Over a hundred years ago an English orchid grower, Frederick Boyle, wrote a book called ‘About Orchids : A Chat’. He described the way in which various orchid species were collected around the world and imported into Britain. Boyle’s aim was to dispel the myth that orchids were incredibly expensive and difficult to grow. He pointed out that orchid prices had fallen because sailing ships were being replaced with modern steamships, and that orchid growing was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy and the fabulously wealthy. Of course, it helped if you were rich!
Although man-made hybrids were known in Boyle’s day, they were not commonly available until the development of sterile culture seed-raising techniques (flasking) in the 1920s. Most of the readily available orchids a hundred years ago were species or natural hybrids. Even so, it was estimated that there were 1500-2000 species (including varieties) in cultivation at that time. Boyle remarked that this was “a startling figure, which almost justifies the belief of those who hold that no others worth growing will be found in countries already explored”. We now believe that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 orchid species throughout the world.
In 1893 the big nurserymen, such as Rollinson in Twickenham, Veitch in Chelsea and Low in Clapton, were major suppliers of species orchids in London. But the best bargains could be obtained at the auction rooms of Stevens or Protheroe & Morris. It was there that shipments of orchids, freshly arrived from overseas, were sold. Boyle’s list of those present at an auction included “a duke,…some clergymen, gentry of every rank, the recognised agents of great cultivators, and of course, the representatives of the large trading firms”. He observed that orchids “sell best in Spring, when they have months of light and sun before them in which to recover from the effects of a long voyage and uncomfortable quarters…The buyer must make them grow strong before the dark days of an English Winter are upon him; and every month that passes weakens his chances”.
The first large shipments of orchids introduced to Britain were imported by the Royal Horticultural Society. Wealthy amateurs, such as the sixth Duke of Devonshire, followed suit and then the big nurseries, realising there was big money to be made. These nurseries employed “travellers” (collectors), whom they sent to almost every part of the world. It was a risky business – financially to the nurserymen, personally to the collectors. Even if the collector managed to escape being killed by a tiger, speared by a native, or bitten by a snake, his greatest danger was probably being bitten by a mosquito! There were no inoculations against yellow fever, typhoid, cholera etc., and in Boyle’s words “the fever, of various sorts, comes as regularly as Sunday” to the collector. Among Sander’s collectors, Falkenberg perished at Panama, Klaboch in Mexico, Schroeder in Sierra Leone, Arnold on the Orinoco ( Venezuela), Digance in Brazil, Brown in Madagascar and Endres at Rio Hacha. Even more unfortunate, perhaps, was the collector sent to Madagascar to find birds and butterflies. He shot at a native idol, and was promptly soaked in oil by the priests and barbecued on their altar!
Some idea of the difficulties and costs involved can be gained from Boyle’s description of the importation of Odontoglossum crispum from Colombia. “Those who seek her make Bogota their headquarters”. To reach the desired broad-petalled variety the collectors then had to make his way ten days to the south along mule tracks. He then “hired” a tract of mountain clothed with timber, presumably from the local chief. Next he hired “natives, 20, 50 or 100 as circumstances advise”, and set them to cut down all the trees, while he built a wooden stage on which to sort and dry the orchids. Each large tree held up to five plants of Odontoglossum crispum and up to fifty “comparatively worthless” plants of the related Odontoglossum gloriosum. Neither the natives, nor the collectors, would climb the trees to collect the orchids, because the trees were home to millions of stinging ants!
When the plants had been cleaned and dried, they were fastened to sticks with copper wire, and these sticks were then nailed across wooden boxes for transport. It was known that if plants were to travel well, they had to be kept separate and dry, otherwise they would rot. The boxes were then loaded onto mules, which took ten days to return to Bogota, and then a further six days to reach Honda on the River Magdalena. Next the boxes were transferred to the deck of a flat-bottomed steamboat for the seven-day trip to Savanilla on the coast. During this trip the boxes were covered with blankets, which were kept continually wet in an effort to keep the plants cool. Finally the boxes were loaded onto a Royal Mail steamer for the long voyage back to Britain.
No wonder orchids were expensive! And who are we to criticise the South Americans for cutting down their forests today? As Boyle wrote “If we estimate that a good tree has been felled for every three scraps of Odontoglossum which are now established in Europe, that will be no exaggeration. And for many years past they have been arriving by hundreds of thousands annually!”
Plant losses during transport were expected to be high. Boyle described the reaction of Mr. Sander, the nurseryman, when 40,000 plants of Miltoniopsis vexillarius arrived in London – “he hugged himself with delight when 3000 proved to have trace of vitality”. He could probably have turned a profit if only 300 had survived. By contrast, Roezl was almost ruined when only two plants survived out of a shipment of 27,000 plants of Masdevallia schlimii. Each of these plants sold at auction for 40 guineas, but the cost of sea freight alone on big shipments was in the order of £500.
Fortunately, the advent of efficient means of raising both species and hybrid orchids from seed gradually reduced the demand for wild-collected plants. And more recently, the introduction of restrictions by CITES has halted the export of species from most countries. Many species, raised from seed are now available from Australian nurseries. In most instances, because they have been bred from selected parents, they will have larger and more colourful flowers than the average bush-collected species.