The earliest known orchids (the Mediterranean region), were named Orchis-an earthy reference to the Greek word for testicle, because of their twin oval tubers. These and other orchids from time to time have been considered useful in medicine, but the only orchid of true economic value is Vanilla planifolia, the source of vanilla flavoring. This orchid was used by the Aztecs and thus became known to Europe shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Epiphytic orchids from the West Indies and China were brought to Great Britain beginning in the 1700s; by the end of that century, 15 species were growing at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (Great Britain). Success was indifferent, however, because the orchids were grown in hot, damp greenhouses with little or no air circulation.
As growing techniques improved, shortly before the middle of the 19th century, orchid growing became a craze among the wealthy and titled. Collectors canvassed the tropics for new or choice orchids, sending back plants by the ton. So indefatigable were they that in many areas desirable orchids became rare or even extinct. Many orchids perished in transit, still more at the unskilled hands of buyers. Prized specimens sold for enormous prices, giving rise to the perception of the orchid as a “rich man’s plant.”
An even greater danger, however, has been habitat destruction. The clearing of forests to harvest lumber or to create agricultural or pasture lands has seriously diminished the world’s orchid population. Fires purposely set to clear land can reduce large areas to a semi-desert condition; for example, they may well have obliterated many Indonesian orchid species. Fortunately, one comparatively recent development has benefited both the economies of orchid-rich but cash-poor countries and the preservation of their native species. In many countries, native orchids are now being grown in nurseries for export, for local sale, and to restock natural habitats.
Another contribution to the increased availability of orchids has been the crossing of native species. Hybridization began in the 1850’s when it became evident that orchids that rarely crossed in the wild could be induced to do so by the horticulturist. Indeed, many crosses between genera were made; the current list of hybrids far surpasses 100,000 and continues to grow with each year.
Interest in the culture of orchids seems to have been first aroused in the early 19th century. A number of things probably contributed to this, but much of the credit is often given to a Mr. William Cattley who grew some new plant material included with other tropical plants sent to him from South America. One of the plants flowered in 1818 and created something of a sensation. It was shown to botanist John Lindley (who is still regarded as one of the most important orchid taxonomists of all time) and Lindley named the plant Cattleya labiata. This was in honor of Cattley and in appreciation of the beautiful lip of the flower. It seems, however, that Swainson, the man who collected Cattley’s plants in Brazil, disappeared before he got around to telling anyone exactly where he found them. It was over 70 years before Cattleya labiata was rediscovered.
In Cattley’s day, it was fashionable for the landed gentry and otherwise affluent people to have large greenhouses on their estates. These were heated to tropical temperatures by steam pipes from a boiler fired with coal. A servant had to rise from his bed every night to keep the fire stoked. They called these structures stove-houses and in them, a variety of tropical plants flourished. Into them were placed orchid plants sent to England by plant collectors. There, a few orchids used to the conditions presumably survived, but most languished and eventually died. Slowly, as more information about how and where orchids grew in nature filtered through from plant collectors, orchids were taken out of stove conditions, given more light, more air, less heat and suitable growing media. They grew and flowered and interest in acquiring and growing them accelerated.
In nature, orchids grow in symbiosis with a fungus. This relationship is called a mycorrhiza. Again in nature, the orchid seed will not germinate without being infected by the fungus, a frustrating situation for early growers who could not find any way of easily propagating orchids from seed. This was particularly so as an orchid seed capsule may contain anything up to a million or more dust-like seeds. The minute seeds possess only a small sphere of undifferentiated tissue and no food reserves at all.
About the beginning of the 20th century the work of European scientists Bernard and Burgeff, working independently, resulted in the successful germination of orchid seeds in an otherwise sterile medium in which a culture of the right fungus had been established. Unfortunately, this did not result in a flood of cheap orchid seedlings becoming available as most commercial nurserymen found the process too technical and difficult. An exception was Joseph Charlesworth, a man with no scientific training, who mastered the process and by 1909 was hybridizing and raising odontoglossum seedlings by the thousands at his nursery at Hayward’s Heath in Sussex. Most crispum type hybrids around today trace their ancestry back to Charlesworth’s stud plants.
In humans, the children of the same parents will not all look exactly the same unless they are identical twins -this happens with orchids too. To the early growers, any orchid one could get hold of was worth cultivating. Hybridization has vastly improved both the floral quality and availability of present-day plants. Even so, the very best plant from a large batch of seedlings often changed hands at a relatively large price and most of us could only admire these from pictures in books. But the price of superior plants fell dramatically after the 1960s when techniques were developed to enable most kinds of orchids to be tissue-cultured. These plants are termed mericlones, the first syllable being derived from the meristematic tissue taken to initiate the process and the second indicating that the plant is in effect a propagation of the mother plant. The price of mericlones is usually only a little higher than seedlings, so we can all own pieces of many of the top orchids. Unfortunately, plants are sometimes distributed which do not grow properly or have other problems.
And once again about orchids (briefly). Orchids belong to a huge family of plants called Orchidaceae. What separates them from all other plant families is the way they package their pollen in small waxy bundles called pollinia, for collection by visiting insects. By this unique system, no pollen grains are lost. Instead, the insects carry pollen from one orchid to another; thereby fertilizing their flowers.
Orchids are separated into groups according to their botanical similarities. These groups – Phalaenopsis and Miltoniopsis, for example – are called genera. Within each genus are the species such as Phalaenopsis sanderiana and Miltoniopsis vexillaria. Hybrids are made by breeding between the species and also by combining two or more genera to make intergeneric hybrids. Since orchids interbreed so readily, more easily than any other family in the plant kingdom, a multitude of hybrids is now available.
Difficulties in propagating, kept orchids scarce and expensive for some time. Propagation by seed was slow and chance, so the division was the only means of ensuring the increase of choice orchids. Orchids remained a plaything of the wealthy until the discovery of seed germination in a sterile nutrient medium made raising seedlings practical on a mass scale. Later, tissue culture in similar media made possible the replication of selected choice specimens.