ONCE every three years, droves of people converge on a chosen place somewhere in the world to pay international homage to one of the most varied, strange, sometimes incredibly exotic, sometimes almost unnoticeably reticent of flowering plants: the orchid.
The World Orchid Conference and Show (WOC) is a chance to meet other orchid lovers and an opportunity for growers to display the latest hybrids and compete for prizes. These growers may be amateurs clubbed together in societies, large nonprofit organizations like the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, Jersey (which walked away with more awards than anyone else this year), or professional nurserymen who breed and sell orchids.
For such specialists, the WOC offers publicity and a chance to sell plants or flask-grown seedlings. On the conference side, there are lectures and seminars and shows of slides. And this year's WOC emphasized conservation of possibly endangered wild orchids through lectures and in displays by botanic gardens such as Edinburgh and Kew (London).
Only two of the 14 extravaganzas of beautiful and bizarre plants with impossible names like Cypripedium and Dendrobium, Disa, Pleione, Paphiopedilum, and Phragmipedium - to name but a few - have taken place in Europe. Three years ago, the conference was in Auckland, New Zealand.
This year it was in Glasgow, Scotland (April 26 to May 2). The organizers expected (in addition to 1,300 delegates) about 20,000 visitors. But 30,000 came, more than demonstrating the potent allure of the orchid family. Show catalogs ran out.
Exhibitors from all over the globe participated: Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Japan (more from that country than at any previous WOC), Malaysia, Switzerland, the United States, South Africa, and many other countries. One young man from Russia, Igor Belitsky, exhibited his specialist plants: jewel orchids. These are treasured, not for their glorious flowers but for their remarkably patterned foliage (see story at far right).
One section in the vast display area was devoted to orchids with fragrance, and, for the first time in Europe, fragrance judging was part of the competition.
Most of the orchids on show were hybrids. Orchids hybridize very successfully because of a high degree of compatibility between the species: The number of different registered hybrids today is approaching 100,000.
Orchids grow wild in every corner of the world. Estimates of the number of wild species range from 25,000 to 30,000.
The orchid is a world flower; it warrants a world show. The latest WOC was spectacular and unforgettable. The 15th World Orchid Conference and Show will take place from Sept. 14 to 24, 1996, in Rio de Janeiro.