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At this Somerset secondary school, one teacher has grown a new generation of lunchtime botanists

Pupil Jess Buckle holds 
a Cattleya purpurata
Pictured: pupil Jess Buckle holds 
a Cattleya purpurata Credit:  John Lawrence

Tallis Inger-Flecker takes a deep breath and ducks her head inside the laminar flow cabinet. Expertly extracting a pair of sterilised tweezers from their foil wrapping, she untwists the lid of a small flask of agar and deftly separates the seedlings inside. Popping the seedlings into fresh flasks she snaps the lids on and – mission accomplished – leans back in her chair and breathes normally again.

One cough or sniffle from 16-year-old Tallis while her head is inside the cabinet, or a remark over her shoulder to a friend, and bang goes any chance of the seedlings becoming orchids. Such acts risk contaminating the sterilised air flow inside the cabinet and killing the plants. We are in the laboratory at the Writhlington School Orchid Project at Writhlington secondary school in Radstock, Somerset. The impressively equipped and spacious lab is new and a definite improvement on the old one that was housed in the former girls’ lavatories.

The lavatories were a long time in play because the orchid project has been going for 28 years. It was set up in 1991 by Simon Pugh-Jones, a former civil engineer who, after five years of designing bridges, switched careers, arriving at the school in 1989 as the new physics teacher.

“The school had a 240 sq metre greenhouse when I arrived but the national curriculum had cut rural science and most of the staff had been made redundant,” says Pugh-Jones.

A keen horticulturalist who acquired his first plants at the age of six, he leapt into the void. “I thought to myself this is my big chance, so I took over the greenhouse and started a lunchtime club for the pupils.”

Initially the club grew bedding plants but this quickly evolved into orchids. It is a plant Pugh-Jones knows a lot about, having first discovered it at the age of 12.

Teacher Simon Pugh-Jones Credit: John Lawrence

“I got into plants as a child growing up in Dorset because my nan was a keen gardener. I started with cacti then grew fuchsias and bedding plants.

“When I was 12 I read an article about orchids and I wanted some. My parents, who weren’t at all gardeners, drove me to a nursery and I bought two. I got a book out of the library, which turned out to be more about tropical explorers, and from that moment I was hooked. It was the tropical rainforests bit I liked and orchids were a part of that.”

Under Pugh-Jones the club has flourished. It has 50 members plus students who use its resources as part of the school curriculum, and it grows 800 species, of which 25 per cent are rare or under threat globally. To date, its orchids have won 13 gold medals, including two at this year’s London International Orchid Show in April, and two at past Chelsea Flower Shows.

The school did not go to Chelsea this year because the show falls at the time of year when pupils study for exams.

“Besides, we’re mostly funded by our orchid sales and we can’t sell them at Chelsea,” says Pugh-Jones.

Selling seedlings and plants to the public reaps the club thousands of pounds a year, which covers all of its expenses except for heating the greenhouse, which the school pays for. A big part of the club is its overseas expeditions to schools in biodiverse tropical countries including Rwanda, Laos, Brazil, and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in India. This month the pupils are going to Sarawak, Malaysia. The club helps the overseas pupils to set up their own orchid labs and organises treks into the jungle to teach them about conserving their natural environment. Notable successes include conserving Cymbidium whiteae, one of the world’s rarest orchids that grows in Sikkim, by propagating seedlings in the Somerset lab to be grown on in the Indian state.

Orchids play a vital role in conservation, says Pugh-Jones. The plant family, Orchidaceae is one of the most diverse and widespread in the world, with an estimated 28,000 species accounting for about 10 per cent of every country’s flora, bar Antarctica. It is the second largest family on the planet behind Asteraceae (daisy family), he says. The star quality of the flowers helps.

Students testing out the germination of seeds Credit:  John Lawrence

“Horticulture has a low status in schools whereas orchids are high-status flagship flowers, which helps us spread the word here and overseas.”

The fact that orchids are the national flower in many countries is a huge ­bonus because the population is more likely to already know about the plant and is more receptive to helping to ­conserve it and other plants. This is ­especially true of young people and is why working with schools has proven so successful. The club’s overseas projects are all still thriving, with the exception of Laos, its sole non-school project that has fallen victim to political upheaval.

Saving the planet is important to Writhlington pupils. They tell me that the club has opened their eyes to how animals and mankind depend on plants for survival.

Amalia Page, 14, says: “I’m worried about how we’re destroying our ­environment. I’d put money into working out how to preserve the rainforests. The Amazon rainforests are in decline ­because people are cutting down the trees, we should use selective logging.”

Some pupils, including Alexandria Rowlatt, 12, and Ed Twigger, 14, attended the recent Friday school strikes for climate in which children truanted from school to protest against climate change. Ed is keen on recycling. He lives on a farm fitted with solar panels supplying electricity to the local town of Frome and is looking forward to the day when petrol cars are replaced by electric vehicles charged by solar panel roofs.

“If temperatures get too hot because of global warming it’ll affect orchids in the wild and some will die out which matters because they’re part of the food chain,” he says.

Pugh-Jones can take the credit for raising the pupils’ awareness, particularly as many of them admit to having joined the club for any reason other than a passion for plants.

Amalia says: “I joined three years ago because my friends had and it was somewhere to hang out. I became fascinated by the science behind it and now I lead a section and teach younger pupils about propagation and looking after the plants.”

Club tasks include growing orchids from seeds in the lab, with many seeds taken from its own orchids or donated from growers’ collections. When ready, the seedlings are nurtured in a greenhouse that resembles a film set from The Day of the Triffids. The orchids are divided into geographic climate zones – warm Asia, cool Asia, warm Americas, cool Americas and temperate – to ensure they enjoy the correct temperatures, light levels and watering regimes. Only rainwater is used, collected from the greenhouse roof and stored in a 16,000-litre tank, which was enough to see them through 2018’s long, hot summer. The cooler-loving orchids also survived last year’s sweltering temperatures thanks to a regime of increased watering, shading and moving some to the floor where it is cooler.

The pupils also attend shows, setting up the displays and educating the public about the plants. Each member has their own favourite element. For Jess Buckle, an outgoing and eloquent 17-year-old, an enjoyable part is giving public talks about orchids to audiences, including at the Eden Project; something she would never have imagined doing when she joined the club as an introverted 11-year-old.

Tallis Inger Flecker in the process of replating the seeds Credit:  John Lawrence

“When I came here I loved plants but I was very shy and had trouble communicating with anyone, even the other children,” says Jess.

“Mr Pugh-Jones asked me to conduct tours of the glasshouses and then to give talks. I was terrified but felt so ­passionate about orchids that I agreed. He helped me come out of my shell by gently ­pushing me in at the deep end.”

Jess also sees the overseas expeditions as important.

“We learn from the pupils there because we come back with a different mindset, reinforcing our view that we can do something to help conserve our environment.

“Going to the schools is a culture shock, too. The pupils are respectful and have no litter or vandalism or possessions, it makes me realise how materialistic we are in the UK.”

One aspect of the club enjoyed by all the pupils is orchids’ slyness with pollination. Some of the plants lure insects by trickery. For example, the bee orchid’s flowers mimic a female bee in scent and appearance to lure a male bee into attempting to mate with it. When the bee moves on, it transfers the orchid’s pollen to the next plant.

allis Inger Flecker inspecting the replated seeds Credit:  John Lawrence

The club’s success is down to Pugh-Jones’s own passion and vast knowledge, imparted with a youthful energy and, on the day I visit, while clad in one of horticulture’s recommended colour combinations of orange (shirt) and purple (tie). His efforts have been widely recognised. A civil engineering graduate of Warwick University, he was awarded an MBE for his services to education in 2013, and earlier this year he was made a Doctor of Science by Bristol University.

Pugh-Jones says that with the right equipment, orchid propagation is easier than its reputation suggests, but it is not for the impatient. It can take two years alone for a seed to grow big enough to be potted on. Pugh-Jones enjoys everything about the club and loves all orchids.

“They’re all beautiful,” he ­insists.

Even Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, which stinks of rotting flesh and impersonates maggots to entice flies to pollinate it?

“Of course. Is it not still a thing of beauty?”Er…