An Introduction to Orchids - Part 1

OrchidOrchids are one of the most popular house-plants

Fifteen years ago, Orchids were those mysterious plants belonging to the rich and quirky. Today, as a Yorkshireman would say ‘they are as common as muck.’ They are everywhere, from film sets to restaurants. Almost every living room has one, often no longer resembling the fine specimen which was acquired on last year's birthday! With prices as low as a nice bunch of flowers, they are often given to those who host their friends for dinner and they are now the UK’s most popular pot plant.

A Brief History

While they may have had a recent resurgence in popularity, they have been around for a long time. The very first mention of them, in BC 370, was by Theophrastus, who was a friend of Aristotle. People in the 16th and 17th century used to crush the bulbs and eat them for medicinal purposes. They were also said to have aphrodisiac qualities, and in Turkey today there is an ice cream made from Orchid bulbs, said to have this same effect. The Latin name ‘orchis’ actually means testicles, and the British Herbal Guide of 1653 said ‘They are hot and moist in operation, under the domination of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly’.

However, we Europeans were a bit slow on the uptake and only began to show an interest in Orchids about 280 years ago. The first to flower was in 1732. By 1789 Royal Botanic Gardens Kew had 15 species in their collection.

Collecting Orchids

By the 19th century ‘Orchidomania’ had hit and the rich used to send their collectors far and wide to search for them. In 1870 it cost £3,000 to maintain a collector abroad. Imagine what that would be worth today, a far cry from a £12-15 Phalaenopsis. It was a dangerous occupation with many deaths from disease, accident and even murders. Albert Millican in 1891 wrote ‘the most important supplies are knives, cutlasses, revolvers, rifles and pistols!’ The idea of conservation of the species did not exist then, and most plants died in transit. Some regions were stripped of their plants, with as many as 30,000 of one species being collected and thrown into the holds of ships.

The danger of owning more than one plant is that you may get hooked! A collector from Guatemala wrote ‘You can join the AA to quit drinking, but once you get into orchids, you can’t do anything to kick the habit’. A friend, back in 1970, gave me two plants, which I liked. I then acquired 4 more and before long I joined the Bournemouth Orchid Society, and kept on buying more, and building bigger and bigger greenhouses. Now I have 700 plants.

The current trade in orchids is worth £10 billion. Some rare plants sell for £20,000 There are those who are so fond of their plants that they hire baby-sitters and there exists a kind of love sickness. The founder of Japanese Airlines gave all his assets to his wife, severed all family ties and moved to Malaysia with this 2,000 plants, and the inventor of Monopoly retired at the age of 46 to collect and breed orchids.

>> Click here to Read Part 2

This article was written by Dr Derek Copley, Chairman of the Bournemouth Orchid Society.


Filed under House Plants.

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