History of early orchid cultivation

Although a few Cymbidiums had been grown by the Chinese for centuries, it was not until about 1731 that the first orchidaceous plant entered Western collections. This was Bletia purpurea, which was sent to the English gardener Peter Collinson in that year from the Bahamas.

A few years later, one or more species of Vanilla were introduced into English collections but, like all orchids at that time, they were chronically mistreated and usually perished before producing their flowers. Indeed, attempts to cultivate orchids under the artificial conditions found in European greenhouses were generally disappointing.

This was in large part due to the fact that gardeners of the era did not have any idea of the correct cultural methods to apply to their plants, so that the mortality rate among newly introduced specimens was discouragingly high.

In 1778, Dr. John Fothergill brought live plants of Phaius Tankervilliae and Cymbidium ensifolium from China, and the Phaius was induced to flower shortly after. Epidendrum cochleatum first bloomed in England in 1787, and the next year a specimen of E. fragrans flowered at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. These Epidendrums were grown "in pots of earth composed of rotten wood and decayed leaves, plunged into the tan bed of a pit." It is a wonder they even survived, let alone blossomed.

By 1794, some 15 species of epiphytic orchids were being grown with more or less success at Kew, almost al of them natives of the West Indian region; these included Epidendrum ciliare, lsochilus linearis, Lycaste barringtoniae, Maxillaria coccinea, Oncidium altissimum, and O. carthagenense. At this time all were considered to be members of the great catch-all genus of the period, Epidendrum.

Their collectors had noted that they were found growing in trees, hence it was assumed that they were parasites, an erroneous idea which has persisted to the present day. These unfortunate epiphytes were, therefore, generally potted in a mould formed of decayed wood and leaves, although occasionally a medium of loam and peat was utilized. The pots were then plunged into beds formed of rotten foliage and bark, and subjected to extremes of high temperatures and sodden moisture at all times. Despite this crude and cruel treatment, many of the plants man-aged to survive for long periods of time, thus giving added evidence of the striking durability of the orchid.

The foundation of the Horticultural Society of London in 1809 gave tremendous impetus to horticulture in general in England, and in part because of its existence, orchids came to be considered as not just curiosities, but botanical subjects for serious attention. The first English firm to grow orchids for sale was Messrs. Loddiges, who imported a large number of different species from abroad for cultivation in their large nurseries at Hackney.

Epiphytic orchids in particular presented great difficulties to the early growers, and almost the only person to keep one of these "air plants" alive for any protracted period of time was a Mr. Fairbairn, who succeeded in flowering Aerides odoratum in 1813. His remarkable treatment of epiphytic species is quoted as follows, from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London for that year: "I put the plant when first received into a basket with old tan -bark and moss and hung it up in the pine house where it was exposed to the summer sun and to the fire-heat in winter. A tub of water was placed near it into which I could plunge the basket six or seven times a day, or as often as I passed it."

Cylindrical wicker baskets were adopted by Sir Joseph Banks in the 1820's, and many of the more robust epiphytic orchids thrived in the compost of" vegetable mould and moss" with which they were filled.

About this time, Loddiges used a potting-medium of" rotten wood and moss with a small quantity of sand." The greenhouses in which the orchids were kept were "heated by brick flues to as high a temperature as could be obtained by that means, and by a tan bed in the middle kept constantly moist by watering and from which a steamy evaporation was rising at all times without any ventilation from without."

John Lindley proposed a series of cultural recommendations for orchids in 1830, suggestions which were followed blindly by growers for many years thereafter-with characteristically disastrous results, since he proposed a constantly excessive humidity and as great amounts of heat as could beattained in the greenhouse. These heated glass enclosures of the time were known as "stoves"-a fritting term for them!

About 1835 a critical reform in orchid culture was proposed by two men, Joseph Cooper, gardener to Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth, Yorkshire, and Joseph Paxton, gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Paxton, in particular through the pages of his Magazine of Botany (which ran from 1834 to 1849), exerted a tremendous influence oil the orchid enthusiasts of his day, because of his notable success with these "impossible parasites. Paxton's system basically consisted of the following points: separate houses or portions of houses for orchids from different climates; a lower average temperature than was maintained by other growers, admission of more fresh air into the houses, especially while the plants were actively growing; maintenance of a moist, humid atmosphere by periodic wetting of the paths and growing-stages of the houses; and better drainage, with consequent better root development through an improved system of potting.

Gradually, as decades passed, orchids became more numerous in both private and public collections, as their cultivation grew simplified through better understanding of their basic requirements. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a veritable orchid craze swept England and parts of the Continent.

Plants were gathered by the hundreds of thousands from tropical areas such as the Colombian Andes, India, Malaya, and the Philippines by professional collectors sent out by the great commercial firms of the era.

Hybrid orchids began to make their appearance in abundance about the beginning of this century. Whereas fifty years or more ago the average collection consisted almost exclusively of species, today the situation is exactly reversed, and hybrids are vastly more widely cultivated than wild species.


A History of the Orchid by Merle A. Reinikka