Lady of the Night
The first tropical orchid to ever bloom in Europe, was grown just outside of my home town Leiden. Near the end of the 17th century Gaspar Fagel, Grand Pensionary of Holland, took up residence in the country estate Leeuwenhorst. Here he ordered a hothouse to be built – one of the earliest – to start a collection of tropical plants. When Fagel received a fresh shipment from the colonised Caribbean island of Curaçao, it included what would become one of his most prized possessions, a lady-of-the-night orchid (Brassavola nodosa). The most striking part of the flower is the large tubular, vulva-shaped, white lip, surrounded by narrow greenish-white sepals and petals. Yet the most sensuous part, to which this amorous flower owes her name, cannot be conveyed in words. After dusk, it exudes a delightful fragrance. The flowering was such a spectacle that Paul Hermann, director of the Leiden botanical garden, included this floral lady in his book Paradisus Batavus (1698).1
Floral Manias, Deliriums and Fevers
Plants may appear as passive life forms, but don’t let their docile demeanour deceive you. They can stir up strong emotions, and even the occasional lapse of sanity, reflected by words such as ‘craze,’ ‘fever,’ ‘delirium’ and ‘mania’ that are used to describe how flowers can keep humans spellbound.
The first floral fad that gained notoriety was tulipomania. Many are familiar with the ‘tulip fever’ that infected the Dutch during the 17th century. The delicate beauty of these exotic flowers gripped breeders, collectors and gardeners, causing some sought-after varieties to soar in price at floral auctions. Like fashion, these floral trends tend to come and go. There were times when the rose, carnation, iris, daffodil and rhododendron were all the rage. Although these infatuations were not only restricted to plants with gaudy flowers. Victorian England also saw a craze for collecting and collaging seaweeds and around the same time, the country was struck by ‘fern fever,’ known as pteridomania.2
The Rise of Orchidomania
A famous floral rage, which, it could be argued, continues to bloom in the present day, is the so-called orchidelirium or orchidomania. This collective adoration began in the 18th century, before flourishing in the 19th century. The orchid family is a horn of plenty when it comes to diversity of scents, shapes and colours, and with new hybrids introduced every year, these plants know no bounds in terms of flower variation. To this day rare species fetch incredibly high prices. In his book Orchid Fever (2000), Eric Hansen gives an estimate of the worldwide retail orchid business: nine billion dollars annually. The Dutch company Floricultura alone produces and ships approximately eighteen million orchids per year.3
The dark side to the orchidelirium is the illegal trade and poaching of rare wild orchids, such as the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) as described in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (1998). Orlean goes in pursuit of this mysterious beauty from the Florida swamps, and is baffled by the fact that this one flower ‘could seduce people to pursue it year after year and mile after miserable mile.’4
Orchidelirium started in the 18th century, during an expansionist era when European monarchs and trade companies had spread to all corners of the globe. Merchant ships returning from faraway places carried, amongst other prized items, many unknown tropical plants. Around the same time, the predecessor of the modern greenhouse was introduced. These structures of glass and steel, heated by a cast-iron pipe system and coal-burning boilers, gave botanical gardens and estates the means to grow tropical plants in a temperate climate. Orchids were the most prized plants that inhabited these greenhouses, and they quickly became the status symbol amongst aristocracy. Over the centuries their siren song became ever stronger: causing a collecting frenzy of these Edenic flowers with their erotic allure. The rise of the orchidelirium includes four key players: the plant breeder, hunter, collector and botanist.
The first European commercial breeder of orchids was a company called Conrad Loddiges and Sons. They began cultivating orchids in 1810 at their nursery in Hackney, London. Other nurseries in the London area followed in their footsteps. James Veitch and Sons set up shop in Kensington and Benjamin Samuel Williams and Sons located in Upper Norwood. These breeders started by supplying wealthy estates – in the early days, orchids were not an everyman’s plant. This changed when smaller, more affordable greenhouses and terrariums became available, opening up the cultivation of orchids to middle-class, and later on, even working-class gardeners. Writing on the growing popularity of orchids, James Veitch coined the term ‘orchidomania’: ‘Orchido-Mania… now pervades all classes… to a marvellous extent’5
Commercial orchid breeders supplied the market by sending out plant hunters on daring trips. In the 1860s, for example, there were at least a thousand of these hunters in Brazil alone. Many rainforests were ransacked and stripped of their treasures. The bounty was shipped by the thousands. Stacked in the dark hold of ships, most of these plants perished during the long sea journeys, either rotting away or eaten by rats and cockroaches. Even upon arrival the orchids that survived met their doom at the hand of incompetent collectors. Many thought that the tropics were extremely hot and humid, and turned their boilers up to emulate sweltering climates. England became known as ‘the graveyard of orchids.’6
Plant hunting added an aura of adventure and mystery, and one particular trip caused a stir in Victorian England. In 1890, the German orchid hunter Wilhelm Micholitz was on a mission for the wealthy Henry Frederick Conrad Sander, who had a nursery in Hertfordshire. After preparing a shipment of orchids to England, disaster struck. The precious cargo went up in flames, destroying a whole season’s worth of work. Distraught, Micholitz sent a telegraph to his employer: ‘Ship burned, everything lost; what do?’ He received a quick response: ‘Return. Try again.’7 He tried to persuade Sander that it was imperative to return home, since the rainy season had started and there was tribal warfare. But Sander insisted, and Micholitz was forced to return to the island Timor, in the most southern part of the Malay Archipelago, to continue the hunt.
Micholitz struck gold when he discovered the much sought-after Dendrobium phalaenopsis var. schroederianum. But there was one drawback. The plant grew near the coastline on the burial grounds of a nearby tribe, whose funerary custom was to place their corpses in open coffins just above the high tide line. In this boneyard, the orchids thrived by the thousands. However, because this was a sacred place, Micholitz was not permitted to collect any of them. In typical colonial fashion he decided to bribe the villagers with handkerchiefs, beads, mirrors and a roll of brass wire. This sealed the deal and they helped him collect the orchids. Micholitz writes how one plant had become fully entangled with a skull via its roots.8
A newspaper reporting on the find claimed the natives insisted that Micholitz was only allowed to take the skull with the orchid attached if he added a small idol, to not upset their ancestors. Although, according to Jim Endersby, this appears to be a fantastical embellishment. In his book Orchids: A Cultural History (2016) Endersby performs a thorough fact-check by studying Micholitz’s correspondence. In a letter, he explicitly writes that he did not take any bones or skulls with him. Nonetheless, the orchid attached to a skull with the figurine appeared at an auction and were sold to the stupendously eminent orchidian Lionel Walter Rothschild. This shows how the allure of orchids lay not only in their exquisite beauty, but also in the aura of colonialism, adventure and death. To quote Endersby: ‘Orchids are not just savage, they are sexy, too; sex and death, life’s beginning and end, are coiled together in a single plant.’9
The British author H.G. Wells offers another glimpse of the motives behind orchidelirium.
In a short horror story, titled ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894), he explores the inner life of an orchid collector. The main character, Winter Wedderburn, is a middle-aged bachelor living a rather dull and mundane existence in the city. His only excitement is his ‘ambitious little hothouse.’ In the story, Wedderburn visits an orchid auction. He shows the newest acquisition to his housekeeper. She is rather underwhelmed by the shrivelled rhizome and likens it to a ‘spider shamming dead.’ Usually, orchids arrived in England in a rather poor state – just brown lumps of tubers or stems. But herein lay a certain ‘speculative flavour.’10 While these plants initially appeared underwhelming, the kind of flower to spring forth was often unknown – it could turn out to be a completely new species. Through this unsettling narrative, Wells demonstrates that the allure of the orchid often lay in the unexpected.
In addition to unforeseen beauty, these plants exuded an atmosphere of exoticism and adventure. Wedderburn, who is in his fifties, confides that he is rather jealous of the collector Batten and wishes he could trade places. At the age of thirty-six Batten was already married twice, divorced once, survived four bouts of malaria, was shot with a poisoned dart and killed a Malaysian person, in a mangrove swamp in the Andaman Islands, having had all of his blood drained by leeches. The orchid that Wedderburn bought was the last thing Batten collected before his untimely death. He nurtures the plant in his hothouse, until one day the air is filled with an intoxicating scent, and he watches it bloom in an ecstasy of admiration: ‘The flowers were white, with streaks of golden orange upon the petals; the heavy labellum was coiled into an intricate projection, and a wonderful bluish purple mingled there with the gold. He could see at once that the genus was altogether a new one.’11
When Wedderburn skips tea his housekeeper becomes weary and checks the hothouse, only to find him lying at the foot of the strange orchid, entangled by the tentacle aerial rootlets. She immediately realises that it was not leeches that drained Batten’s body of blood, but the orchid. The flower is like the ultimate femme fatale: a deadly combination of irresistible beauty, intoxicating perfume and a desire for human blood. Before the housekeeper faints from the floral fragrance, she manages to break a window and drag Wedderburn to safety. Strangely enough, upon recovery he does not seem the least bit afraid. Quite the contrary, he is joyous. He has finally had an adventure of his own.
H.G. Wells was inspired not only by the stories of plant hunters but also by the work of Charles Darwin. Wedderburn tells the reader that Darwin studied the fertilisation of orchids, showcasing that the entire structure of an ordinary orchid flower was contrived in order that moths might carry their pollen. This was the subject of Darwin’s first publication following the celebrated On the Origin of Species (1859), that placed him in the pantheon of natural history. In his orchid book, which has the impossibly long title: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing (1862), Darwin discusses the pollination mechanismsof some 500 different species, opening up a whole new perspective on the erotic side of orchids.
As it turns out orchid are all about sex, investing enormous amounts of solar energy for successful pollination and fertilisation. Their intricate forms, delightful fragrances and beautiful colours have evolved to entice a plethora of creatures. Orchid flowers enlist numerous insects, birds, mammals and even reptiles to do their sexual biddings, i.e., delivering pollen sacs from one orchid flower to another. Through field observation, ingenious experiments and dissections, Darwin uncovered the many ways in which orchid flowers are adapted to attain cross-pollination. Repeatedly, he emphasises the flirtatious interplay between flower and pollinators, showing that orchidelirium is by no means a new floral fad, but in fact goes back millions of years.
- Den Hartog and E. & C. Teune, ‘Gaspar Fagel (1633–88): His Garden and Plant Collection at Leeuwenhorst’, Garden History, vol. 30, no. 2, 2002.
- S. Whittingham, Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania, Frances Lincoln, London, 2012.
- Eric Hansen, Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, Methuen, London, 2016, p. 58.
- Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, Random House, New York, 1998, p. 47.
- Jim Endersby, Orchids: A Cultural History, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016, p. 74.
- ‘Top Orchid’, Bournemouth Orchid Society, Autumn/Winter 2015, www.bournemouthorchidsociety.org.uk/Docs/J15-3.pdf, p. 24.
- Frederick Boyle, The Woodlands Orchids, Macmillan and Co, London, 1901.
- Renate Hücking and Kej Hielscher, Pflanzenjäger: In fernen Welten auf der Suche nach dem Paradies, Piper, Munich, 2004.
- Endersby, Orchids, p. 157.
- H.G. Wells, ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’, Pall Mall Budget, August 1894.