Wednesday 13 April 2016

Ian Butterfield's Pleione nursery

Pleione Michael Butterfield gx 'Condor' - the most eye-catching plant in the place, noticeable as one walks through the door.
As I've written previously in this diary I first grew Pleione in the 1980s, and fell in love with these easy, almost hardy orchids from the Sino-Himalaya. At that time only a few species were in cultivation and hybridisation was in its infancy, and the vast majority had flowers in shades of pink or white, varying to darker magenta, though a few, of great rarity, had yellow flowers. At this time I made the acquaintance of Ian Butterfield, a nurseryman principally (then) growing dahlias in the village of Bourne End not far from my home in Maidenhead. But he had developed an interest in these orchids and was already the leading grower and breeder of Pleione in the UK, collaborating with Phillip Cribb of Kew in studying them. From him I acquired a number of clones and had a moderately good collection, but this was decimated in the early '90s by a then new pest, the mite Brevipalpus, and for some years the interest lapsed. While at Colesbourne I acquired a few again, buying some most years from Ian on his stand at the Malvern Flower Show.

I hadn't visited the nursery for probably twenty years until the opportunity to do so presented itself on Monday. What a revelation! Although I was aware of the progress in breeding work in the genus I was not prepared for the spectacle that awaited - a tapestry of vibrant colours from white to crimson, and cream to deep orange - the result of thirty years' worth of dedicated effort by Ian and a few other breeders. The traditional pinks are still there, and very lovely they are, but they're eclipsed by the new colours.

The breathtaking display in Ian Butterfield's glasshouse.
Orchid breeding is a funny business, at least nomenclaturally. All the offspring from any cross between two parents belong to a 'grex' (Latin for group) which can be given a name that is written in normal script without inverted commas followed (officially) by the letters gx. It's not ideal, as seedlings may be totally dissimilar in appearance, but it means that everything can be named. Within the grex individually fine seedlings can be selected and named as cultivars. The first artificial Pleione cross, made in the 1960s, was P. formosana × P. limprichtii and was called Versailles gx, from which the clone 'Bucklebury' was selected. When  any clone of Versailles is crossed to any clone of P. formosana the offspring are Alishan gx: Alishan crossed with Soufriere gx (Versailles × P. × confusa (a wild hybrid)) gives Mazama gx - all very confusing and requiring an exceptional memory, but ultimately tracing the ancestry. Ian Butterfield has named most of his new grexes after volcanoes (and some family members) and selected cultivars bear birds' names; another breeder, Paul Cumbleton, uses primate names for his grexes. For details of parentage of any hybrid orchid names the ultimate reference is the International Orchid Register, maintained by the RHS.

My hour and a bit at Ian's nursery, under his patient guidance and expert commentary, was a pure delight - the finest candy store any kid could be dropped into, and I shan't miss a visit again next year. Plants are for sale - a pic of my acquisitions finishes this post - and Ian sells dormant pseudobulbs in winter, but he is no longer attending shows. He is not online, but a pdf of his 2015-16 catalogue is available here for anyone wanting to see the options available. A new catalogue will be available later in the year - and I can't wait to put an order in!


A pale form of Pleione chunii, a very beautiful Chinese species.
A particularly good clone of one of the earliest hybrids, P. Alishan gx 'Mother's Day' - a classic pale pink Pleione .

Pleione Santorini gx 'Yellow Wagtail' is a hybrid of the rare Nepalese species P. coronaria

Pleione Leda gx 'Palm Thrush'

Wonderful rich orange colour in Pleione Suswa gx 'Golden Eagle', which has a habit of producing bifurcated lips - as in the centre flower.

Pleione Edgecombe gx 'Bat Hawk' - a peachy rarity.

Seedlings from the same cross (Turkana gx) showing superb poise and robustness; the yellow one has excellent colour but a somewhat imperfect flower (this season at least).

Picked from the candy store - my purchases, glowing under a lamp; at back Piton gx, top left Alishan gx 'Mother's Day'; Orizaba gx 'Fish Eagle', P. formosana 'Snow White', Mageik gx 'Black Kite', El Pico gx 'Pheasant', front left Kenya gx 'Bald Eagle', Michael Butterfield gx.