Three Students’ experience of the Orchid Project

Chloe, Jess and Tallis with MSSM students Sarawak

The following article was written by students Chloe, Jess and Tallis for the World Orchid Congress Taiwan, to support their lecture.


Jess, Tallis, and Chloe are students at Writhlington School in Radstock, Somerset – and have been active participants in the Writhlington School Orchid Project (WSOP) for six, five, and seven years respectively. 

The article describes the students’ intense work on the WSOP throughout the year where they are responsible for a range of orchid cultivation activities, including in-vitro orchid propagation, tropical expeditions, working with industrial partners, and exhibiting and selling plants at shows. 

Jess will explain her role as glasshouse manager, responsible for daily orchid care of more than 800 orchid species, propagation, repotting, as well as preparation of display and sales plants for shows. Details include practical methods of engaging students and developing skills as well lessons for cultivation, water, light and temperature.

Tallis, who manages the Asian section of the orchid collection, and is the assistant laboratory manager, will explore the benefits for young people of becoming involved with orchids science and horticulture, including the valuable opportunities for interaction with industrial and conservation partners. Tallis was awarded RHS Young gardener of the Year for her age group in 2017.

Chloe is the propagation laboratory manager and is responsible for training younger students. She will describe her management of day to day operations to ensure the productivity of seedling production, and discuss the conservation work, both in the UK and Internationally, that the propagation laboratory facilitates. The challenges facing in-vitro propagation are identified and ways of overcoming these explained. Seedlings are grown both symbiotically and asymbiotically and and these are compared and contrasted. 

The three students will outline their experience of working on conservation education projects in Rwanda and Sarawak including the key factors that they as students identify for effective international collaboration and continuity.


The Writhlington School Orchid Project was established 30 years ago by Dr Simon Pugh-Jones MBE, and has since expanded into an internationally recognised project for its efforts in orchid education, sustainable propagation, and conservation.

The internationally recognised collection is comprised of over 800 orchid species. There are 6 glasshouses in total, each managed by a team of students, with Jess, as the manager of the glasshouses, overseeing the general care of the collection. Each student takes on a different role in the glasshouses, from watering, to repotting and weeding, and checking for pests. This allows for the culture of thousands of orchids in the glasshouses, including rare species (such as Vanda coerulea and Renanthera imschootiana). 

The propagation laboratory at Writhlington consists of a growth room, a practical work room, and a preparation area. In these facilities students learn and undertake all of the procedures needed to grow orchids from seed; such as green-pod and dry seed sowing, and re-plating seedlings. 

Displays, sales tables, and workshops at shows (such as Hampton Court flower show, RHS London Orchid Show, and Malvern International Orchid Show), are set up and run by students who share information on the project and aspects of laboratory procedures and orchid care with visitors, other orchid enthusiasts and stall holders.

Figure 1: Display at London Show 2019


Each of the Writhlington glasshouses is conditioned to mimic a different part of the world, providing the ability to grow a wide variety of species from all over the globe, including the Americas, Africa, South and SouthEast Asia. The team of approximately 30 students (ranging in age from 11 to 18 years), are involved in all aspects of orchid cultivation, with each student finding their own individual interest.  

Figure 2: Exterior of Writhlington Orchid Project Glasshouses

There is always an array of orchids in flower in the glasshouses throughout the year, emanating scents both pleasant and pungent. Every student has their favourite species of orchid, with some preferring the large, sweet-smelling Cattleyas, whilst others prefer the tiny, not so sweet-smelling pleurothallids

Watering the glasshouses is principally performed by senior students who live within walking distance of the school, such as Jess. When students are on expeditions, younger students receive the honour of a glasshouse key and are entrusted with the responsibility. These students tend to go on to be the ‘lead waterers’ in the future.

Students’ time spent in the glasshouses increases before an orchid show, as they race to get things ready. The display plants are selected and carefully prepared. Sales plants are ordered, weeded and priced up. Labels and posters are printed or laser cut. 

Splitting up plants tends to take up a couple of lunchtimes or a session after-school, depending on the size of the orchid being split. It is the main method of propagation in the glasshouses, and is often a big step for new students, and is a great opportunity to develop a wide variety of skills, involving tool sterilization, identification of parts of the plant, and repotting. 

Figure 3: Students working in the Warm Americas Section of the Glasshouses

Managing the lab:

The lab is managed by Chloe, and as part of her role she is responsible for the weekly lab schedule. This includes ensuring new seed is sown (which comes from the bank of seeds collected from plants in the glasshouses), and when germinated, the more developed seedlings are replated to ensure optimal orchid growth. As well as practical, more interesting weekly activities, Chloe ensures the lab always has sufficient agar prepared, as well as the sterile condition of the growth room is upheld by removing and sterilising contaminated equipment and removing contaminated orchid cultures.

The weekly planning ensures there is a constant input and output of seedlings, which are then grown in the glasshouses for sales and displays. 

Another big part of Chloe’s  role is organising the training for new students, to pass on knowledge, and for all students to develop experience the laboratory procedures.

Student’s learning: 

Students learn from each other, with older and more experienced individuals sharing their skills with others. This includes caring for the collection, laboratory procedures, public speaking, and plant sales. This allows students to expand their leadership and instructional skills, as well as developing their knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the Orchid Project


Another valuable thing the Orchid Project gives students is the ability to carry out their own research with tangible, real world applications. 

Students will use TZ testing techniques to investigate different recipes for agar growing media and corresponding germination rates, or seed sterilization techniques and consequent seed viability. This research often leads to changes in our protocols which allow students to see the impact their work can have, an impact that is rarely obvious in class work.

Chloe used existing and new micropropagation skills to produce a sterile culture of mycorrhizal fungus from the root of a Dactlorhiza fuchsii orchid. She then, with help from Johnothan Kendan at Kew Gardens, carried out cryogenic testing on the fungi culture in the interest of storing it for repeated use for orchid seed germination over many years. A large focus of the fungi research was to increase orchid seed germination, with interest to conserve orchids where few seeds are available.


Writhlington Orchid Project students attend various conferences to broaden their conservation and orchid knowledge. For example, in October 2018  Jess and Chloe attended the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, working with IUCN members to promote awareness of the challenges orchids face as a result of illegal trade. The students achieved this by talking to policy makers and representatives from various nations about the threat to orchids and how to lessen that. The students used the Renanthera imschootiana and Vanda coerulea specimens that they took to display at the show as an example of orchids included on CITES appendix 1, as well as miniature South East Asian orchid species that, despite their size, are also threatened by the trade of wild plants. 

Figure 4: Chloe, Jess and Simon at the IUCN stand, a collaboration between Oxford University scientists, Lancaster university students and Mendip students.

Orchid events: 

Figure 5: Tallis teaching younger members to wrap orchids for sale at Orchid Christmas event 2019.

Orchid Events at Writhlington are an opportunity to share what we do with other orchid enthusiasts and the wider public. Our Orchid Christmas show is often the first event of the academic year, so a good chance for incoming students to develop communication skills through giving tours of our glasshouses and running workshops in the laboratory.



The London Orchid Show 2019 was our most successful show of the year, with our display (set up by a group of our younger students) being highly commended by judges and the public. The display showcased orchids such as Epidendrum parkinsonianum from Central America and a large specimen of Dendrobium nobile from South and South-East Asia. As well as this, a small section displayed propagation laboratory equipment and in-vitro orchids – showing the different aspects of the project, which students of all ages discussed with visitors and orchid experts. 

In November 2018, our project hosted the British Orchid Congress. This was a fantastic opportunity for every student involved to build proficiency in planning, organisation, and management. Tallis chaired a two day series of lectures on Hardy Orchids and a Science Symposium, focusing on young people’s research in the orchid field. Chloe did a practical laboratory demonstration discussing the culture and uses for mycorrhizal fungus within the in-vitro growth of native British orchids. Jess gave a series of lectures focusing on growing different orchid species in a home environment, as well as assisted younger students in giving tours around the glasshouses and speaking to members of the public. 



The European Orchid Council Conference and Exhibition (EOCCE) in 2018 was the first show abroad for Jess, Chloe and Tallis, and was a valuable chance to share their experience and ideas with the wider international community.

Figure 6: Students celebrating their display success – earning the Grand Champion award, amongst others.

The sharing of ideas at EOCCE led to our collaboration with the Sarawak Orchid Society, who created a link between Writhlington and MRSM school in Kuching, Sarawak. This resulted in students from Writhlington setting up a propagation laboratory in MRSM in July 2019, following up with a trip in October to share more orchid and laboratory expertise. On top of this, Chloe stayed at MRSM in January and February in 2020 to work in the laboratory to ensure that over the 2 months she was there, the students could learn how to run a propagation laboratory for optimal educational opportunities and orchid production. 



In July 2019, Chloe, Tallis and Jess went to Kuching, Sarawak, to help set up an orchid propagation lab at MRSM school. They worked with four students from the school, sharing lab protocols and techniques, and introducing the students to maintaining their own orchid propagation laboratory. 

They also visited many national parks, such as Mulu National Park and Kubah National Park, where they were accompanied by the four MRSM students.

Figure 7 – MRSM students in Kubah National Park

Jess and Tallis then returned with 10 younger Orchid Project students in October 2019. MRSM’s project had grown to 12 students and each Writhlington Student ran a workshop on an aspect of laboratory protocols or orchid biology and ecology. These included; lab safety, orchid flower anatomy, orchid life cycles, and orchid field studies. They also visited many more national parks, returning to Gunung Mulu National Park and going to Bako National Park, Gunung Santubong National Park, Mt. Singai, and Mt. Pueh National Park. Again, Writhlington students worked alongside Sarawak Orchid Society members, which included visiting an oil palm plantation where native orchid species were being reintroduced.

In February 2016, Jess and Chloe were part of a group of 11 Orchid Project students that went on an expedition to Rwanda. This included setting up an in-vitro micropropagation laboratory in FAWE Girls’ School in Kigali, as well as visiting the micropropagation laboratory Writhlington had set up in KCCEM College two years prior. The Writhlington student also ran workshops with students from FAWE and KCCEM, with each student’s workshop focusing on a different aspect of orchid cultivation and conservation. As well as this, the expedition also included trekking through Nyungwe National Park with groups of students from both schools in order to identify Rwanda’s native orchid species growing in the wild.



“I joined the Orchid Project on my first day at Writhlington at the age of 11. I have always had an interest in orchids, having grown Cymbidium and Phalaenopsis hybrids from local garden centres and supermarkets at home since the age of 5. Through caring for the plants in the school glasshouses I discovered my love for species orchids, and I now have a collection of approximately 40 species orchids at home. I struggled with shyness in my younger years, finding it difficult to speak to people outside of my immediate family, but within a few weeks of being part of the Orchid Project I was giving tours around the glasshouses to members of the public and talking at length to them about my favourite orchids! I was then encouraged to start giving lectures about the Orchid Project to orchid societies, gardening groups, and visitors on our open days. At first I found this challenging, but my passion quickly took over, and now I regularly talk about my experiences with orchids – a skill that has benefited me greatly in applying for university and attending interviews. In February 2016, I visited Rwanda with the Orchid Project, and it was here that I discovered my interest in conservation – something I have since focused on and hope to continue researching in the future.


“Being part of the Orchid project was amazing – I found like-minded plant and biology enthusiasts who have become my closest friends. The laboratory especially interested me, and managing it was a great opportunity for leadership and public speaking, plus seeing orchid seed I had sown grow into seedlings in the glasshouses is extremely rewarding. I now have plants at the laboratory and glasshouses that I am more interested in visiting than old teachers or friends. By having the responsibility of teaching younger students, I have found out that teaching may be something I want to do in the future, I noticed this especially when I stayed at MRSM school in Sarawak for 2 months in January and February in 2020. Teaching the students about mycorrhizal fungi, orchid pollination, and even English card games between batches of agar making was rewarding and I had so much fun – it is a career I can see myself in, in the future.”


“Orchid project has been such a big part of my secondary school life, it is difficult to imagine a time without it. Previously, my attitude to any situation where talking may be involved was to avoid it at all costs. The glasshouses originally attracted me as a place to hide from noisy school lunchtimes. The actual contents first became of interest to me when I learnt of deception pollination. Quickly becoming fascinated by the interactions between plants and pollinators, I had been sucked into the intriguing world of orchids. After that there was no turning back. I became engrossed in the laboratory work, and the encouragement to take part in shows and displays led to my communication skills in all areas to massively improve.”


Jess has received an offer to attend Oxford University to study Geography after completing her A-Levels in June 2020. She has a passion for conservation and hopes to explore this further by studying how the human and physical world interact, and how this affects biodiversity and ecosystems. It is hard for her to imagine life without orchids – and she will soon have the difficult task of choosing which of her plants to take to university with her.

Tallis will be completing her A-Levels in 2021, after which she plans to take a gap year, spending at least some of it in tropical regions. After this she hopes to continue in science at university, eventually heading into academia. She is currently unsure of what aspect she wishes to focus on for future study but is certain plant biology and orchids in particular will always be a large part of her research and life.

Chloe will attend Nottingham Trent University in September 2020 to study Ecology and conservation, where she hopes to continue studying orchids, her passion, and learn more about other plant species – especially fungi and aquatic plants. During her university studies she hopes to find a subject she can specialise in within horticulture or teaching, that she can pursue after completing university.  


Young people are a force not to be underestimated. With a huge amount of enthusiasm they can approach almost any task and make a real difference to their world. Underconfidence in their ability to perform real world tasks stifles their capabilities and is often shown to be completely erroneous when given the scope to explore areas of interest.

Schools are in the unique position to influence students’ interests and careers, so by having orchid laboratories in schools in the UK, Rwanda and Sarawak, they are helping inspire the next generation of conservationists. This is especially true in Sarawak and Rwanda, as students have seen the natural wonders that surround them, in Gunung Mulu National Park and Nyungwe Reserve, during expeditions.

Some of our most interesting days have been when professionals (i.e: staff from Bristol Botanic Garden, the Eden Project and The Living Rainforest) have come to spend a day learning about our methods and techniques from students of all ages in the project. 

Figure 8 – Writhlington student showing Professor Kingsley Dixon our lab procedures.


We would like to acknowledge the support and opportunities we’ve been offered by Simon Pugh-Jones as well as all the other students working in the greenhouse who sadly cannot make it to WOC. We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the professionals and staff from UK Institutions that have worked with us as well as those we meet on our international expeditions.