Orchid fancier: Roald Dahl

Several years ago I heard author Joy Cowley reminisce about a visit she had made to the home of Roald Dahl, a superstar in the firmament of children’s literature, while he was adapting her 1967 book Nest in a Fallen Tree to the silver screen (it became the 1971 movie The Night Digger).

It was an hilarious set of stories, especially when faced with the image of Cowley throwing up into the master’s indoor swimming pool after she’d imbibed one too many of his rather strong cocktails! The pair kept in touch until Dahl’s death in 1990.

Besides the cocktails, the other thing I dredged up last night from the recesses of memory was her description of a wall beside the pool – running water, she said, and  covered in orchids. He also had a glasshouse for his orchids beside the pool.

A quick Google or three later and it turns out I remembered correctly (not always a given these days). His widow Felicity (Liccy) is on record as saying that onions and orchids were his horticultural passions and growing them appealed to his competitive nature. She mentions his ‘gold-medal-winning orchids’ but adds he gave them all away towards the end of his life. The garden, still in Liccy’s ownership and next door to the Roald Dahl Museum, is at Gipsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

A 2010 biography by Donald Sturrock records that Dahl’s childhood interest in flowers had been reawakened by an elderly colonel he came across during his war in East Africa, a man who had been to South America in search of orchids.

During the summer of 1964, spent in Hawaii where his first wife Patricia Neal was filming In Harm’s Way with John Wayne, Dahl searched the islands for Phalaenopsis to take back to a planned new, heated orchid house.

From the biography: … his orchid house also contained a huge cactus he had inherited from his mother and that periodically required the roof to be raised to accommodate it.

A Dahl quote from another website: “Some people like tomatoes, I like orchids. Partly because of their beauty, partly because they are tricky to grow – it takes two years before any buds appear, and the flowers are very small.”

His bio note on the Macmillian publishing website quotes Dahl as saying that he breeds orchids and a 1977 New York Times article has this: When not writing he is mooching restlessly around the countryside or working in his greenhouse experimenting with 400 breeds of the rare and splendid phalaeonopsis orchid and thinking up new and highly original plots — “a dreaded business” he calls it.

Later, apparently, the orchid house went in favour of a new guest wing at the property.

The Roald Dahl Rose was debuted at the 2016 Chelsea Flower Show to mark the centenary of his birth but as far as I could see there has been no orchid yet named for him. (The link also shows a photo of Dahl in his orchid house.)

Among his other hobbies were breeding budgies, breeding dogs, collecting fine art, collecting wine and playing golf! He also helped invent several medical devices.

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