Although born into a family of orchid growers Philippe Lecoufle imagined a life surrounded not by beautiful plants but at the wheel of a car. “As a young man I was obsessed with cars and racing. It was the 1960s and in France there was nothing more exciting than racing cars.”

Marc O'Neill
© Andrew Montgomery

In hindsight, he realises that as a scion of one of the most important orchid breeders and growers it was inevitable that he would join the family business. The company was founded in 1886 by Philippe’s great-grandfather, Henri Vacherot, who was joined at the beginning of the 20th century by his son-in-law, Maurice Lecoufle. The nursery developed an international reputation for breeding spectacular orchids. A major breakthrough in orchid growing came in 1960 with the pioneering of micropropagation by Philippe’s father, also called Maurice. “The history of our family and the company is complex and made worse by the habit of calling everyone either Maurice or Marcel,” says Philippe.

Most of the pure-white Phalaenopsis available today are descended from one of their hybrids, Phalaenopsis Henriette Lecoufle gx ‘Boule de Neige’

Orchid production is very much an international business, and Philippe’s father travelled widely. “When I was young my teacher told my father that his son was too stupid to ever learn to speak a foreign language so I was sent to school in England for four years. When I came home at the age of 18, I could speak English and started working with my father.” As a child he’d had to repot and clean plants, so was already familiar with orchids but Philippe now began to study hybridisation and plant management techniques, working first in France and then in the USA and Germany. “I learned every aspect of hybridisation and cultivation. The more I learned the more attached I became to orchids.”

The influence of Vacherot & Lecoufle on the orchid trade has been enormous. The nursery was the first to introduce Phalaenopsis with spotted flowers and in the USA such plants are known as French spots. Most of the pure-white Phalaenopsis available today are descended from one of their hybrids, Phalaenopsis Henriette Lecoufle gx ‘Boule de Neige’, which Philippe remembers presenting to the RHS. “One of my happiest memories is of driving on a cold day in 1968 with my father to London with this great big plant on the back seat and seeing the reaction of the RHS to our creation.” The plant received the Society’s Award of Merit and First Class Certificate. Two decades later, six of Philippe’s Phalaenopsis hybrids received Awards of Merit on the same day. Philippe himself has been awarded the RHS Veitch Memorial Medal.

It is a great reward for me to see the pleasure our plants bring. I love seeing people’s reaction, their excitement at our plants

Philippe is probably best known to British gardeners for his stands at flower shows, particularly the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival. Elegant and urbane, he spends his days at shows engaging passionately and knowledgeably with customers and orchid enthusiasts. His exhibits always contain plants of the highest quality arranged in unfussy, graceful displays. “Plant shows are hard work, particularly Hampton Court, because we have to transport the plants through the cool of the night but it is worth it,” he says. “It is a great reward for me to see the pleasure our plants bring. I love seeing people’s reaction, their excitement at our plants.” Show judges also react well to Philippe’s displays and at Hampton Court awarded him Best in Show three years running. “I feel honoured to have received this award for three years and also content that they did not give it us again, because other nurseries also need to be encouraged.”

Due in part to his father’s work promoting propagation techniques, orchids are now widely available. Phalaenopsis are produced on an industrial scale and you can find them for sale very cheaply in supermarkets throughout the world. “We do not compete with this,” says Philippe. “We continue to breed new plants, propagate our favourites always to the highest quality. It is the quality of our plants and the help we give to grow them that is the key to our success.” Philippe thinks that the disposable nature of mass-produced orchids is not good for the image of orchid growing. “Orchids can live for ever, so we need to educate people how to care for their plants.” Educating consumers about how to nurture their plants is an important part of the nursery’s work.

Philippe is now officially retired and has handed the nursery on to the next generation of the family. “I have the great good fortune to have three beautiful daughters and one of them, Colombe, wants to take the company forward.” Philippe will continue to hybridise orchids and to support his daughter but, he says, “young people have to be allowed to do things in their own way without interference from my generation. I inherited from my father something very special and am happy to pass it on.” And regrets about the missed racing driver career? “Oh no, in the 1960s racing driving was a very dangerous occupation. I would not have had such a long and satisfying life working with something I am passionate about, working with these beautiful plants.”

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Useful information Vacherot & Lecoufle, La Tuilerie, 29, Rue de Valenton, 94470 Boissy-Saint-Léger, France. Tel + 33 (0)1 45 69 10 42, Open daily except Mondays. The nursery also organises regular open days and groups can arrange guided visits of the collections.