After Rising in Popularity in Great Britain, Orchid Passion Arrives in the United States
AS NOTED IN PART ONE OF THIS article in the November 2007 issue of Orchids (pages 820–823), a few orchids have long associations with human history, particularly in Oriental and Greek cultures. In China and Japan, certain orchids were appreciated for their beauty and fragrance. In Greece, philosophers promoted some orchids for medicinal use, a practice that pervaded Western medicine until the 17th century.
Yet it was not until the discovery of the New World and subsequent global exploration by Europeans, that the group of plants we know today as orchids, was assembled. As exotic plants of all types were brought to Europe, there eventually developed an interest in a botanical cataloging of the planet.
Orchid discoveries from distant tropical climates particularly intrigued British botanists. By the early decades of the 19th century, tropical orchids were being flowered in cultivation at British botanical gardens and in a few private collections.
England in the 19th century seemed to be the right place and right time for orchidmania to flourish. Many of the early collectors and amateur growers there were honored in the naming of orchid species that are familiar today. Among them are Bateman, Bowring, Harrison, Moss and Skinner.
The increasing popularity of orchids among the upper classes also led to the development of the pro-fessional orchid hunter who traveled to the tropics worldwide in search of new sources of popular plants as well as new species for introduction. This was a strenuous job fraught with unimaginable danger, and more than a few who left seeking fame and fortune were never heard from again. Some of the more successful among them whose names eventually became associated with certain species they discovered include Linden, Lobb, Low, Parish, Wallis and Warszewicz.
By the end of the 19th century, the frenzy for orchids was growing and prices were skyrocketing. So perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that by 1894, the orchid firm of Messrs. Sanders alone had collectors searching tropical jungles in 10 different locations around the globe for more orchids to meet the growing demand. Deforestation became the accepted method employed to reach the epiphytic treasures in the treetops and thousands of trees were often sacrificed at one time in order to achieve the goal. Entire habitats were often eliminated.
Outside of the British Empire, orchids were gaining in popularity as well. The genesis of orchid collecting in the United States seems to have occurred in Massachusetts. It is known that John Boott of Boston received a shipment of plants from his brother, a London resident, in about 1838, and that Boott had been growing at least a few plants prior to that time.
Other horticulturists in that area are known to have been developing collections of orchids in the early decades of the 19th century as well. Records indicate that examples of cattleya, epidendrum and dendrobium were popularly grown and it seems that collections were often passed along when a grower died, helping to promote orchid interest.
In 1837, an example of Oncidium flexuosum was displayed at a meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society by Marshall Wilder, a Boston grower. Through the middle and latter parts of the century, the popularity of orchid growing spread throughout New England and gradually along the Eastern Seaboard. Many growers continued to obtain plants from orchid nurseries in England, such as Messrs. Hugh Low & Son.
Interest in growing orchids had begun to spread across Europe too, as records of orchid fanciers in France and Germany attest. These uncommon plants, however, remained the purview of the wealthy class. By the latter decades of the 1800s, Japanese nobility had begun to import exotic orchids from European nurseries to be grown in greenhouses there as well.
A flurry of milestones in the history of orchids began to occur. England’s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) held the first Orchid Conference in 1885. In 1889, the RHS formed a special Orchid Committee, an outgrowth of its Floral Committee, to deal with the growing popularity of orchid plants.
In the United States, Harvard University became the center of orchid scholarship. Oakes Ames, a Harvard graduate, joined the teaching faculty there in 1899. In the course of his distinguished career he built an extensive orchid library and herbarium at Harvard and became one of the world’s leading orchid authorities.
In March 1920, a meeting was held at Horticultural Hall in Boston for the purpose of forming a national orchid society. Albert C. Burrage was elected president and Oakes Ames became vice-president. One hundred founders made up the original American Orchid Society, among them John T. Butterworth and Mr. and Mrs. Pierre S. du Pont.
For about a decade, the AOS membership maintained numbers between 150 and 200, and the primary focus was the promotion of orchids through exhibitions. At an AOS Trustees Meeting in 1931, the decision was made to publish a quarterly bulletin of news and information from the orchid world that would be of interest to members. Prior to this, The Orchid Review, a monthly publication launched in England in 1893, was the primary source of information ex-clusively about orchids.
The American Orchid Society Bulletin published its first issue in June of 1932. By 1939, AOS membership had grown to 459. Dr. Louis O. Williams assumed the duties as editor in June of 1940, when the AOS Bulletin became a monthly publication. Gordon Dillon stepped into the editor’s shoes in 1942 when Dr. Williams went to Brazil to conduct research.
Dillon traveled extensively to orchid shows across the country and became a great promoter of both orchids and the AOS. He was eventually appointed executive secretary of the organization.
During the middle decades of the 20th century, orchid growing continued to be a pastime reserved primarily for the wealthy. Perhaps because of this association with the elite, these years were also a time when orchids, as cut flowers, were at the height of fashion and represented the very best that money could buy.
The world of orchids, in the same way as much of Western culture, developed at a frantic pace in the years following World War II. Regional and local orchid societies began to form in record numbers and AOS membership grew. Much was discovered about better ways to cultivate orchid plants. There were advancements in materials and equipment that could be used to modify environments for growing them too.
Dillon realized that this new information and technology was not being shared by all who could benefit from it. Thus, it was through his encouragement at an AOS trustees meeting in the early 1950s that the first World Orchid Conference (WOC) came to be held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1954. Sponsored by the AOS, it was the first opportunity for orchid enthusiasts from around the world to meet and share information. The 601 registrants ranged from scientists to commercial growers and average hobbyists. Among the accomplishments at this inaugural event was the establishment of a standard American orchid judging system. The popular WOC has been hosted around the world every third year since.
Indeed, it seemed a second golden age of orchids was dawning. Orchid specialty nurseries began to proliferate. Orchid hybridizers started to develop dazzling examples of various types to the point that it became hard to imagine how they could possibly be topped. The burgeoning middle class began to discover orchid growing as a mean-ingful leisure time pursuit.
These developments were possible, in part, because of the discoveries of Lewis Knudson, PhD, an orchid enthusiast and plant physiologist at Cornell University. His research earlier in the century had proved that orchid seed could be germinated on agar that contained the sugars that were typically provided by the symbiotic fungi known to be necessary for orchid seed germination. The production of orchids by seed, once very limited, became nearly boundless.
Another breakthrough occurred in the 1960s when it was discovered that the growing tip, or apical meristem, of an orchid could be excised and treated in a way that its cells would develop into many identical or nearly identical plantlets. Meristems or mericlones, as these plants are called, enabled growers to produce dozens of copies of their very best orchids. Top-quality orchids, that once commanded small fortunes for their divisions, could now be owned by almost anyone.
It is nearly impossible to over-estimate the effect these two scientific breakthroughs had on the world of orchids. Orchid species and hybrids could now be produced in reliably large numbers from seed, and the best of them could be duplicated until the market was satisfied. These two occurrences combined to drastically reduce the price of quality orchids and democratized the hobby.
Soon came the years of “flower power,” and the beginnings of greater ecological and environmental awareness. Indoor gardening with tropical plants enjoyed a resurgence during the 1970s and orchids benefited from this trend. Hybridizers began to develop orchids that were more tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions and hobbyists found that some could be cultivated on windowsills and under artificial light. Other late 20th century trends included the increasing development of hybrids that flower more than once a year and the emergence of clubs and societies interested in promoting a particular type or group of orchids.
Today, examples of orchids that were once so rare that only the wealthy and noble could own them seem to be encountered in nearly every retailer, restaurant and hotel we enter. It is sobering to think that just a bit more than a century ago men were literally risking their lives to wrestle their antecedents out of tropical forests.
Periodically, it seems important to pause and consider where we have come from, which usually begs the question “Where are we going?” There are many who deserve credit and thanks for their contributions to the science and appreciation of orchids. I, for one, would like to tip my hat to them, and most particularly acknowledge Merle A. Reinikka, whose fine book A History of the Orchid, provided many of these details.