Orchid fever

THE year is 1882, at the height of the era of orchidelirium when Victorians loved their orchids with a passion that often teetered into obsession. 

Botanist Charles Curtis was on a plant-hunting expedition to Borneo and Sumatra. With a penchant for paphiopedilums and pitcher plants, imagine his delight when he came upon a slipper orchid tinged an exotic crimson. With irrepressible zeal, he named it Paphiopedilum curtisii, and sent some back to his employers, the famous Veitch nursery. The public was agog, but Curtis was tight-lipped about where he had actually located the slipper orchid, and the price began to rocket.

Five years go by. Seething with envy, the rival firm of Sander and Sons employed a new collector, the Swede Claes Ericsson, to Sumatra, to follow Curtis’ trail and bring back the prized orchid. 

Another five years went by as Ericsson trawled the inhospitable jungles, dodging the cannibals in the area who had developed a taste for Europeans. He shipped back many new orchids, but Curtis’ slipper orchid proved elusive. After the macabre demise of several missionaries, the authorities forbade further travel, but Ericsson got permission to take an armed party into the mountains.

Then, malaria struck. As he languished in a small hospital near the capital Padang in the steamy mosquito-laden heat, he spotted a scrawled message on the wall and a drawing of a slipper orchid, alongside the initials ‘CC’. Convinced that Curtis had indeed passed that way, the party set off once again and one of the hired locals located the orchid. 
Two days later, they had collected several thousand plants, and successfully shipped them all back to Sander in England – thanks to the invention by Nathaniel Ward of the glass-sided Wardian case.

Addiction to orchids
When I read this tale while researching material for a 19th-century adventure story, I knew I was hooked.

Despite this, I bought my first orchid to sit on the windowsill by my laptop, unaware of the [sorry] slippery slope upon which I had embarked. It was a modest little Phalaenopsis, and the first of more than a dozen specimens that bloom gloriously in turn. I always did dislike the funereal quality of cut flowers, so orchids were the bees knees.

If you’re reading this, you’re an enthusiast, too. We’re in good company. Queen Victoria. Charles Darwin. A former head of the CIA. It's no secret. Orchids are hot.
The more I read about the flowers, their almost Gothic history, their medicinal uses, the crazy lengths collectors would go to acquire them, their weird relations with insects, more fascinated I became. I began to collect the anecdotes, the trivia, the latest new stories, the fantastic tales of orchid-hunters from the days of the Empire ... anything and everything. Well, apart from how to take of orchids. I can happily leave that to the experts.

(Tip: if your Dendrobium is wilting, you’re probably over-watering. Or under-watering. Or using the wrong sort of water, at the wrong temperature. Orchids are tricky little blighters.)

So, here it is. The bizarre world of orchids, past and present – and it’s all true.


Illustration of Paphiopedilum superbiens (known then as. Cypripedium superbiens), 1874, “Xenia Orchidacea” vol. 2 tab. 103, Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach (1823-1889)
A Wardian case, designed by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), an English doctor who devised the glass structure for growing and transporting plants
● British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
View of Padang Hill, from 'The History of Sumatra', 1810, by William Marsden
Illustration from The Plant Hunters: Adventures Among the Himalaya Mountains by Thomas Mayne Reid, an Irish born novelist said to be one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s favourite childhood authors.