Horticulturist Tom Hart Dyke’s dangerous hunt for orchids

PUBLISHED: 14:01 09 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:01 09 April 2018

Tom will continue to expand the collection in the orchid house (photo: Leigh Clapp)

Tom will continue to expand the collection in the orchid house (photo: Leigh Clapp)


Growing orchids is a passion for many across the globe. In Kent, Tom Hart Dyke’s love of these beautiful flowers put him in grave peril but has since been expressed with a dedicated collection as part of his World Garden exhibits at Lullingstone Castle

Horticulturist, author, plant hunter, TV presenter, self-confessed ‘plant nut’ and creator of the World Garden, Tom Hart Dyke, is heir to the Lullingstone Castle estate and the 20th generation of the Hart Dykes to live at the castle.

He has an absolute passion for plants, in particular the orchid family, one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world with some 40,000 species.

The Moroccan blue room (photo: Leigh Clapp)The Moroccan blue room (photo: Leigh Clapp)

“My granny inspired me to enter the world of orchids,” he explains. “At a young age I’d spend many happy hours with granny searching for wild orchids such as bee and lizard orchids, on our local golf course.

“Orchids have an electromagnetic hold on me, and the human race in general! It’s their sheer diversity, beauty, adaptation, rarity, growing in challenging places and that they’re sometimes tough to cultivate that I personally find unable to resist. There are so many new species to discover; hundreds of new species are found every year.”

Pelargoniums and palms in the Moroccan room (photo: Leigh Clapp)Pelargoniums and palms in the Moroccan room (photo: Leigh Clapp)

It was plant hunting the orchid that nearly cost Tom his life when he was kidnapped in the Panamanian jungle in 2000. What could have been a tragedy became the impetus for the World Garden of Plants, with the idea born out of the depths of despair when Tom and his companion Paul Winder were told to prepare to die.

Paul spent the day in prayer while Tom decided he would use his precious time left to design his dream garden, drawing plans in his diary for a World Garden that contained the plants he had collected across the globe, planted in their countries of origin.

Succulents and cacti in the Hot and Spiky house (photo: Leigh Clapp)Succulents and cacti in the Hot and Spiky house (photo: Leigh Clapp)

Miraculously, the boys weren’t executed, but instead released, and on his return home Tom wrote The Cloud Garden, detailing his experiences in the jungle, and began the evolution of his vision, transforming the walled garden at the castle into a botanical collection.

You would think the experience may have stopped other expeditions but not for this intrepid plant hunter, who has made return journeys to South America, although thankfully in safer areas.

The mix of orchids and temperate plants (photo: Leigh Clapp)The mix of orchids and temperate plants (photo: Leigh Clapp)

“I enjoy the sheer sense of adventure and anticipation of what I may find in the wild, especially if venturing into poorly understood landscapes,” he says. “I’m hoping to visit the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean and hunt down a few species of Melocactus – a weird, slow-growing genus blessed with extraordinary ‘Turk’s Cap’ apical growth.”

One of the latest developments at the World Garden is Orchis, a greenhouse opened in 2016 that is dedicated to orchids. One wonders if it holds mixed emotions recalling the dark time in the jungle, but for the irrepressible Tom it is all sunshine.

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial (photo: Leigh Clapp)Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial (photo: Leigh Clapp)

“It’s brilliant, really. It’s where it all started. I’ve been doing the World Garden for 11 years but now to have orchids is the icing on the cake,” he beams.

Specimens are still being added and Tom’s long-term aim is to house around 200 varieties, mainly from the forests of Asia, Australia, Africa and the Americas.

Lovely orchids gleam among the foliage (photo: Leigh Clapp)Lovely orchids gleam among the foliage (photo: Leigh Clapp)

“I’d love to discover a species of ‘Black Orchid’ – the Holy Grail of the orchid world. Reputed to grow in Kalimantan, Borneo, it will be the botanical find of the century!” In spring stately cymbidiums, dazzlingly white Coelogynes and spidery Restrepia orchids look wonderful in the orchid house, accompanied with the climbing pitcher plants and the Parrot’s Beak Busy Lizzie.

Take care on your visit as there’s still a hint of peril, with the world’s most dangerous plant, the deadly Queensland stinger, also growing in the orchid house – behind a wire cage for safety!

There are lots of garden jobs to be done in April (photo: Leigh Clapp)There are lots of garden jobs to be done in April (photo: Leigh Clapp)

As well as the series of outdoor beds set out in continents, there are other areas under cover to explore, housing an array of tender exotics. Highlights in spring include golden mimosa in the Australis area, the world’s tallest fuchsia in the Cloud Garden, circular pink discs of flowers on Mammillaria hahniana cactus and towering tree echiums in the Hot and Spiky house, along with potted specimens in the bright blue Moroccan garden that is fashioned after the iconic Majorelle gardens.

“We have a splendid new selection of succulent wonders in a new polytunnel that’ll be opening on the first May Bank Holiday; some are exceptionally rare and of a high quality,” says Tom.

“There are lots of new plantings this year, including a selection of iris, peonies, pampas grass, rudbeckias, asters and a gorgeous Texan Judas Tree; our National Collection of eucalypts is maturing nicely and many of the evergreen delights are coming into flower.”

Visitors return to see how the garden is evolving but also undoubtedly to be inspired by Tom’s absolute enthusiasm for plants, and to discover where his plant hunting has taken him this time as he continues to add new plants to the World Garden.

Get the look: Orchids

• For warm situations, Phalaenopsis are rightfully popular and such a range is available in a wide variety of colours.

• For cooler situations, you can’t go wrong with good old Cymbidiums.

Growing advice

• Ideally use tepid rainwater; never leave orchids standing in water

• To increase humidity stand on tray of gravel and mist regularly

• When feeding using a Chempak orchid fertilizer use at 1/10 of the recommended dosage

• Never place plant right next to a window or too near a radiator or in a draughty position

Tom’s favourite orchids

• Stanhopea have delightfully yet intoxicating pendulous blooms and remind me of my time in captivity

• Paphiopedilum ‘Maudiae’ is also superb - with gorgeous goblin green flowers

• Dracula vampira - is awesome, with it spookily floral menacing face

Plant of the month

Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

• showy perennial bulb

• bell-shaped flowers in yellow, red or orange

• much larger than other fritillaries

• fist-sized bulbs

Growing notes

• hardy

• well-drained soil in full sun

• height up to 120cm

• work well in mixed borders

• the foxy smell is believed to deter rodents and moles

• add plenty of grit when planting bulbs in September or October

• and take care as bulb can irritate skin and eyes

• after flowering allow foliage to die down, when yellow cut to ground level

Jobs to be done

• This is a busy month for planting hardy flowers, removing weeds, staking tall growing herbaceous perennials and deadheading winter and early spring flowers

• Many shrubs can have a spring tidy-up, including winter jasmine, buddleja and smoke bush

• Deadhead daffodils as they fade but remember to leave the foliage to die down naturally to keep the nutrients in the bulb for next year’s flowering

• Sow crops such as beetroot, peas, broad beans, broccoli, sprouts, lettuce, rocket, cabbage, and chard. Plant out onion and shallot sets

• Mulch around your fruit trees with well-rotted manure or compost. Strawberries should be sending out new growth so ensure they are well watered in dry weather

Find out more

The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford DA4 0JA

Open: 31 March to 28 October, Fri, Sat, Sun, BHM (12pm-5pm)

Admission: £9, child £4.50


For your diary

Easter Egg Quiz: 1 and 2 April 2018 (11am-5pm)

Medieval Weekend: 27 and 28 May (11am-5pm)

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