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The 'Orchid King' and his army

Elisabeth Thurlow
25 February 2013
Read about the dangers of orchid collecting as Kew's graduate trainee repackages a collection of letters held in the Kew Gardens' Archives.

With Orchids at Kew in full swing at Kew Gardens it seems fitting to draw attention to one of my ongoing projects. In the Archives, as I have been repackaging a collection of letters sent to the orchidologist, Frederick Sander, considered to be ‘the Orchid King’ of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This collection is being treated to a bit of much needed T.L.C. to make it accessible to current users and also to preserve it for our future generations. Whilst re-housing the letters in archival standard materials, I am also producing an index to the letters making them more accessible to researchers. As I repackage the collection I am learning more about the 'Orchid King' and his loyal legion of collectors. 

Portrait of Frederick Sander held in the Kew Gardens Illustrations collection. RBG Kew.

 Engaging an army of plant collectors all over the world, Sander filled his greenhouses with enormous shipments of orchids. Frequented by kings and nobles, he could even count the Pope as one of his many loyal customers.


 Orchids on display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. RBG Kew.

Plant hunting - a risky business 

But at what cost did Sander amass these valuable orchids? Plant hunting proved to be a very hazardous game to be involved in. The letters sent to Sander from his ‘travellers’ shed light on the dangerous practice.

After visiting Kew and mapping the route taken by previous collectors in his search for an elusive orchid, Sander sent the German plant collector, William Micholitz, on a hunt to the remote island of New Guinea. Here Micholitz was horrified by the ritual sacrifices of the native tribes. Fearing for his life, Micholitz collected all that he could before his retreat only for the ship carrying the plants to catch fire. Sanders simple reply? Return and recollect.

On his reluctant return, this time accompanied by an armed guard, Micholitz now found the jungles to be empty of the precious orchid. Searching for an alternative location, in the letter below Micholitz recounts his joy when he eventually stumbles upon the sought after flower, growing amongst human remains.



Extract from letter sent from Micholitz to Sander, dated 1891. Archive reference: Letters to Sander volume 11 folio 120. RBG Kew.

The extract above reads: “I forgot my troubles when I saw the first on bare limestone between a great number of human skulls and bones. The natives do not bury their dead, but put them in a kind of coffin then place them on these solitary rocks when they stand along the shore...however, you need not be afraid I shall send you no bones or skulls with them”  

Sander's legacy 

Specimens collected on behalf of Sander are today held in the Herbarium collections at Kew, and his name is attached to many beautiful orchids. This important collection is now being repackaged meaning these fascinating letters will be available for researchers to view in our reading room.

- Elisabeth -



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19 March 2013
Thanks for this snapshot into Sander and his collectors, particularly Wilhelm Micholitz. It may be worth mentioning the book "Frederick Sander, the Orchid King" by Tyler Whittle (1970). The author made use of the correspondence not long after it was donated to Kew by David Sander.

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