Press Release

British school students return rare plant to the Himalayas

A groundbreaking conservation project linking Writhlington School students with the gardeners of Gangtok is making a real difference in Himalayan conservation as well as providing a model for effective international community co-operation.

Students at Writhlington who have become experts in orchids and raising these exotic plants from seed in a dedicated propagation laboratory have used their skills to help the future of one of the world’s rarest orchid species.

Our story starts in 1884 when a Victorian plant enthusiast, Mrs White travelling in the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim first found an orchid later named in her honour as Cymbidium whiteae.

Gangtok, A city in the Hiamalyan mountains
Gangtok, A city in the Hiamalyan mountains

The species, which has never been common, has only been found in the area around Gangtok, capitol of the now Indian state of Sikkim. The wild population has suffered from habitat loss with development around Gangtok and from a hundred years of collection particularly for export to Europe.

Writhlington School has been involved in orchids and their conservation since 1995. Lead by teacher Simon Pugh-Jones students have carried out field work in the jungles of Brazil, Central America and Laos, exhibited their orchids across the UK and successfully grown orchids from seed that are sold at Horticultural Shows and at Botanic Gardens.

Mohan Pradhan with his orchids in Gangtok
Mohan Pradhan with his orchids in Gangtok

Simon explained how the School became involved in Sikkim. “In 2003 Mohan Pradhan, orchid expert from Gangtok in Sikkim first met the orchid growers of Writhlington School at the European Orchid Congress. It was agreed that we should work together to help Mohan to develop community based orchid conservation and a first visit to Sikkim was planned for Easter 2004.”

It was during the 2004 visit that the potential for working with Cymbidium whiteae was identified and Simon returned to the UK determined to find a plant in cultivation that could provide the seed needed for the new project.

Yvonne is a renowned orchid grower in Cornwall and in the summer of 2004 she agreed to pollinate her plant of Cymbidium whiteae. It flowered in November 2004 and with instructions from Writhlington duly pollinated. The seed pod swelled and finally burst in late 2005 and was sent to the Writhlington School orchid propagation laboratory.

Writhlington School’s orchid propagation laboratory in a converted girls’ toilet is home to many thousands of orchid seedlings raised by committed pupils aged from eleven to seventeen. The laboratory is managed by two students Luke Shackleton aged 15 and Luke Barnes, 14.

Luke Barnes in orchid lab small file
Luke Barnes in orchid lab

Luke Barnes who has been working with the Cymbidium whiteae seedlings since 2006 explains “The first stage is to sow the fine seed on a nutrient agar jelly in sterile conditions. As they grow we move them into fresh jars and it takes an average of two years before orchid seedlings are big enough to plant out in to pots. We currently have over two hundred jars of Cymbidium whiteae which means about four thousand plants. This is considerably more plants that we believe are left in the wild.”

Cymbidium whiteae seedlings ready to go
Cymbidium whiteae seedlings ready to go

On March 27th Luke will be one of four students taking these orchid seedlings to Mohan in Gangtok. Mohan who runs the orchid festival in Gangtok has arranged for the distribution of these precious seedlings to the gardeners of the city. The species that once adorned the trees of this remote Himalayan forest will now be common again but cared for on the roof gardens and verandas of the city in the clouds.

Simon hopes that in the longer term the captive population will lead to an increase in the threatened wild population explaining “This can be achieved both by reducing the pressure for collection and through seed dispersal.” However he expects the most significant result to be the contribution to forest conservation. “This project supports the efforts of Mohan and others to develop education and community involvement in conservation and through these actions a positive impact on the futures of the Himalayan forests.”

Student Ben Stokes who will also be on the trip to Gangtok is already experiencing the benefits of the project. “I am studying A level Science at Writhlington and the whiteae project is the focus of my research assignment.”

Ben is also on the design team for this Year’s Writhlington exhibit at the Chelsea Flower show. So look out for Ben and the team in May and get the full story of this remarkable project.