainforests fed to the orchid root system every 3 hours through an eye dropper… But no, apparently not, and that sort of nonsense would probably kill them. As my mental image of vintage laboratory glassware shatters, Sophie the store manager assures me that “the best way to look after orchids is not to look after them”, as several million years of perfectly competent evolution attests, orchids “prefer to be left alone, only needing to be watered sparingly at the root by spraying filtered or rain water. (Though I’m sure using vintage glass eye dropper, if you are that way inclined, would be just as effective!).
As a supplier of luxury plants, Orchidya offer a lot more than an orchid in a pot. Sophie explains that more recently, the shop has seen a huge expansion in its cut flower and bespoke bouquet arrangements with a variety of clients from the Sanderson and St. Martin’s Hotels to Sotheby’s and Senate House to mention only a few. Using only the freshest and finest flowers, Orchidya create imaginative and memorable arrangements. And much like the rest of the beautiful shops on Store Street – from restaurants and art galleries to independent coffee shops – they go that extra mile by way of craft and a depth of knowledge of their respective subjects to satisfy their customers.
Flower arranging is an art in itself, an ancient Japanese art to be precise, called Ikebana. Established in the 15th century and originally taught by Buddhist priests, it became a disciplined art form for creative expression which, by employing a series of rules the intention of the artist could be conveyed via the particular colour combinations, shapes and natural lines used in the final exhibit, bringing nature and humanity together. Sophie herself has extensively studied flower arranging in Paris learning how to manipulate organic materials and develop concepts and designs by utilising a variety of their properties. She then spent a further 6 months at the Orchidya greenhouse in Lincolnshire learning to care for and nurture the growing plants. Her enjoyment and depth of knowledge of Orchidya’s wares is evident not only from the lush, almost tropical feel of the shop but from her answer to my question: what is your favourite orchid? Sophie just about manages to stop herself at 5. And that’s five orchid families, not five orchids!
“I love phalenopsis because it has a long flower period, I like vanda because it has a special pattern on the petal like a wild animal. Slipper orchids look so unique and wild. Dendrobidium orchids are so elegant. Cambria orchids have a special fragrance, some of them smell like orange blossoms, some smell like delicate jasmine, and some smell like chocolate.” I suspect she could go list many more and luckily for those that visit Orchidya, funds notwithstanding, you too can choose as many as you like.