A tropical paradise, the orchid enthusiast’s Mecca, a renowned hub of orchid study and archival artefacts, a lead centre for pioneering hybridisation, call it what you will, but the Eric Young Orchid Foundation can certainly justify any of the above plaudits and is well worth a visit by seasoned orchidists and newcomers alike. Eric Young moved to Jersey from Derbyshire in the 1950’s and enjoyed considerable success as a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, amassing a considerable fortune before his death in 1992. An initial interest as an orchid hobbyist gradually evolved through stages of collector and nursery owner to a commitment to create a permanent tribute to the world of orchids and their cultivation. Eric spent liberally on his orchid collection and took pains to acquire some of the choicest clones available, thus bequeathing to the Foundation we see today some of the finest breeding stock in the world and a vibrant programme of continuous improvement through hybridisation. Alas, with his death in 1992, Eric did not survive long enough to see the shape of his final project.
It was a warm and sunny Thursday early last September when I finally achieved a long cherished objective to visit the Jersey Orchid Centre. Following a chance conversation in 2006, Colette and Dominique Barthelemy of la Canopée had suggested a joint visit and, after some initial misgivings, the logistics worked out perfectly. I took the fast ferry from Weymouth and the Barthelemys took a day return on the fast ferry from St Malo. Rendezvous 09.00 St Helier harbour! An appointment was pre-arranged with the Foundation curator, Chris Purver for 13.00. Time for some very light refreshments in St Helier (only very limited choice at the Foundation itself) and a slow bus ride out to Victoria Village. Jersey has a well appointed, cheap and friendly bus network and though you can hire a car, bus travel is recommended. Even if the timing of the ideal route is not exactly right, there is sure to be another adjacent service which does the trick with just an extra 500m of legwork. As the bus trundles slowly through the St Helier suburbs, names and destination plates loom right and left, evoking a cast list from many an orchid catalogue : Fort Regent, Gorey Castle, Bouley Bay, Longueville, Tour de Rozel, les Augrès, Trinité, etc each conjuring up in the mind’s eye a notable BOC prize-winner.
Upon arrival we took some time to visit the exhibition conservatory at our leisure, feasting on the sumptuous displays of species and hybrids for a memorable photographic record. The main exhibition area underwent significant enlargement in 2002 and now soars skyward like a veritable cathedral with boughs of cork encased scaffolding festooned with species Oncidium, Dendrobium, Coelogyne, Encyclia and Laelia. Unlike many other notable glasshouse collections, you really do feel here that the plants have staked their claim, and are truly colonising in their particular micro-climates. Beds and alcoves below are richly planted with hybrids of almost every genus – Odontoglossum, Phragmipedium, Cattleya, Lycaste, Pleurothallids, Cymbidiums and of course the Phalaenopsis. These displays are continually changed according to season, assuring there is always something to see. (And here in September, we were supposed to be visiting during the low season for flowers!) A minimum temperature of 16-17 Deg C is maintained by conventional oil fired system using large diameter concealed pipes and floors are sprayed each morning to achieve required humidity levels. Ventilation fans are roof based and primarily used to push the heat back downwards in winter. As Chris later so correctly commented – here lie the advantages of being able to house your orchids in a large growing area. Plenty of natural air movement, and climatic conditions which change relatively slowly. The Roof shading is computer controlled with a varying combination of Aluminium strips. The major problem for the Jersey centre is being able to control excessive heat and light in some unpredictable summers, especially for the Odontoglossums, Pleurothallids and Phragmipediums.
As your gaze wanders from the exhibition conservatory across the walkway to the 8 adjoining growing houses, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the entire establishment is managed by just 8-10 people, of which only 4-5 are regularly working with the plants themselves. The sap rises, the appetite whetted and you are instinctively enticed towards the Growing houses, a veritable Aladdin’s cave. This area is not routinely open to the General Public, so prior appointment is essential should you wish to look behind the scenes. The 8 houses comprise 2 warm houses (Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Calanthe plus warmer growing Paphiopedilums ), 2 specific Cymbidium Houses, 1 cool house ( for Odontoglossum, Lycaste etc) and 3 further houses spanning the various subtleties of the Intermediate family, amongst these a magnificent showing of Phragmipediums. In the Cool house, there is a superb range of Odontoglossum hybrids, one of the early specialities of Eric Young but waning in popularity in recent years in favour of the warmer tolerant intergenerics. Banks of ventilation fans and an under bench fogging system are a pre-requisite for maintaining cool humid conditions and avoidance of some local water quality issues. Tastes change and the orchid world is no exception. The Foundation must to an extent inevitably mirror the mood of the market with a transition from species to hybrids in the 60’s to 80’s and reverting back to species and intergenerics in more recent times. The Foundation is equipped with its own compact laboratory and here all the new crosses, the life-blood of the future are raised in banks of flasks under sodium lamps. The emphasis here is on propagation from seed with minimal meristem activity, which is limited to the occasional rescue of a virus infected stock plant. A good tip from Chris for those embarking on raising plants from flasks: Always de-flask in the spring when there is optimum natural light to encourage rapid growth.
Certainly one of the most important areas of current research for the Foundation is in the area of Paphiopedilum and more recently the Phragmipedium. The growing area is particularly striking with a wide range of these diverse genera, spanning cool to warm growing conditions. The recent hybridisation programme is showing truly impressive results in terms of flower shape, number and colour. On view already were some outstanding specimens of Phragmipedium Jason Fischer, Don Wimber x Andreetiae, kovachii x Dick Clements and kovachii x sargentianum. Chris and his team have some particularly high hopes for the quality of more recent kovachii crosses and the first flowering plants are showing immense promise. Watch this space!! Paphiopedilums are not my particular forte but en passant I could not help admiring a huge specimen plant of P. Fletcherianum. Then there was that London awarded specimen of Eulophiella roempleriana and a very rare plant of Dyeriana, standing out as veteran campaigners, standard bearers amongst the legions of quality plants on view.
As we stroll around, somewhat awestruck by the feast of fantasy before our eyes there is photo-snapping at every opportunity and the periodic break to exchange some interesting cultural tips with Chris. Following the disappearance of good quality bark, rockwool has become the potting medium of preference at the Foundation. There are some exceptions of course. The Cattleya alliance has been returned to bark, Calanthe and Phalaenopsis are potted in coarse peat, though this is not an ideal solution as the peat degrades fairly rapidly and often necessitates twice yearly re-potting. Rockwool provides a good balance between water retention and drainability and enables plenty of air to percolate amongst the roots. One cardinal rule! – Rockwool mix should never be compacted. Given the right cultural conditions, the plants grow away strongly and a vigorous root system prevents the plants falling out of the pot. It is usually helpful to provide a good layer of crock at the bottom of each pot and for the larger specimens some further surface counter-weighting may be appropriate. Plants in the rockwool mix may be watered up to three times per week, depending on the season and prevailing weather conditions. A foliar feed of Magnesium Nitrate is applied once per week together with a small amount of household washing- up detergent to assist the “wetting“ process. One useful tip for those people contemplating a change of potting medium (or indeed re-potting in general). After re-potting and the initial watering, withhold further water entirely for a period of two to six weeks. This should encourage plants to generate new roots more rapidly as they search for moisture. An occasional misting of the foliage and surface of the compost will prevent dehydration.
Not only did Eric Young put together an extensive collection of plants, he also amassed significant quantities of orchid memorabilia and the archives at Victoria Village today boast one of the finest and most important collections of orchid books, catalogues and botanical art. This includes a full collection of the Curtis Botanical magazine, the Bateman illustrated library and all the Sander’s lists. Protective gloves donned, Chris leafed carefully through volumes of exquisitely detailed orchid illustrations dating back to the eighteenth century. At an average value of £5,000 per illustration for some of the oldest material you can appreciate the overall importance and value of this collection. We felt suitably in awe and sight of this veritable treasure trove sealed a truly memorable visit to the Jersey Orchid Foundation. A scheduled two hour visit turned into a four hour spectacular.
Basic entry to the Orchid Foundation costs £3.50 for adults, £3.00 for senior citizens and £1.00 for children. Opening hours for the main plant displays are 10.00 to 16.00 Wednesday to Saturday. A visit to the growing houses is strictly by appointment (better to avoid Fridays and Saturdays in high season). Telephone 01534 861963. There is a selection of plants available for purchase but do remember that the Channel Islands remain outside the EEC and plant imports to the UK are subject to rigorous CITES regulations. One thought – Why not make it a full orchid weekend and combine with a visit to La Canopée at Plougastel. A two hour fast ferry crossing to St Malo plus two hour drive to Brest…Written in 2008 by Chris Squire