LONDON – The weather outside is frightful — it has been for weeks, with parts of the country experiencing the worst floods in decades — but it's positively warm inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It's humid too, tropical in fact.
The heat and moisture are necessary for the tens of thousands of orchids inside — orchids that are providing flower-loving Brits with reason to believe that this grim, soggy winter, with its record January rainfall, may soon be over.
The annual Orchid Festival at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is a rite of early spring as British as breakfast tea, a chance to celebrate the hardy flowers that seem to grow like magic on trees and rocks. Their ornate blossoms offer welcome reassurance that better days are near — as do the bulbs just starting to sprout in the beds of one of the world's oldest and best known botanical gardens.
"It's so brightly colorful," said Rich Cooper, leaving the glasshouse with a sweaty smile. "You're trapped inside by cruel weather for some time and suddenly, even in the rain, you can come to an almost tropical spot and just see lush jungle color. It's just beautiful."
The festival draws a cult-like following of likeminded enthusiasts, including many who, like the 58-year-old Cooper, return year after year. Officials won't release precise figures, but they say the month-long orchid extravaganza doubles attendance at a normally slow time of year.
This year's display highlights the grit of Victorian-era orchid hunters, who spent months or years on perilous expeditions designed to bring exotic plants from places like Papua New Guinea and the Amazon basin back to London, where rare orchids could sell for tens of thousands of pounds (dollars).
It is a testament to the softer side of Empire — not the hubris of the British expeditionary forces, but the curiosity of the British scientist, collector and eccentric.
"It must have been horrific in Victorian times," conservatory manager Nick Johnson said. "It took a few months sea voyage to get out to these places. They had to hire 40 or 50 people to take equipment into the field, through dangerous territory, and they lost a lot of people. They would collect orchids from the Andes, and they would get rotten before they were even loaded onto ships. That's weeks and weeks worth of work lost."
The display includes letters back to Kew from hunters in the field and a replica of a makeshift hunters' camp as it would have been set up in the 1880s.
"This British obsession with orchids has lasted 150 years now," Johnson said. "We try to do a little education but at the same time have a little fun and add a bit of color to peoples' lives this time of year."