Easy English orchids

Posted: November 30th, 2015

Hurrah for McBeans, the specialist orchid nursery and a remarkable survival of the craze for orchids that swept stately home hothouses in the late 19th-century. It still occupies the site where it was originally founded in 1879 near Lewes, Sussex.

But a year ago its tragic demise was imminent. ‘We had already begun selling off the stock and shoving it around the world. We were a day or two away from closing. Our last ditch plan was if no buyer was forthcoming we would let the plants go for very low prices just to keep the collections together’. said Jim Durrant, who joined McBeans as a 16 year old in 1971.

Jim Durrant, the doyen of orchid growers, holding a flask of dozens of little orchids.

Jim Durrant, the doyen of orchid growers, holding a flask of dozens of little orchids.

Happily at the 11th hour, local customer, Rose Armstrong (whose granny used to drive from Gloucestershire in the 1950s to buy orchids from McBeans) fortuitously popped in and on hearing the sad news made the snap decision to buy it. ‘I was nearly in tears’. She rang her husband, head-hunter, Stretch Armstrong, saying ‘do you think I have gone mad? He thought it was a great idea. We felt passionately we couldn’t let a great British brand vanish’.

DSCF2648 Pale pink pretty orchid

Cymbidium Loch Gilp orchid

A year on McBeans now has a little coffee shop in amongst the orchids for sale and this week sees the opening of its first London shop in Cale Street, Chelsea. Exciting times. ‘Customers will be able to order orchids and collect them from Chelsea’.

A thrilling grouping of exotic orchids from McBean's established in 1879.

A thrilling grouping of exotic orchids from McBean’s established in 1879.

DSCF2650 Tips for growing orchids.

Cymbidium ‘Satin and Spice Caramel Surprise’.

‘We have approximately half a million plants and are always breeding new varieties’ says Jim Durrant, adding ‘you can get a 1,000 baby ones in a few square feet’. On the one hand McBean’s are world experts in the cultivation of orchids. ‘We are at the forefront of breeding always cultivating new varieties. I make about fifteen different crosses annually. The orchids grown at McBean’s are mostly bred to acclimatise well to average UK household conditions.  It offers far greater variety than the stock of imported plants you will find in garden centres and supermarkets.  The plants are given time to develop and mature at their own pace, rather than being fast-tracked with booster fertilisers or growth-forcing environmental conditions.  An orchid will be between four and five years old by the time it produces its first flower spike and is ready for sale.

We are one of the very few breeders of oncidiums in the world’. And on the other they are well known for good quality plants for the domestic market including the ‘Moth’, the cool growing Oncidium and the popular ‘Cymbidium’, a cool growing plant from Indo-China. Over the years the nursery has won more than eighty three RHS gold medals.

Orchids are the royalty of all indoor plants exuding exoticism.  In the 19th-century there was a craze for orchids similar to the ‘tulip mania’ of the 17th century/. The luscious texture of their generous petals and the majestic strappy foliage are a winning combination. Unfortunately they are often regarded as a ‘difficult fragile plant’ as well as being inordinately expensive’.

A fine display of McBean's breathtaking orchids.

A fine display of McBean’s breathtaking orchids.

But as Jim states ‘It couldn’t be further from the truth, orchids are tough plants. And given that they bloom for at least two or three months they are a lot cheaper than cut flowers. Most are killed by drowning. People swear blind they don’t water them too much.   But we even get plants back with tide marks on the pots.’ (McBeans will re-pot your orchid and give it a bit of tlc).

DSCF2649 Orchids grown in Sussex

Cymbidium ‘Almeda’.


‘You have to remember that in the wild they grow in very arid open soil. They should be watered once a week in the summer and once a fortnight in the winter using rainwater. Modern sitting rooms are good for the majority of orchids’.

‘We are a winter crop, it’s good that we don’t have any competition,’ says Jim in his characteristically droll manner as we explore the glasshouses. They are brimming with orchids on the cusp of flowering just right for the Christmas market.McBeans began as a fern nursery. ‘The story is that a few orchids from Patagonia came over with some ferns and sold for a hundred times more than the ferns and being canny Scots, they decided to switch to orchids. ‘The mark-up was astronomical as there were huge fatalities in those days only about 10% survived the long journey to Sussex from foreign climes such as Chile.

orchids 1 (003)

They were expensive to grow as they needed lots and lots of staff’. It is not surprising that an orchid collection became a status symbol. Even as late as the 1930s there were some thirty five staff at McBeans, today there just three employees.

Exotic orchids

A wonderful display of orchids in a rock garden like setting at McBean’s nursery in Sussex complete with Spanish moss.

Stuck for a Christmas present, an orchid from McBeans is just the ticket. Last date for Christmas orders is 14th December.  Or why not attend an Open Day (check website for details) and be transported into the exotic world of orchids.

McBeans Orchids, Cooksbridge, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 4PR   Telephone:  01273 400228

13 Cale Street, Chelsea, London SW3 3QS  Telephone: 0207-349 8638.


The RHS London Orchid Show April 1st -2nd 2016