Thirty Years of the Orchid Project

Students in the school greenhouse

I wrote the following article for the World Orchid Congress, Taiwan. Please feel free to contact me if you would like more information.

Simon Pugh-Jones (Teacher)


In 1991, I set up the WSOP as a vehicle for developing student expertise in biotechnology and enterprise. The project combines excellence in science, horticulture, enterprise and sustainable development.
Highlights for the Orchid Project include horticulture awards including Gold medals at shows including two European Orchid Shows, The Cape Town Flower Show, and Chelsea and Hampton Court in the UK. The Project’s students have won the UK national schools science competition in 2001, 2010 and 2014 for research on tropical forests, and our enterprise teams were national or regional winners in the UK Young Enterprise competition every year from 2005 to 2009.
Enterprise income has funded twenty one overseas students’ expeditions to work with tropical communities, schools, and conservation groups, in the Americas, Africa and Asia, and to innovate conservation and education capacity building.Students have set up orchid propagation laboratories in Rwanda and Laos. In Rwanda students have worked closely with schools and colleges, where projects have enhanced the science curriculum and conservation practice. Other projects include working with schools in Sikkim and more recently Sarawak.
In the UK my student team have lead a number of orchid education initiatives to develop public displays of plants at the Eden Project, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, the Bristol Aquarium and the Bristol University Botanic Gardens. Students develop their horticultural and scientific expertise by designing, supplying and building living educational displays that engage the public in plants, tropical ecosystems and the communities that share the habitats with orchids.
Projects are integral to the science curriculum delivered at Writhlington School where the links and expertise developed through his projects allow students to carry out significant original research, engage in real design projects and communicate with a global community of scientists and engineers.

Chloe teaching skills in Sarawak

In September 1989 I arrived as a science teacher at the rural state comprehensive school of Writhlington in the South West of England, ten miles from the city of Bath. I had the great fortune of being able to take over the old school greenhouse, accepted a donation of Cymbidiums and the Writhlington School Orchid Project WSOP was born.
In the past thirty years the project has grown from a small extra-curricular club into a major enterprise based on the in-vitro propagation of orchids from seed, a collection of 900 orchid species, student expeditions for conservation education to Malaysia and Rwanda, and a host of national and international awards for horticulture, science and conservation. It would seem useful to reflect on the key features that have lead to the success of the project, and the lessons can be learnt from this experience.




Writhlington could appear a very ordinary British school, serving the farming and ex-mining communities of Radstock and the surrounding villages, but by 8am every school day, my laboratory is a hive of activity with students propagating orchids in-vitro. At lunchtime the school’s state of the art glasshouses are full of more students, repotting plants and preparing for shows, and at 5.30 every evening I have to shoo the last remaining students home before they miss their evening meal.

In 2015 a small sister school to Writhlington was added to the campus, the Mendip Studio School, with a focus on science and technology driven by the WSOP and the strong links I have developed industry. Together the schools cater for 1300 students aged 11 to 18 with a truly comprehensive intake of students.

The pillars that support the development and continued success of the WSOP are a balance between science, enterprise, horticulture,
conservation and communication.


Science is the curriculum basis for the project. The UK science curriculum does include some plant science and we make the most of that, but it is largely through applied learning and project based learning that the opportunities offered by the orchid project impact on student’s learning. For example year 13 students (aged 17/18) are required by their syllabus to investigate the work of a scientist. My students visit the Jodrell Laboratories, Kew, and meet scientist Jonathan Kendon and learn about his work in in-vitro biology, before returning to school for a series of orchid seed based investigations.

Science students at Kew

Each student is given seed of a different orchid species and they must plan, carry out and analyse investigations based on TZ seed viability testing and germination testing. Students learn to work independently, apply complex procedures, analyse complex results and link their work to effective conservation outcomes. The impact on many of the students is significant. The work clearly demonstrates that we often underestimate the potential of school students to tackle high level science research.

Science students working on their investigations


Enterprise is both the funding stream for the project and a great source of enthusiasm and interest for the students. From the start the WSOP was self funding as I knew that I could not rely on school budgets in times of austerity. Our primary funding comes from selling the plants we produce from seed or division, and the sales are through local and national shows, and online through our ETSY shop. The
income is sufficient to cover all running costs except heating, pay for student participation in shows, events and conferences, and to provide the bulk of the funding for more than 20 overseas expeditions since 2000.

Sales table Sales at EOC Paris

Students are responsible for preparing plants for sales and display, selling at the shows, and planning and running shows when they take place at Writhlington, including two British Orchid Congresses.

London Show display 2018


The WSOP is fundamentally a plant project and without good horticulture this would fail. Our 900 orchid species are grown in a 240m 2 greenhouse with six different climatic zones. Our approach has always to be to learn from the wild habitats of our plants and our visits to the various forests of the Americas, Africa, Himalayas and South East Asia has given us a thorough insight into the requirements of our beloved plants.

The project has always taken a scientific approach to orchid culture and every plant is a living experiment. We have had a number of students pursue careers in horticulture, and all leave with a love of plants. For more information on how we provide for our diverse collection please see our culture pages.


Conservation is a priority for an increasing number of young people and provides a very direct justification for what we do in WSOP, as
well as a target for student action in the future. A love of diversity, that quickly springs from growing our diverse orchids, has a powerful effect on my students’ understanding of the importance of action to halt the destruction overseen by older generations. Providing such a vehicle for positive action strikes me as a key part of education in the face of our planet’s challenges.

Crossing Kamiranzovu swamp, Rwanda


I have become convinced that the single most significant impact on students involved in WSOP is the development of their communication skills.
Working on a real project with real impacts students find that they have something to say, and find effective ways of saying it; talking to the
public, training younger students in laboratory techniques, giving lectures about their expeditions, and articulating their hopes for the
future and plans to achieve those goals.

A young Zoe Parfitt discusses her project


At Writhlington we have a wonderful greenhouse and in Mendip Studio School we have a very well equipped propagation laboratory, but it was not always that way. I have always looked to make the most of what is available and build for the future.

The original greenhouse in snow.

The original 12m x 8m greenhouse was an ancient structure that lost glass in gales, suffered boiler failure at least once a year, got too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but this did not deter my students and I. We managed for sixteen years to create the microclimates for successful culture, respond to emergencies, and make the greenhouse as beautiful as possible for visitors.

Chansouk learning propagation techniques from Luke Barnes in the original Writhlington propagation laboratory.

My original propagation laboratory was a disused girls toilet close to my teaching room. It is not the facilities that created the project it was the passion and hard work of the generations of students who committed their time to the orchids.

Our new facilities have allowed the project to blossom. We now regularly host major events such as the British orchid Congress, and can
entertain visiting schools or horticulturalists, and provide effective training in our seven laminar flow cabinets. Of course our growing space is never big enough and our jars of seedlings have spread well beyond the confines of the growth room. My suggestion would be to start a project and trust that the facilities will follow.

Hosting the British Orchid Congress 2018


From the very start I have looked outward from the school to develop links that benefit my students and offer opportunities and learning.
Commercial orchid nurseries and botanical/horticultural institutions have been the most significant partners.

In the early years of the project our in-vitro skills were developed thanks to the support of nursery man Bob Dadd of Greenaway Orchids. Our links of more than twenty years with Kew, the Royal Horticultural Society, Bristol Botanic Gardens, and the Eden Project have been key to inspiring students and developing the rigour and creativity key to our success.

Students working at the Eden Project

All of our overseas expeditions have been through making links with people and organisations dedicated to orchids, education and conservation, and it has been an honour to work with so many fantastic people.

With our Sarawak Partners at MRSM School

For example in our recent work in Sarawak, first contact came from scientist Tengku Auvaroza Tengku Abraham at the European Orchid Show in Paris. It is through her work that we have been able to work so effectively with the staff and students of MRSM School, Kuching, and the Sarawak Orchid Society. We are not the first to discover that conservation is a people thing, and it has been a real pleasure to be able to introduce my students to like minded young people in the many countries we have visited.


I have always been an advocate of school trips, and in my experience, the most significant days of schooling are the days out of school experiencing the wider world and being a part of something real.

Taking students from the UK to tropical habitats is expensive but very worthwhile. With a combination of enterprise funding and grants from bodies including the British Council and the RHS I have taken students on a total of 21 expeditions.

Looking at the Rwenzori Turaco, Rwanda Santubong, Sarawak

The model we have developed is for all the WSOP students to plan and deliver workshops to our partner school students. The workshops either take place in the school, where we specialise in setting up propagation facilities with training and scientific support, or in the forest.

Joe running TZ testing workshop

After three years in the Writhlington Greenhouses WSOP students are very at home in tropical forests which they describe as “Just an oversized greenhouse”. It becomes very apparent that growing orchids from seed to flowering plants is an excellent preparation for spotting and identifying orchids in the wild. My students return to the UK as very different young people to those who left, and their
expedition experiences have a significant impact on career choices and personal goals.

Mulu national park – a giant greenhouse!


Many generations of students have now passed through the WSOP. It appears that as a real project it raises aspirations for careers in science, horticulture and conservation, but does not limit students’ aspirations to these more obvious routes. We have ex-students who are now involved in business, education, engineering, travel and hospitality as well as those in research, commercial horticulture, global conservation and environmental services. I am delighted that so many of our former students return as volunteers for shows and events. Some of them are even parents of current WSOP pupils.

Heather pursuing a career in wildlife conservation


The WSOP is unusual in its scope and longevity but I am convinced that it is a valuable model for others. The project provides very good evidence that:
1.School students are excited to work with orchids both as plants and in the laboratory.
2.School students can successfully grow orchids from seed and apply complex scientific procedures.
3.School students are great ambassadors for orchids, horticulture and conservation
4.School students can effectively teach and inspire adults working to make a difference in education, conservation, or just growing better

I commend teachers to consider some of the following approaches:
● Introducing in-vitro orchid propagation as an excellent way to enhance the curriculum.
● To introduce or develop horticulture as a high status, high skill activity.
● To link with organisations outside the school to develop real skills in your students.
● To make links across the world linked to conservation and enterprise.
● To work with orchid enthusiasts, who will be happy to share their knowledge and a few plants.
I would ask that orchid and horticultural institutions engage with schools and students with a focus on high skill, high knowledge activities that challenge students and also give the students involved autonomy to make their own decisions and take a lead in their projects. I look forward to my students and I doing anything we can to support a global schools approach to education through orchids.


I am delighted to acknowledge the tireless effort and enthusiasm of the many hundreds of school students that have been involved in the WSOP, along with the parents and volunteers that have helped to make it possible. I am also grateful for the support from education and botanical professionals in the UK, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Simon Pugh-Jones MBE with Laelia anceps in the School Greenhouse