Orchids have always preyed on the minds of British gardeners - but they drove the Victorians completely crazy. Anna Pavord on the history and art of a strange cult
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's impossible to separate sex from the orchid. It's embedded in its name. It's embodied in its structure. Sex has dictated the extraordinary modifications of lip and mouth that lure insects into the voluptuous centre of these terrifying creatures. From the beginning (the Greek philosopher Theophrastus in c250BC), the flower was described in terms of the male genitalia. And so from the Greek word for testicle (orkhis), the orchid gets its name.

It's impossible to separate sex from the orchid. It's embedded in its name. It's embodied in its structure. Sex has dictated the extraordinary modifications of lip and mouth that lure insects into the voluptuous centre of these terrifying creatures. From the beginning (the Greek philosopher Theophrastus in c250BC), the flower was described in terms of the male genitalia. And so from the Greek word for testicle (orkhis), the orchid gets its name.

It's a flower for obsessives, a theme that Proust explores in Swann's Way, where the tropical cattleya, an orchid of archetypal pinkness and feminine frills, becomes a peverse fixation. Nero Wolfe, the detective hero of Rex Stout's stories shows a similar fetish and you can imagine Inspector Morse going the same way, if he had not found music first. Susan Orlean explores another aspect of obsession in The Orchid Thief. The book (which in turn mutated into Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman's film Adaptation) grew out of a brief newspaper report of a lawsuit involving an orchid buff called John Laroche, three Seminole Indians and the theft of plants, including the rare ghost orchid, from the Fakahatchee Strand near Naples on Florida's west coast.

If you don't share that obsession, you will almost certainly find orchids intimidating. They seem to look at you in the supercilious way that camels do, noting imperfections of dress and appearance and comparing them unfavourably with their own statuesque flawlessness. Botanically, too, they are a daunting family; between 25-30,000 species, terrestrial and epiphytic, are scattered through Central America, Africa, India and the Far East. Where do you start with a family as massive as that?

"With cymbidiums," I say, because they are as easy to grow as mustard and cress, requiring none of the expensive housing, heating and humidity that "proper" orchids demand. At the Columbia Rd street market in east London, vast cymbidiums, with sheaves of leaves big enough to hide a baby in, sell for the price of a bottle of wine. And moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) with wide white wings spread either side of their enigmatic faces, have become as iconic a piece of decoration, perched either side of a stripped down mantelpiece, as flights of plaster ducks were in the mock-Tudor semis of the Thirties.

Orchids, now micro-propagated in their trillions, have become Everyman's flower. But when they first started coming into this country from the East, they were great rarities, grown (and at the beginning, often killed) by a small band of obsessive collectors such as the wine merchant John Day (1824-1888) who built up an extraordinary hoard of orchids at his home at High Cross, Tottenham in North London.

He bought his first collection in 1852 from the nursery run by Conrad Loddiges in Hackney. Loddiges was a pioneer, one of the first nurserymen to import, cultivate and sell tropical orchids in Britain. For 50 plants Day paid £50 (about £3000 in today's money) and got, not workaday cymbidiums, but dendrobiums from India, odontoglossums from tropical America, lycastes, cattleyas, all aristocrats amongst orchids.

Less than 10 years later, a description of the High Cross orchid house, 30ft long by 11ft wide, appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle. In Victorian times, this was the journal of record for anyone interested in plants and, breathlessly, the magazine's correspondent wrote of the exemplary heating system, the "cool, moist bottom plan" worked out by Day's gardener, Robert Stone, the "unusual vigour and luxuriance" of the plants. "Every Orchidophilist ought to see them," he concluded.

In January 1863, a year after the Gardeners' Chronicle piece appeared, Day, who had been taking drawing lessons from a Royal Academician, Cornelius Durham, began to paint orchids. At first, he recorded the specimens in his own collection. Then he began to include rare new orchids arriving at Veitch's famous nursery in Chelsea. He got a special admission ticket for the Royal Botanic Gardens allowing him to paint specialities in Kew's famous orchid house.

Over about 25 years, he filled 53 "scrapbooks" as he called them with a series of glorious watercolours of orchids, scribbled round with notes of their acquisition, habitat, sale price, proper cultivation, all of which give a riveting glimpse into this obsessive world of the Victorian orchid collectors.

A selection of the 2,800 pages of the scrapbooks has recently been brought together with the help of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day. Day's paintings are combined with a scholarly commentary provided by Philip Cribb, the present curator of Kew's orchid herbarium and Michael Tibbs, a well-known orchid grower and breeder.

The obsession was sustained and intensified by an extraordinary web of plant collectors working in Assam, Bhutan, Columbia. In India, and later in Burma, Major Robson Benson enlivened his career as a soldier by collecting orchids for the nurseryman Hugh Low. Colonel Emeric Berkeley did the same thing in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands. Henry Blunt collected in Brazil and the northern Andes. William Boxall established himself in the Philippines and sent back glorious paphiopedilums, vandas and phalaenopsis. To transport them, he invented a special kind of case, using ground oyster shell as glazing.

Carl Roebelen collected for the ambitious orchid nurseryman, Frederick Sander of St Albans. One of his most famous introductions was the fabulous Phalaenopsis sanderiana, a wide-winged moth orchid with pale mauve-pink petals provocatively arranged around a creamy-yellow mouth. Roebelen had discovered the new orchid on Mindanao and with the ruthlessness typical of the Victorian collectors had stripped the area bare and amassed 21,000 of the plants ready to ship back to Sander. But then a hurricane struck the islands and the entire consignment was lost. When Sander heard the news he telegraphed Roebelen: "Return. Re-collect."

Some of the grander Victorian growers, such as the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth in Derbyshire and the Duke of Northumberland at Syon House in Middlesex, employed their own collectors, but orchid fanciers like John Day acquired their best treasures at auction. Nurserymen such as James Veitch, Conrad Loddiges and Benjamin Samuel Williams of the Victoria and Paradise Nurseries in Upper Holloway, regularly sent consignments of orchids to be auctioned by Messrs Stevens of King St, Covent Garden. It was in their sale room that, after an epic battle with a fellow enthusiast, Sir Trevor Lawrence, a contemporary of Day's, acquired the one single plant of Aerides lawrenciae imported by Frederick Sander from the Philippines.

Lawrence, who lived at Burford Lodge, near Dorking, Surrey, paid 235 guineas for this treasure, the equivalent of £14,000 today. The German taxonomist Heinrich Reichenbach named the orchid after Sir Trevor's wife, who, he wrote, "is considered to afford the most ardent stimulus to Sir Trevor's love for Aerides, always desiring the progress of the grand collection at Burford Lodge."

The craze for orchids, of course, had a disastrous effect on wild populations of the plant. By the time that John Day was painting the beautiful hybrid Paphiopedilum vexillarium raised by the breeder John Dominy at James Veitch's nursery in 1870, one of its parents, the Himalayan species Paphiopedilum fairrieanum was already almost extinct. But it was a wildly competitive market. Most professional collectors were under instructions from their employers to strip out entire populations of orchids so that the nurserymen could reap the financial advantage of their monopoly. Just a few, such as Edward Andre, regretted the "melancholy fate" of thousands of orchids imported to Europe. He welcomed the civil war that had broken out in Colombia in the 1870s as it would allow "a fallow time for the orchids, which otherwise would own a fair chance of extirpation."

At the beginning of the craze, many orchids did indeed suffer a "melancholy fate" because so little was known about their proper culture. In the wild, many of the most desirable kinds - phalaenopsis and elegant oncidiums - grow as epiphytes, anchoring themselves to trees, rather than in the ground. In the rain forests of Central and South America, you might find one single tree being used like an apartment block: cattleyas and laelias on the first floor, with odontoglossums, oncidiums and masdevallias higher up. Each species evolved to suit a particular habitat and microclimate. All these different requirements were not easy to replicate in the average greenhouse.

Day bought his first odontoglossum from Stevens's saleroom on 9 January 1877. It came from the collection of the Rev Alfred Norman, rector of Burnmoor, Co Durham, but turned out to be a disappointing dud. Three years later, he bought another, this time from William Bull's nursery in the King's Rd, Chelsea. This plant was in full bloom so there could be no unforeseen disappointments. By this time, good forms were fetching high prices. That same year, a plant from Serjeant Cox's famous collection at Moat Mount, Mill Hill in north London, fetched £22 10s (about £1,350).

Orchids remained staggeringly expensive because they were very difficult to propagate from seed. Then some observant person noticed that in the wild any surviving seedlings usually sprang up close to the mother plant. It turned out that a fungus in the roots of the mother plant was an essential catalyst. Seeds could not germinate without it.

By 1922 an American professor, Dr Lewis Knudson of Cornell University, was showing commercial growers how to inoculate their sowing medium with the nutrients provided by the fungus. For the next 40 years, more than a million seedlings were successfully raised by this method. Then in 1964, Dr Georges Morel introduced the revolutionary technique of propagation by tissue culture - micropropagation. Most orchids now begin life in a laboratory and take four years to develop from a scrap of tissue in gel to a full-grown flowering plant. That has brought down the average cost of an orchid from £500 per plant to £15, though novelties continue to command crazy prices. An enthusiast recently paid £50,000 for a new Japanese variety Neofinettia falcata 'Brown Bear'.

In Day's time, at the height of orchid mania, orchids were still costly and tricky to cultivate. The calendar of operations left the gardener in charge little time to enjoy their beauty. The gardeners are of course the real heroes of the period. The owners did the boasting. The gardeners had the burden of care. They had to fight constant battles against slugs, cockroaches, crickets and scale insects. They had to syringe flowers early morning and again in the afternoon. They had constantly to check ventilation. By June shading was inspected and, if necessary, adjusted every hour. Some orchids needed liquid feeds. Others didn't. Some needed to rest. Others had to be kept in permanent growth. Special composts had to be mixed and plants repotted. Above all, the great boilers that heated the orchid houses of the period had to be fed with vast mountains of coal and coke, the raw materials that had made the fortunes which so many collectors then lavished on orchids.

But already by 1838, before John Day even began his collection, Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, always ahead of the game, had 83 species growing beautifully at Chatsworth. By 1885, 2,000 species were being grown in cultivation. At her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Queen Victoria was presented with a basket of orchids "the best and rarest from Her Majesty's Dominions". In the basket were orchids from the West and East Indies, Burma, India, Africa and British Guyana.

At Drumlanrig in Scotland, the Duke of Buccleuch's gardener grew 250 pots of Odontoglossum 'Alexandrae' with white petals touched with lemon and rose as hair decorations for the ladies of the house. For men's buttonholes, he grew paphiopedilums, perhaps the sexiest of all orchids, with long, drooping, whisker-like petals set either side of a weird central pouch. A hooded dorsal petal of greenish copper hangs protectively over the tongue of pollen.

Sir Trevor Lawrence favoured phalaenopsis for his buttonhole and in Volume 37 of his scrapbooks Day sketched a very fine spray of the Burmese species Phalaenopsis lowii that Lawrence was wearing in his buttonhole at Stevens's saleroom. Day often found himself bidding against Lawrence for choice new species. The merchant banker, Baron Henry Schroeder, was another regular rival.

But in Stevens's saleroom on 31 March 1881, Day was the seller not a buyer. In the first of the five two-day sales which saw the dispersal of the famous Day collection, Lawrence paid 140 guineas (roughly £8,500) for a fine moth orchid, Paphiopedilum stonei. It was named after Day's faithful gardener, Robert Stone, who was in charge of the orchid collection from 1862-1875. No gardener could wish for a better memorial.

In all, the sales realised £7000 (about £420,000). John Day, by then 57, embarked on a leisurely tour of the world's orchids, visiting Ceylon, Malaya, Java, Japan and the United States. When he died, seven years later, his scrapbooks passed to his sister, Emma Wolstenholme. Towards the end of her own life, she passed them on to Kew so that they could be "made use of by students of orchids that he so much loved." Kew has done him proud. *

'A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day' (Blacker Publishing and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with Thames & Hudson, £49.99, www.kewbooks.com)


F Scott Fitzgerald, novelist

'Perhaps you know that lady.' Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree. Tom and Daisy stared, with that peculiarly unreal feeling that accompanies the recognition of a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies. 'She's lovely,' said Daisy.

- The Great Gatsby, 1925

Stephen Jay Gould uses orchids to disprove Creationism and prove evolution

Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers. If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts fashioned for other purposes. Orchids were not made by an ideal engineer; they are jury-rigged from a limited set of available components. Thus, they must have evolved.

- The Panda's Thumb, 1980

Geoff Chapman of 'Creation' magazine uses orchids to disprove evolution and prove Creationism

The intricate design of many orchids belies the idea that they slowly evolved. The origin of the bucket orchid's ingenious machinery is surely fatal to the theory of gradual evolution. These flowers must have been created and designed to operate this way from the very beginning, and bear abundant witness to the design and power of God, the Creator.

Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter

John Laroche: 'You know why I like plants?'

Susan Orlean: 'Nuh uh.'

John Laroche: 'Because they're so mutable. Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world.'

Susan Orlean: [pause] 'Yeah but it's easier for plants. I mean they have no memory. They just move on to whatever's next. With a person though, adapting almost shameful. It's like running away.'

John Laroche: 'Point is, what's so wonderful is that every one of these flowers has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There's a certain orchid looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. (...) When you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way.'

- from the screenplay of Adaptation, 2002

Charles Darwin, scientist

'My beloved orchids.'

- correspondence, passim

Confucius, philosopher

Rejected by feudal lords and returning home, downcast, Confucius comes across a solitary orchid flourishing alone. Sighing deeply he says: 'An orchid is worthy of spreading its fragrance to a king, but now it blooms alone, alongside common grass. This is like the sage who is living in an inappropriate time, and so hangs around with commoners.'

The Mah Jongg rulebook

The Orchid tile is one of the Four Nobles. It indicates refinement and is a symbol of the rare and precious. It is associated with the South Wind and the season Summer.

Two's company...

Adolf Hitler was widely considered to be monorchidal. For further edification, visit the Albert Hall.