The Eric Young Foundation on the isle of Jersey in the English Channel is considered a kind of "Avalon" in the arthurian world of orchid collecting. Their website is all of four tantalizing pages and little is written in the media about the place where some of the world's most beautiful hybrid orchids are bred, so I was excited to learn about this article in the L.A. Times. Alas, it is behind an unpenetrable registration page, so I've published an excerpt below. Read on.
CHANNEL ISLANDS ENGLAND
By Susan Spano, Times Staff Writer
The private orchid collection and breeding center was established in 1986 by Eric Young, an English eccentric who had three Rolls-Royces but bristled at the high cost of compost. Young came to Jersey after World War II and became a successful businessman, which enabled him to collect snuff jars and indulge his passion for orchids.
People think of orchids as the touchy, exotic flowers displayed in elegant settings. But they grow almost everywhere and in astounding variety. There are about 30,000 species in the plant family, and hybrid orchids — crosses between species and hybrids or two hybrids — number in the hundreds of thousands, with about 2,000 new ones registered with England's Royal Horticultural Society every year.
Creating new hybrids can take a decade from pollination to new bloom and increasingly relies on genetic engineering to yield crosses with bigger, deeper-colored blooms. Thus, orchidologists like those at the Eric Young Foundation have something in common with Dr. Frankenstein, except that the result of their efforts isn't a monster but a flower.
A growing passion
The first hybrid orchid was created in 1856, launching a period of orchid mania in England. Horticulturalists began journeying to the far corners of the globe in search of as yet unknown species, sold to wealthy collectors at inflated prices. When such orchid aficionados died, their collections were usually dispersed, curtailing further hybridization from their collections.
Eric Young, who died in 1984, had the foresight to buy the contents of Sander's St. Albans Nursery, one of the world's best-known orchid collections, from which he carried on the work of orchid perfection.
The foundation is open to the public, but curator Purver had agreed to take me on a special tour before he flew off to London, where he was taking a hanging Stanhopea platyceras orchid in full bloom, for judging by the Royal Horticultural Society.
We met in the foyer of the display house, small compared with the adjacent production houses, where newly bred orchids emerge and eventually flower.
For foundation orchidologists, waiting for that to happen can be like biding your time for years to open your Christmas presents. Sometimes, the first blooming of a new hybrid is cause for jubilation, as when a plant discovered in Peru in the 1980s enabled the foundation to jump-start breeding of long neglected genus Phragmipedium, or Mandarin orchids.
Among the first hybrids bred from it was foundation star, Phragmipedium Eric Young, a copper-colored slip of a blossom as gossamer as the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
At other times, hybridizations disappoint, producing progeny no more distinguished than their parents. Perfecting an orchid's color, size and durability takes patience, above all. "But if we can create something beautiful that lasts only a day, that's acceptable to us," Purver says.
Fortunately, Purver has the means to experiment, unfettered by the need to produce orchids for the commercial market. That's thanks to Young's financial planning, which allowed the foundation to pursue its esoteric work, free of market influences.
"We have no commercial constraints," Purver says. "There's no place like this in the world."
The show house is lush, with winding paths and fountains, an artist's palette of color all year long, fed by the production houses. The colors of the orchids massed there struck me first, from the deep red of showy cymbidium orchids, known to most of us from Mother's Day corsages, to the delicately variegated yellow and white of branched Odontoglossum, found in the cloud forests of the South American Andes Mountains.
As we toured the display, Purver pointed out some of the orchid's distinguishing features, including, in some cases, its ability to grow in different habitats, and the modification of the flower to form lips, pouches and spurs. These often play a part in the strange sex lives of orchids, abetting reproduction by attracting and temporarily trapping the insects that collect a flower's pollen. After observing a Comet orchid with a particularly long, tubular spur, an English naturalist correctly predicted that there had to be an insect with a proboscis extenuated enough to enter it.
Adjacent to the show house is a viewing gallery overlooking the production houses. Because I was with the director, I got to go inside one of these long, glass-roofed structures filled with orchids at various stages of development. There, Purver showed me several extraordinary hybrids, such as subtle, sylph-like Phragmipedium Jason Fischer, and explained the criteria that judges use when giving awards. Chief among them are size and color, but something far less quantifiable is involved as well. Purver calls it character, the quality that makes a flower stand out.
The longer I looked at Jason Fischer, the more I understood what Purver meant and the more grateful I felt that there is a place in this jaded world where people still strive for perfection.
A sweet ending
The sun had come back out by the time I left the foundation, so I drove north on winding country lanes to a trailhead for the north coast path at Bouley Bay. From there, I walked about a mile east along cliffs tops carpeted in blooming yellow gorse.
Later, on the way back to Gorey, I stopped at Ransoms Garden Center. Besides selling potted plants and gardening supplies, it has a restaurant and tea room, where I had hot toffee cake with Jersey ice cream, sticky, rich and thrilling.
I'd like to have stayed longer, but early the next morning it was time to leave the hothouse island in the English Channel and face the doldrums of winter. But I felt up to it now, thanks to the flowers. Common daffodils and rare orchids alike, they are bringers of joy.