Dorset lives: The Orchid Man – Keith Andrew
David Downton reviews the life and work of Keith Andrew and his 50 years of orchid breeding
Published in February ’15
Keith Andrew was born into a farming family in Braunton, Devon. As a teenager, he purchased his first orchid plant for thirty shillings, a tidy sum in the 1940s. On leaving school he worked at a local vegetable growing nursery, but later moved to Dartington Hall, a well-funded self-supporting educational establishment, where initially he worked with trees and shrubs, but then in the glasshouses, became associated with orchids and was bitten by the bug.
Called up for National Service in the RAF, when bases were self sufficient in vegetable production, he was an enthusiastic gardener and recalls how often his camp won inter-base competitions.
He had knowledge of a renowned breeding orchid named ‘Alexanderi Westonbirt,’ named after the legendary hybridiser who lived as grower to Lord Holford on his nearby Westonbirt Estate and so he borrowed a bicycle and cycled seven miles to meet the great man. He was well rewarded and felt proud on leaving that Alexander shook his hand and wished him well in his career.
After National Service he returned to complete his studies, and on gaining the full RHS certificate Keith moved to Hilliers, the largest horticulturists in the UK. On a duty weekend there he spotted a plant left in the corner of a glasshouse, covered with sacking. Lifting the cover he found a massive cymbidium orchid (it was left for repotting by an elderly lady who never returned to collect it) which he was later able to purchase for ten shillings.
He chopped this into sections for propagating and it turned out to be ‘species cymbidium lowianum’ with a bulb almost pineapple size, producing up to forty five flowers on a single flower spike. He still has a piece.
In 1952 answering an advert in The Orchid Review for a position with Mr Barnard-Hankey of Dorset Orchids at Plush, he was invited for interview by return post and appointed to assist growing orchids. Keith initially lodged at the Poachers Inn, but later moved nearer work to an almost uninhabited cottage in Plush; it was home to chickens who had nested there. The sensitive hands of the orchid hybridiser also had to shovel sixty tons of coal a year and then remove the subsequent ash to make the car park. He sometimes left of an evening courting his later wife Janis with the romantic parting words: ‘I have to be off now to stoke the boiler‘.
In 1946 Barnard-Hankey built the largest cymbidium orchid house of its time measuring 80 by 30 feet using 10,000 square feet of glass; it was the first purpose-built orchid breeding unit after the war and business flourished, exporting seedlings worldwide. Britain was then a world leader in orchid cultivation and, incredibly, in the 1950s, orchids were Britain’s third largest export.
In 1965, Keith, and a fellow orchid specialist Brian Rittershausen, took plants to India where he also researched the habitat of his beloved ‘cymbidium Devonianum.There was interest in breeding an elusive blue orchid and Keith was seeking new species which might help attain this seemingly impossible goal.
Eventually Mr Hankey retired to Scotland to pursue a new interest breeding daffodils and after a brief period in the hands of a test pilot, Keith and a veterinarian friend with business acumen became business partners and started anew as ‘Keith Andrew Orchids’.
Keith had a substantial collection of his own and his partner had for many years helped out at Chelsea and other shows and had been paid with orchids, so had divisions of breeding stock previously used.
He eventually bought out his partner in 1976, but he was immediately faced with the expense of reroofing several glasshouses, as no money had been spent on the nursery since the War; costs had rocketed and hybridising required several years before there was a return.
Growing orchids became more expensive than selling them so Keith took out an advertisement in the Western Daily Mail asking people ‘to come and dunk your biscuit in our tea in the Tropics of Plush’. It was an inspired catalyst and the nursery’s February open weekends attracted thousands of visitors over five years. Orchid societies travelled to Plush from as far afield as Holland. Keith recalls sales of between £3000 and £5000 which helped to resurrect finances. This though, was the heyday. By the late 1980s, large-scale tissue culture was replacing the skill of hybridising, which was both costly and time-consuming. It was time to close the business. He sold his entire stock of 83,000 plants to a nursery in Hawaii and houses were built on Keith’s land.
Keith Andrew has received much recognition for breeding some of the finest orchids in the world, from a small nursery in Dorset. His philosophy of ‘being able to see beyond what you are looking at’ has been fundamental to his success. He has produced over a thousand different varieties of orchids, many acclaimed worldwide including six hundred cymbidium hybrids and a hundred crosses from Phalaenopsis. He began winning medals in 1972 and gained gold and silver during 22 years exhibiting at Chelsea. He has also played an active part in the RHS as judge and long-time member of the Orchid Committee. The RHS recognised his achievements by awarding him their Gold Veitch Memorial Medal.
Now 84, Keith still retains a passion for growing orchids which he does in a century-old iron framed glasshouse set in his garden at Piddletrenthide, where older village visitors remembered having their hair cut, when the previous owner, a local builder, doubled as a barber.
Keith Andrew orchids are still in demand today, fifty years later. There is surely no better testament to a lifetime’s work than to see your creations, all bred in Dorset, last the test of time? ◗