The 'Orchid King' and his army
By: Elisabeth Thurlow - 25/02/2013
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”
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 -
- Visit the Orchids at Kew
- Learn more about orchids
- If you would like to learn more about the archival collections, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Visit the Archives
- Search the Library catalogue for publications regarding Sander
About the Tropical Nursery
The main functions of the Nursery are to:
- Form a back-up collection of tender tropical plants used to support science, display and education within the gardens. We supply plants for use in displays in the Main Kew conservatries, for festivals and events organised by the Foundation and the Directorate.
- Supply plants for education purposes to the Schools & Families department.
- Act as main propagation facility for the Princess of Wales Conservatory, Palm House and Temperate House as well as supporting the exchange of plants between Kew and other institutions and collections.
- Provide direct education in nursery techniques and the cultivation of tropical plants for the Kew Diploma course, Apprentice and Trainee programme, Internship and work experience programmes and visiting staff from other UK and overseas institutions.
- Support conservation by working with the UKOTs team undertaking propagation and cultivation protocols on targeted endangered species.
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