by Liz Forsyth

Symbols of beauty, affluence, and virility, orchids date back to the early Greeks, at which time they were known as Orchis, the Greek word for testes. Terrestrial (as opposed to tropical) orchids were valued for their medicinal benefits. The natural world was the emphasis of study, and the curious flowers were thought to be aphrodisiacs because the shape of the lip, the twin oval tubers, resembled the figure of a man. In the Middle Ages orchids were the primary ingredient in love potions and even in ice cream.

In the New World, orchids were familiar to the inhabitants long before the arrival of Europeans. In 1518, in Mexico with the intention of overthrowing the Aztec Empire and claiming it for Spain, Hernando Cortes discovered a vine-like orchid which he named Tlilxochitl (Vanilla planifolia). The Aztecs cultivated this species of vanilla for its perfume and culinary usages. They ground and mixed it with the seeds of the cacao plant to produce a drink that was thought to give them power and strength, and was the genesis of the chocolate we know today.

Epiphytic orchids, or plants that grow above the ground and derive their nutrients and water from rain, air, dust, etc., were brought to Great Britain in the 1700s from the West Indies and China. By century’s end, 15 species were thriving at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

In the early 1800s, only a minor number of botanists considered them worthy of study, most notably William Cattley. In 1818, upon receiving packing material in plants that were delivered to him from South America, he noticed an orchid. He re-potted the plant, and it blossomed, producing a pulchritudinous and powerfully fragrant flower. Somewhat of a sensation, it was shown to botanist John Lindley, one of the most important orchid taxonomists of all time, who named it Cattleya labiata after William Cattley, and in appreciation of the beautiful lip (labia) of the flower. A sad tale follows; the man who collected Cattley’s plants in Brazil, one Swainson, disappeared prior to revealing the exact location of the original find, and it was over 70 years before Cattleya labiata was rediscovered.

In the early 19th century, orchids began to catch on with the landed gentry, and soon became symbols of luxury. With huge greenhouses on their estates, which were heated to tropical temperatures by steam pipes from a boiler fired with coal, each night it was the employment of one of the servants to rise from his bed to stoke the fire. These boilers were called stovehouses, creating conditions in which a variety of tropical plants flourished. The orchids that were placed in the greenhouses under these extreme conditions, however, mostly languished, eventually dying. As more people understood their origins in nature, they were taken out of stove conditions, and exposed to more light, more air, and less heat. Because they now were easier to grow, their popularity expanded, becoming a veritable craze among the wealthy and titled. Collectors canvassed the tropics for new orchids, sending back plants by the ton, many of which perished in transit and more at the unskilled hands of purchasers. Specimens’ prices rose to enormous proportions, which is why they were considered a rich man’s plant. Harvesting without consideration for saving them became the norm, and this led to whole areas, especially in England, with barren fields and no conservation by the end of the 19th century.

Which brings us to the beginning of the 20th century and the work of European scientists Bernard and Burgeff, each working independently of the other, who were successful in germinating orchid seeds in an otherwise sterile medium in which a culture of the right fungus had been established. The hope of commercial nurserymen had been that this procedure would lead to an easily accomplished widespread availability of cheap orchid seedlings; the process remained too technical and difficult to be an efficacious method. But in 1909, Joseph Charlesworth, a non-scientist, mastered the process and was hybridizing and raising odontoglossum seedlings (an epiphytic orchid) by the thousands at his nursery at Haywards Heath in Sussex. Many hybrids today can be traced back to Charlesworth’s stud plants.

Today there are over 110,000 different hybrids; this amazing plant has withstood the test of time to survive from the early Greek ages to the present day. The American Orchid Society was formed in the early 20th century to ensure the conservation of the species and their habitats.

Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the body as a small universe that contains an array of opposing forces yin/yang, cold/warm, passive/active, etc. Using plants such as the orchid, and herbs, a balance of these opposing forces is achieved. Orchids especially are considered cures for lung illnesses and coughs. The Chinese philosopher Confucius compared the virtuous man to an orchid; their beauty is incomparable, a perfectly cultured accompaniment to any environment.