Pupils at a Somerset comprehensive have travelled to faraway, exotic places on their school trips - and all because they have a passion for orchids. Andrew Mourant digs deeper
Simon Pugh Jones loves orchids. Not just for their beauty, but for 16 years they have inspired his students at a Somerset comprehensive, encouraging a business sense as well as an interest in botany.
Many of those students have travelled far since the physics teacher began the orchid project at Writhlington business and enterprise school in Radstock, Bath. Since 2000 there have been field trips to Costa Rica, Guatemala and Brazil.
AVCE science A-level from AQA, called applied science since September 2005, much of which is dependent on original research, is one of the most popular subjects at Writhlington.
But orchid research is not just about producing the plant biologists of the future. For Year 7, joining the greenhouse club and tending orchids may begin simply as something to do at lunchtime. Thus it was for Year 9 pupil Daniel Groves, who "didn't see the point of just wandering around" during break time. Pupils get hands-on from day one.
"Formal responsibility comes after a week or so," says Mr Pugh Jones. "With 30,000 species and several hundred genera, it's not hard to find a plant group for everyone."
Daniel has grown three varieties, Carrleyas and the releated genera of Sophronitis and Brassavola, and has been involved in a fund-raising and conservation project in Gabon, West Africa. But he hasn't yet decided if he'll pursue botany or environmental science interests in the sixth form.
Writhlington has become the UK's largest producer and seller of orchid seedlings to the public. "The project is a balance between science, horticulture and business - they're all interlinked," says Mr Pugh Jones.
Profits from the sale of seedlings subsidise field trips abroad besides supporting education and conservation projects in tropical orchid habitats.
For one, in Gabon, seeds from the native leopard orchid and other species were propagated at Writhlington and sold through a garden centre for pound;4.50. From each sale pound;1 went to help support the education orchid garden at the Monts de Cristal national park, in Libreville, and a local man who looks after it.
The growing laboratory contains shelves stacked to the ceiling with orchids brought on in jars donated by Kew's micropropagation department. Seeds are germinated in agar, a nutrient jelly containing minerals, vitamins and hormones. The environment is as sterile as possible. Air gets to the seedling through a hole in the plastic lid covered with cotton wool to keep out bacteria. Laboratory and greenhouse care give students lessons for life. "All this is for real. We don't play at anything here," says Mr Pugh Jones. "We've been working with botanists at Kew to share ideas and research.
"Three AVCE science students assessed the danger of extinction for the genus pleione, applying mathematical analyses to herbarium data. Through email, they compared this with expert opinion around the world. This allowed them to evaluate the analyses and the threat to each species in the genus."
On a recent trip to Guatemala, students produced a field guide to a site of major importance and were able to identify all varieties seen, even though only 20 per cent were in flower.
One was applied science A-level student Callum Swift, whose interest in horticulture stems "from nicking tomatoes from my grandfather". He joined the greenhouse club in Year 7 and soon found himself looking after a genus of orchid, odontoglossum, and related families, found in central and South America. He's clear about his ambition. "I'm aiming to study plant science at Aberystwyth university, which I hope will lead to botany and taxonomy,"
Fellow sixth-former Hannah Heal, a long-standing club member, passes on her knowledge to younger students in the club, but also helps teach others investigation skills through research presentations. She also has her mother growing orchids. Most of her A-level applied science will be based around first-hand study of an orchid-rich habitat in Brazil. Hannah also attended the European Orchid Conference in London in 2003. "We took along seedlings in jars and sold them for pound;8 each," she said. "Without selling plants, going to Brazil would have cost us pound;1,300, but we've only had to find Pounds 500."
The greenhouse club numbers around 30. It has taught every member the rudiments of botany and an ease with the often unwieldy Latin names for each genus. Down in the greenhouse, Eve Howlett, in Year 8, is proud of being entrusted with challenging varieties of disas and pleiones: "They need a special compost, to be cool, but not cold, and must only have rainwater with the plant food."
The greenhouse area has four sections, including a hothouse, with varying temperatures. All club members are particular about managing it in orderly fashion and someone takes responsibility for tending the plants through the school holidays. The academic benefits are clear: 45 per cent doing AVCE science A-level last year achieved As or Bs.
This year, for the first time, Writhlington is sending a student to study botany at university. Many have studied related subjects such as geography or environmental science; or gone on to college to study horticulture.
"The project is a life-changing experience for all the students involved,"
said Mr Pugh Jones. "It opens a world of plants, tropical habitats, original science and real enterprise. There's the fun and excitement of becoming a part of something that counts and that's changing our world for the better."
* Grow as many different tropical species as you can. Biodiversity is their strength.
* Join an orchid society:see the British Orchid Council (below) for a list.
* Get involved in your local orchid populations. British orchids are fantastic, go on safari from May to July and see them in their natural habitat.
* www.british-orchid-council.info is an umbrella organisation bringing together amateur and commercial growers and the scientific community. Links 40 regional societies.
* Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond: www.rbgkew.org.uk. Key "orchids"
into search engine and you'll find sites relating to propagation, cultivation, and so on