ORCHID COLLECTING IN THE 1880s by Brian Milligan

The orchid boom was at its height in Europe during the 1880s, and there was great demand for species orchid collected in the wild, especially those with large, colourful flowers, such as cattleyas. Most of the large nurseries employed collectors (or ‘travellers’ as they were then known) to explore ever and ever more remote corners of the tropical world for orchids and other novelties. The following extracts come from an English translation of a report by the German collector, Wilhelm Hennis (of Hildesheim, Germany) on his exploits in Colombia in 1882-83. They show what incredible numbers of plants were collected, and the extent of the waste that accompanied their collection.

“From the state of Tolima I sent some two hundred crates of Cattleya trianaei. I have thrown away three times as many plants, those which were damaged either during transit to my headquarters or during the felling of the trees on which they grew. Cattleya trianaei grows in Tolima, mostly in trees, more rarely on rocks, and on the banks of rivers and streams. I have seen trees that were quite covered with these beautiful orchids, which in December were in full bloom. Such a sight surely compensated the collector for all his unavoidable hardship and efforts”.

“In the unhealthy snake-ridden jungle (near Frontino) I looked for the costly Cattleya aurea for three weeks. If the trees on which we saw one or more plants were to be climbed, one of the group would do this and fetch them down, but if the trees were too thick, they had to be felled. I found most plants on strong trees, the wood of which was so hard that the axes just flew off it, but it was rich in an inflammable resin. We hacked pieces out of these trees, carried a pile of dead wood up to them, and in this manner set the tree on fire. It burned slowly until it fell, this usually taking two or three days. It was always an experience when such a gigantic tree fell down with a thunderous noise, which echoed around the mountains, particularly when this happened during the night. In the whole three weeks I gathered only three crates of Cattleya aurea.'”

“On the 15th June I left Medellin and had to wait nine days in Nare on the river Magdalena until a boat arrived and rescued me from the terrible swarms of mosquitoes. All parts of our bodies were swollen with mosquito bites. The journey to Barranquilla lasted seven days. The next ship did not leave Savanilla until the 15th July, and the crossing to London lasted thirty-six days. I had thirty crates of Odontoglossum vexillarium (now Miltoniopsis vexillaria) and Epidendrum wallisii, both orchids unable to endure a long period of exposure to great heat, and as a result I lost four fifths of these two species.”

The above passages are extracts from Chapter 7 of The Orchid World (How they Came to Europe) by Walter Richter. It was first published in German in 1958, the English translation following seven years later.