It was a tropical American orchid that really began the craze for
orchids in Victorian society. In 1818, William Swainson
sent home plants of Cattleya labiata as packing material
for other more choice specimens that he had collected in Brazil.
Once the ‘packing’ came into bloom, however, its glorious,
large, pink and purple flowers caught the attention of horticulturists.
The forested mountains of South and Central America are home to
a vast number of orchids. Botanists estimate that Brazil alone contains
over 3000 different species. Most of them live as epiphytes, perched
on tree branches high above the gloom of the forest floor. There
they can obtain enough light to grow and their colourful flowers
attract bird and insect pollinators.
Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico and
Guatemala – all these countries proved fruitful hunting grounds
for avid orchid collectors. George Ure Skinner
set out for Central America as a merchant in 1831, and over the
next 35 years he introduced at least 100 new orchid species into
cultivation. The Polish collector Josef Ritter von Warscewicz
was particularly intrepid. Accompanied by a single guide, he journeyed
through Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. Despite the loss of an
arm, Benedict Roezl travelled across the Americas
several times on foot or horseback, collecting a total of 800 plant
species new to horticulture.
Gallery: Tropical America >>>
Orchids of the mysterious East >>>