Most orchid society members are addicted to orchids to a lesser or greater extent. But orchids are no longer regarded with the same degree of fascination and awe as they were during the nineteenth century. In those times the discovery and importation of new orchid species regularly made headline news in the major London newspapers and incredible prices were paid for the choicest specimens.

During the first half of the nineteenth century orchids were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford to buy and grow them in the ‘stove houses’ believed to be necessary. But gradually it was realised that many orchids collected from mountainous areas in the tropics grew better in glasshouses maintained at lower temperatures overnight, especially if the orchids were also provided with more light and ventilation. After Benjamin Williams began his series of articles entitled ‘Orchids for the Million’ in the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1850, many amateur gardeners who considered themselves merely rich (as opposed to fabulously wealthy) came to realise that they too could grow orchids.

The demand for orchids escalated and the collection of plants from the wild and their shipment back to Britain (and subsequently to the rest of Europe) became a major industry. The time was right for Frederick Sander to set up business as an importer and commercial grower of orchids. Sander faced stiff opposition from already well-established firms, such as James Veitch, Hugh Low, William Bull and others, and he teetered on the brink of bankruptcy on several occasions. But eventually Sander (later Sander and Sons) became the largest orchid establishment in Europe.

Frederick Sander was born in Bremen (Germany) in 1847 but moved to England at age 16. Marriage in 1870 to Elizabeth Fearnley, daughter of a rich printer (of bank notes, among other things) was the catalyst for Sander’s rise to fame, as she provided him with the funds to enter business by purchasing a seed business at Saint Albans, a short distance north-west of London. He soon entered into a profitable arrangement with the Czech orchid collector Benedict Roezl and they prospered together until Roezl died in 1884. In that year Sander was able to move to a larger site at ‘The Camp’ (once site of a Roman encampment), where eventually his glasshouses covered an area of 4.5 acres. More and more collectors were employed until at one point he had 23 ‘travellers’ collecting orchids for him throughout the world.

The supply of plants of all kinds grew to such an extent that Sander found it necessary to set up a second nursery in Bruges (Belgium), where 250 glass-houses were eventually constructed. Most were devoted to the propagation and growth of Kentia palms (from seed imported from Lord Howe Island), other palms, bay trees, begonias, azaleas, camellias and dracaenas, but 50 glasshouses were used to house orchids. Some idea of the scale of Sander’s operations can be gained from his claim that he imported more than one million plants of just one orchid species, Dendrobium phalaenopsis var. schroederiana, from New Guinea!

In 1902 Sander’s three sons (Louis, Fearnley and Fred) were taken into partnership but the orchid boom was nearing its end. New species were becoming harder to find and they did not command such high prices as they had in the past. Most other nurserymen no longer employed plant collectors, but bought orchids on commission, so that any losses incurred during shipment (a frequent occurrence) were borne by the collector, not by the nurseryman. But Sander remained loyal to his long-time collectors Forget and Micholitz, who remained in his employment until they retired in 1914.

World War I and the German occupation of Belgium forced the Sander family to leave Bruges but thanks to the services of a Swedish manager the nursery survived the war, although many orchids died during winter because of fuel restrictions. Frederick Sander also survived the war, but in declining health and he died in 1920, aged 72 years. He had become a legend throughout Europe. Most royal families grew orchids and they all knew him personally and respected his advice. He received honours from many of them. Sander exhibited orchids throughout Europe during his long career and won innumerable trophies for his displays, and awards and gold medals for his orchids. Such was his fame that he was known throughout Europe as ‘The Orchid King’.

Sander was Royal Orchid Grower to Queen Victoria from 1886 and a foundation member of the Orchid Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society (still responsible for granting orchid awards in Britain). Among a host of personal wards, the Victorian Medal of Honour granted by the RHS in 1889 pleased him most, because it was conferred by his peers.

The nurseries at Bruges and Saint Albans continued in business for many years after Sander’s death, although World War II devastated the firm even more than the first. The family firm was voluntarily liquidated in 1958, the establishment at Bruges being taken over by Roger Sander and that at Saint Albans by Frederick Sander’s grandson David, who moved the nursery to a new site at Selfield in Sussex. David Sander’s retirement in the late 1960s sadly spelt the end of ‘The House of Sander’. David’s son Peter followed his father’s advice and became a doctor, rather than continuing the family business; he now grows orchids as a hobby.

Readers wanting to know more about ‘The House of Sander’ should read the fascinating biography entitled Frederick Sander: The Orchid King, written by Arthur Swinson (1970).