The story of Equatorial Plants

Close on forty years ago, a young government botanist who had specialised in fungi and moulds on potatoes went off to visit an old friend who was living in 900 hectares of unspoiled rainforest, 75 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. It was his first visit to Brazil, and he instantly fell in love: with the climate, with the terrain, but, most of all, with the orchids hanging over his head, leaping out at him on forest paths, and nestling in rocky crevices. Six months later, Richard Warren, then in his middle thirties, threw away his last mouldy research potato and  spent the next years of his life helping his friend on the spot nurture the conservation project that was successfully protecting this last little precious corner of incomparable mountain cloud forest in the Serra do Mar.

Now, in 2017, Dr Warren’s laboratory still sows seed, raises mother flasks, and each year produces commercial flasks of specialised species for Dutch, German, Australian and US growers, also finding time to send out individual seedlings for hobby growers throughout Europe and the UK.

But the Equatorial Plant Company is not confined to Brazilian species. Early on it branched out to include specimens from the high altitude zones of Papua New Guinea, thanks to the enthusiasm of Paddy Woods who collected there for the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, on two major expeditions. Paddy Woods, as Rudolph Schlechter before him, recognised the horticultural potential of these New Guinea species and encouraged Warren to pollinate plants and collect seed to introduce these species into cultivation. “What I love about these species, especially the Oxyglossum Dendrobiums”, says Warren, “is their extraordinary colourful and long-lived flowers. There is nothing else like them and indeed, some people seeing them for the first time, think they are beautiful alpines rather than orchids!”

And certainly these plants do seem to have a captive following. On the laboratory shelves is a real favourite, Dendrobium cuthbertsonii, in four different colour forms. The main problems for most growers is in weaning these plants out of flask, but Warren solves that by giving full instructions and making growers aware of all the potential pitfalls, and over the years has seen more and more of these glorious plants at all the shows he attends.

Warren is also known for his work, way back, with Paphiopedilum sanderianum. When it was rediscovered by Edinburgh botanists in 1979, it soon became the focus for orchid smugglers. Keen to undermine this lucrative trade, conservation-minded botanists encouraged Warren to have a go at raising this highly endangered species from seed. He succeeded, and produced this rare and extraordinary orchid in considerable numbers.

For thirty years, Richard Warren also produced a highly idiosyncratic but deeply knowledgeable Newsletter for keen subscribers. Such was the interest shown by everyone that Warren and Miller were soon forced to add on the running of a small travel agency indulging orchid devotees desperate to visit conservation areas in Brazil to study orchids, even guiding their clients through the forests. Since his semi-retirement, alas, interested parties must rest content with reading Warren and Miller’s densely illustrated edition of ORCHIDS OF HIGH MOUNTAIN ATLANTIC RAINFOREST IN SOUTHEASTERN BRAZIL, concentrating on the cool growing orchids found above 1000 metres, and its companion volume, ORCHIDS OF THE ORGAN MOUNTAINS, a ground-breaking compendium of 600 species from the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Interestingly, since its inception, Equatorial Plant Company has remained a one-man-band. When asked why, Warren just grins and shrugs in his modest British fashion. “I suppose I quite like working on my own,” is all he can offer.

If the recipe works, why fix it? Long may he carry on doing so.