TRAVELS AND ADVENTURES OF AN ORCHID HUNTER by Albert Millican with comments by Brian Milligan

No, he’s not an ancestor of mine, despite the similarity in our surnames. Albert Millican spent several years collecting orchids in Colombia during the 1880s and wrote a book of the above title describing his exploits in 1891. The following excerpts are taken from a review written by Wm. Glikbarg and published in the Orchid Digest, 1983, 47, 184.

One of Millican’s Colombian destinations was La Mesa de los Santos, where earlier collectors had found Cattleya mendelii growing in profusion. He was disappointed at first: “On the ledges of the precipices, where the eagle and the condor make their home, the lovely Cattleya mendelii has grown in profusion since the memory of man. But when the first plant-hunter arrived, even these dizzy heights offered no obstacle to his determination to plunder. Natives were let down by means of ropes, and the plants were hauled up in thousands. When I visited the place, all I could see of its former beauty and wealth of plants was an occasional straggling bulb hung as if in mid-air on some point only accessible to the eagles.”

Eventually Millican met with success in the eastern Andes near Curiti. “The most magnificent sight for even the most stoical observer are the immense clumps of Cattleya mendelii, each new bulb bearing four or five of its gorgeous rose-coloured flowers, many of them growing in full sun or with very little shade…. Some of the plants … must have taken many years to develop, for I have taken plants from the trees with five hundred bulbs, and as many as one hundred spikes of flowers”.

Later, in searching for Odontoglossum crispum and finding many former habitats denuded, he found an area near Maripi where other collectors had not preceded him. “In those immense forests, where a few acres of clearing is considered a great benefit, and where clearings made, if not attended to, become forests again in three years, cutting down a few thousand trees is no serious injury; so I provided my natives with axes and started them out on the work of cutting down all the trees containing valuable orchids………….. They soon became adept at plant collecting, and would bring several hundreds of plants each night, with occasionally a few Odontoglossum odoratum and O. corodinei mixed amongst them. After about two months’ work we had secured about 10,000 plants, cutting down to obtain these some 4000 trees, moving our camp as the plants became exhausted in the vicinity”.

I fancy that Millican was deluding himself in his belief that the areas that he cleared would regenerate in only a few years. Apparently there is so little topsoil in many Central and South American mountain habitats that areas once cleared soon lose their topsoil to erosion and never recover. But he was no different to any of the other collectors of that era in their disregard for the environment. Thankfully, the wholesale collection of orchids from the wild is today mainly a memory of the past. Many desirable orchid species have now been line-bred for several generations, so that seedlings purchased in flask are far more likely to have flowers superior to those of any bush-collected species.