Blowing Hot and Cold

Cymbidium hybrid, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Cymbidium’s are cool growers and can even spend time outdoors in the summer

In 1944 Winterbourne’s third and final private owner, John Nicolson, bequeathed the house and garden to the University of Birmingham. Responsibility for the garden was assumed by the Department of Botany who quickly renamed the grounds as the ‘Winterbourne Research Gardens’ supplementing the already established plant collection with new species intended for use by students of botany. This complex history, one of both public and private ownership, combines to produce a garden composed of many different layers. The Japanese influences introduced by John Nicolson appear alongside the utilitarian ones favoured by Winterbourne’s former academic stewards. Nowhere is this more evident than when considering the Gilbert Orchid House whose current tropical inhabitants belie its former use.


“Orchids are an increasingly popular houseplant. The most commonly sold for this purpose is Phalaenopsis, or the moth orchid. You should take care to place your moth orchid in a suitable position; they require a minimum temperature of 18 degrees, light from an east or west facing window and a cosy spot free from draughts.” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

Antarctic, A News Bulletin, New Zealand Antarctic Society, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Antarctic, A News Bulletin, New Zealand Antarctic Society

The Gilbert Orchid House, then called the Bryotron, was first used by the British Antarctic Survey in the 1960s. Bryophytes are non-vascular land plants such as mosses and lichens which dominate the vegetative landscape in the South Pole. During this period extensive research was carried out by the University of Birmingham, in conjunction with the Birtish Antarctic Survey, into the taxonomy, growth and reproductive responses of these incredible plants.  The majority of the continent is permanently covered with ice and snow. Only 1% of land, mainly along the coastal regions, is sometimes snow-free and habitable by plants. Despite these challenges, alongside the 100 species of moss, 25 species of liverwort and 300 to 400 species of lichen, there are in fact two flowering endemic species of plant; the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), but no trees or shrubs.

Antarctic, A News Bulletin, New Zealand Antarctic Society, letter from D.W.H. Walton, Winterbourne Research Gardens, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
Antarctic, A News Bulletin, New Zealand Antarctic Society, letter from D.W.H. Walton, Winterbourne Research Gardens

This intriguing original use gave rise to a most unusual aspect of design. Plants native to the Antarctic have evolved to thrive in a unique combination of climatic conditions. Temperatures are extremely low. Most of the potentially available water is frozen and moisture can be difficult to find. Not only this, but there is often very little light meaning that the periods in which plants can actively grow is short. Subsequently, the Bryotron was built to face north, replicating the conditions of the earth’s southern most point. The south side of the glasshouse is dominated by an enormous brick wall where you would typically expect to find nothing but glazing capitalising on the prime aspect of the sun.


“Orchids require a particular watering regime. They love humidity but hate to sit in water permanently which risks rotting their fleshy roots. It is best to spray your orchid daily with a fine mister and water the pot only once a week during the growing season. Room temperature rainwater is the best. Rainwater is usually very slightly acidic which is just the right PH to keep your orchid happy.” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

Now in the 21st century, with a renewed focus on the horticultural dimensions of Winterbourne, working with a gloomy north facing glasshouse poses somewhat of a challenge for the garden team. In 2014 the Bryotron was restored and re-born as the Gilbert Orchid House. The original aluminium frame has been replaced by one of red cedar in keeping with the remaining glasshouses in our range. The lean-to style construction is now slightly modified. It has been replaced with a small apex roof which now captures some sun where previously only shade was cast. A glazed panel on the south side aids the capture of light further and in a radical departure from its original use a substantial heating system now allows tropical species to thrive benefiting greatly from the improved levels of light.

“Orchids brought in flower often fail to live up to their promise in subsequent years. Over-watering is the most common cause. Many orchids require a rest period outside of their main growing season where watering should be significantly reduced. If your orchid fails to flower it is important you find out which species you have and identify when its rest period should be.” Stephen Haines, Head Gardener, Winterbourne House and Garden

The The Gilbert Orchid House, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
The Gilbert Orchid House

Orchids are the ideal inhabitants of our new updated glasshouse; diffuse light is the key to growing these highly prized exotics. Too much direct sunlight can lead to scorched plants or discoloured yellow-red leaves. Alongside our orchid collection grow several other tropical species. Large beds are filled with evergreens such as the climbing Philodendron whilst the timbers in the eaves of the roof are dressed with species of Tillandsia; brilliantly adaptive air plants sometimes referred to as old man’s beard.

X Aphoroheliocereus, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt
There are thousands of epiphytic species of all types of plants including this cactus X Aphoroheliocereus

Most of our orchids grow on the branches of other trees as they would in the tropical rainforests we are attempting to recreate. Orchids are epiphytes meaning that they anchor themselves not in the soil but onto the structures of other plants where they derive moisture and nutrients from the humid air which surrounds them. Here they cling and make themselves at home, high above the attentions of hungry herbivores on the forest floor, without damaging their host in any significant way.

The newly restored Gilbert Orchid House is named after donors Professor Geoffrey and Mrs Lilo Gilbert who worked in the Department of Chemistry between 1947 and 1985. When not in the labs, they enjoyed spending time in the gardens at Winterbourne. They left a gift in their will to ensure future generations could continue to appreciate the house and garden. Click here to find out how you too can leave a lasting legacy at Winterbourne.

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9 thoughts on “Blowing Hot and Cold

  1. What a wonderful informative post. The Gilbert Orchid House is just gorgeous. I will be looking forward to next months post for a little more. Thanks for the lovely pictures and post.


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