Orchid Project

Early beginnings of the Orchid Project

Luke Barnes in Orchid Laboratory

Led from the start by teacher Simon Pugh-Jones, the project grew out of an after-school Gardening Club (still a central part of the Project), the Writhlington School Orchid Project has involved hundreds of students over the more than twenty years it has been running. Making use of a set of old greenhouses on the school property left from the days when the school offered rural studies as part of its vocational curriculum, after a small collection of orchids was donated to the club, Simon was able to instill his students with his own schooldays passion for this charismatic and diverse group of plants. Exhibiting and selling orchids at horticultural and local shows, and accumulating horticultural awards for their plants, around ten years ago, the students took the next step in orchid propagation, to growing their own plants from seed - using sterile techniques to grow the seedlings on nutrient agar.

The Project and the school curriculum

Simon has successfully worked various aspects of the Orchid Project’s horticultural work into the school curriculum, incorporating the aseptic techniques of seed sowing and seedling reflasking (plating the seedlings onto new media at frequent intervals to refresh the nutrient agar and give the plants more growing space) into the science curriculum for every student at the school. He has also integrated the Project into the subjects of enterprise and manufacturing, in which the school now offers Diploma courses. Science teachers at the school receive ‘masterclasses’ from Simon in the techniques used, which they then pass on to the students in their lessons. Students studying for GCSE and A-Level exams use the Project as the basis for their coursework assignments, satisfying the criteria for experimental design and statistical analysis with their experiments on altering the nutrient composition of the agar mix on which the orchids are grown in vitro. Because a single orchid seedpod can contain to up several million seed, the generative potential of each orchid flower cared for by the students is enormous.

The Gardening Club

Members of the Orchid Project

The after-school Gardening Club (nominally on Friday afternoons, but in reality taking place after the school bell rings most days), has spilled over into break and lunchtime sessions - either in the greenhouses taking care of the plants, or in the lab sowing fresh batches of seed (collected by the students from their own plants in the greenhouse, which they have hand pollinated themselves) or transferring seedlings onto fresh media. Tried and tested methods which are easily taught and replicated mean that the lab generates an unending supply of germinating seeds and developing seedlings are available for projects and experiments in lessons, and for selling to generate the Project’s main source of income.

Horticultural shows, sales and publicity

Another common activity for the Gardening Club students to be busy with outside of lessons is the preparation for forthcoming sales and shows, including folding boxes and gluing on information labels ready to sell in vitro plantlets in a ‘mini orchid kit’ the students developed and designed themselves through a Young Enterprise company some years ago. The students wholesale their in vitro plants and kits through botanic gardens and the Eden Project, and sell them alongside adult ‘ex vitro’ plants directly to the public at shows, such as the Royal Horticultural Society London Orchid Show each March, talking about their work and plants with enthusiasm and knowledge.

Writhlington Orchid Project with Alan Titchmarsh

Showing their orchids at horticultural and orchid shows around the UK, and occasionally abroad, the students generate a lot of publicity and have been featured several times on the BBC’s Gardeners World programme as well as on Teacher’s TV, Japanese television, and in many newspaper and magazine articles around the world. The students have won numerous awards at shows (judged alongside botanical and horticultural organisations and professional companies) - so much so that they have a techni-colour wall of rosettes and certificates and a trophy cabinet to house them all. Many Royal Horticultural Society medals have been won at the annual RHS London Orchid Show, and the Project has won two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show, both times they have appeared there. The students have also won scientific prizes such as at the Royal Society in London, and the Young Scientist of Year, and in March 2010, 16 year old student Luke Barnes won the Biology Prize, across all age groups, at the UK National Science and Engineering Competition, with the research he carried out on orchids whilst on a trip to the Sikkim Himalayas with the Project in 2009.

Expeditions to see orchids in the wild around the world

Sales of plants generate sufficient funds to run the Project, and its (near) annual fieldtrips taking small groups of students to visit orchid hotspots and see orchid conservation in action around the world. The Project has taken students to the Sikkim Himalayas, South Africa, Laos, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Brazil - unforgettable experiences for those students who have given extraordinary amounts of time and commitment to the Project and who are rewarded with such trips. Visiting other orchid micropropagation labs in areas such as Brazil and Sikkim, visiting schools in Costa Rica, Sikkim, Durban and Cape Town in South Africa, and botanic gardens in Durban and Cape Town, Costa Rica, and Belize, has given the students insight into the lives and conservation issues facing their counterparts in other countries and other cultures. The inspirational value of going into the (usually) forests in these countries and seeing the orchids the students grow back in the greenhouses at Writhlington growing in the wild in all of these places, is incalculable. At the same time, the students are not protected from some of the harsher realities facing conservationists and local people in these places, and on each trip they see evidence of threats such as deforestation, development, fires, and illegal/over-collection of orchids. The students who have been on these trips come back and recount their experiences to their fellow students, informally and in school talks, to parents at open days/evenings, and in presentations given to local (and less local, depending on the age/confidence of the student) orchid and horticultural societies.

Student interaction and development

Interested students may choose to get more involved in the Project following on from their science lessons, but a lot of students will have joined much earlier on in their time at Writhlington. The Orchid Project engages some of the most disenfranchised students, as well as the most able, and often students will be pointed in the direction of the Gardening Club by teachers, parents, or friends, sometimes even before they have started at the school. Very shy students, those who have been bullied at other schools, those with behavioural problems with authority, attention, and social interactions, rapidly learn to focus on a subject which they perceive as being ‘less academic’ than the rest of school, alongside their counterparts and peers.

Students interacting with greenhouses and orchids

Students are assigned a ‘mentor’, usually of the same age but who has been involved in the Project for a little longer, who guides them around the greenhouses, teaching them how to care for the plants, and learning leadership and teaching skills for themselves at the same time. Students are given a particular taxonomic or geographical group of orchids to be completely responsible for the care of, watering, weeding, repotting, all under the watchful eye and guidance of Simon and their peers around them. Within a couple of weeks, the students have absorbed an incredible amount of information from each other, and from Simon, and those with limited confidence are able to talk about ‘their’ species to visitors they have never met, with a remarkable degree of authority and knowledge. Some students with behavioural problems may take some time to settle down, but they are always treated equally with the other students, no matter of previous or outside problems at school. As with all of the students involved, they are expected to step up to the mark and live up to the high expectations Simon makes of them, and it is recognised all round that the students, and Simon, are there because they want to be, rather than ‘having to’ be there. If students want to be involved, they have to take responsibility for part of the collection in the greenhouse, and the students take great pride in looking after their charges and showing them off to visitors and at horticultural shows. Very rarely are plants neglected by their ‘owners’, and it is the high expectations that are made of the students, who are expected to make real decisions about how to look after their plants, which really seems to engage the students, who research their species to find out more about where and how they grow, and often go to the weekly lunchtime Orchid Science Club, where Simon teaches them about pollination, orchid anatomy, and evolution of different morphologies.

Why does the Project work so well with orchids?

A group of plants such as orchids presents an enormous array of teaching and learning opportunities. Collaborations with organisations such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, BGCI, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Eden Project, and orchid growers, conservationists, botanic gardens, and schools around the world, gradually built up over the years, give the students a view of the wider context in which the Project lies. They learn about the careers people make in horticulture, science, botany, conservation, business, policy even, and the value (in economic and biodiversity terms) of the species they grow.

Science can clearly be taught through using the plants, which provide a ready supply of demonstration materials and props for lessons. Different groups can be used to teach biodiversity and ecology - from pseudocopulation (what better way to pique the interest of teenagers when teaching botany?) to mycorrhizal fungi linking all the trees and terrestrial orchids in a forest, the interactions and dependencies orchid species have with and on other organisms graphically illustrate ‘webs of life’. Geography and climate change can be taught, along with evolution - why do species live where they are, and why they look so different? Conservation, habitat destruction and man’s impact on natural populations of species - even ‘what is a species?’ and even ‘why is a species orchid different from the orchids you can by now in any supermarket?’ are interesting and engaging subjects when taught with the aid of charismatic plants like these. What makes the questions infinitely more interesting, and the answers more memorable, is the fact that the students know the species they are responsible for keeping alive, and develop a far more holistic understanding of and appreciation for plants than they would if the same information was given to them in the form of school lessons alone.

What has made the Project work?

The Project has taken twenty years to get where it is today, but it is worth noting that it has developed gradually and organically to do so. Twenty years ago, the achievements which have been made, the countries to which students have travelled, and the turnover generated through sales of plants, would not have been dreamt of. Which is not to say that the Project lacked ambition at all, at each stage those involved set themselves challenges to meet (winning a gold medal at a particular show, entering students into different science competitions, propagating from seed for the first time), each leading onto new opportunities and developments which had not, perhaps could not have, been thought of before.

Committed teacher/member of staff and supportive Head Teacher

The value of a committed teacher or member of staff, in the form of Simon Pugh-Jones, to drive the Project forward and provide continuity has been key to the Project’s success, along with the presence of a supportive Head Teacher. Without them, as students leave the school at 16 or 18, as other involved adults (teachers, technicians, parents) move on for various reasons, the Project could easily have been put to one side and forgotten, but the continuity provided by Simon in particular has been an enormous asset.

Writhlington Orchid Project with Carol Klein

Real techniques, real species

The work that the students do uses real techniques and real species, exactly as a botanic garden or commercial company propagating species would do. There is no sense of simplification and ‘dumbing down’ of the protocols, and the younger students are often surprised, and proud of the fact that, when they visit a ‘real’ lab that exactly the same procedures are being used and little ‘translation’ is required when teaching the students about real-life conservation projects.

Horticulture as a high status activity

The Project has always held at its heart the ethos that horticulture is a high status activity. Whereas in the past there was sometimes the perception that ‘gardening’ was what the not-so-bright kids could do instead of being academic, the students involved in the Project are a complete mixture of all abilities, and receive praise and awards for their work, on a par and often exceeding those of the more traditionally ‘high status’ school activities.

Decision-making, real responsibility, complexity and ambition

Students are given the skills and opportunities to make real decisions about the Project, how funds are spent, what species are grown and how, how plants are displayed for show judging. The role of each student in the Project can be significant, depending on how much time and effort they wish to invest, and the responsibility given to them can be large, for instance taking on all aspects of care for all of the plants in a number of related genera - from watering and feeding, to pollinating flowers and collecting seed, to repotting and treating any pests and diseases. Made to feel like equals, and respected for their own abilities, nearly all of the students step up to the mark and thrive with the sense of involvement and maturity assigned to them.


Because the Project generates its own funds, those involved are able to decide how those funds are spent. Equipment can be purchased when needed, foreign expeditions can be planned, trips to shows on the other side of the country can be booked - usually without the need to bid for additional funding, or to be organised through third parties, and opportunities can be taken as they arise, rather than having to make proposals and business cases and wait for authorisation from others.

Curriculum links and real collaborations and partnerships outside school

Official opening of new greenhouses

Because the lab techniques used by the Project are integrated into the science curriculum for all students at Writhlington, every one of the 1200 students at some point comes into direct contact with the Project and has the opportunity to yet more involved if they want to. Students can and do self-elect to get involved at an earlier, or later, stage, but exposing all students to the Project during their secondary school career means that a number of students who would never normally attend such a club do get interested and join. The Project shows to all students at the school the relevance of the subjects they are studying and their real-life applications and career options, as they visit and receive visits from specialists at botanic gardens, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and The Eden Project. Real collaborations and partnerships with organisations in the UK and abroad, where some students have had the opportunity to visit and have their own experiences of, increase the relevance of the Project to the students, their peers and the school community, and put their work in context.

Accessible for all

No matter what background a student comes from, model students through to students with serious behavioural issues, all students who join the Project are considered to be equal. Discipline transgressions may be punished with short bans from the greenhouses of a week or two, but there is no ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule, or formal punishment. The respect the students show each other and for their charges (fellow student and plant) means that new joiners find they want to earn this respect for themselves, and they are able to do so, unencumbered by other members of the group holding preconceived ideas about them.

Future Plans

Immediate future plans for the Writhlington School Orchid Project include concentrating over the next year on filling the brand new greenhouses with orchids grown in the lab and divided from existing plants in the collection as they grow. From 90m2 of greenhouse space to 200m2, there is a lot of growing to be done! Along with a number of other shows planned for the year ahead, the Project will be making its regular annual appearance at the RHS London Orchid Show in March, and possibly be attending the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show as well, and has received an invitation to be part of the World Orchid Conference Show at the brand new Gardens by the Bay in Singapore in November 2011. In September, the Project will be hosting the first ever orchid show of its own - the Writhlington Autumn Orchid Festival, with orchid growers and societies from the neighbouring counties and the students displaying their plants, talks by the students about their travels, and tours of the new greenhouses.

Mayor's visit October 2010

Longer term plans include continuing working with joint projects set up in during expeditions to Sikkim, Laos, Belize, and South Africa. Over the last few years in particular, the Project has received many requests from other organisations around the world, interested in setting up similar schemes. Potentially working with BGCI and industrial partners, the Project is looking into the possibility of finding low-cost ways of getting the equipment and resources needed for such a project into schools in the UK and abroad, for students and young people to propagate not just orchids, but carnivorous plants, medicinal plants, and other interesting, and potentially threatened in the wild plants, which are difficult to grow using conventional means. Adapting the model of the Writhlington School Orchid Project to the needs and interests of each organisation (school, botanic garden, etc) will be a key factor in their success, and projects can pick and choose which parts of the model they wish to specialise in and which ones they are less interested in - from concentrating solely on generating seedlings to use in scientific investigations to support the curriculum, through to the enterprise aspects of selling artificially propagated plants grown from legally obtained seed to raise funds.

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