Orchids were the 'must have' accessory of the 1800s.
Tropical orchids are now widely available, but in 19th century Britain they were a new and mysterious plant.
In 1818, a box sent from Rio de Janeiro by William Swainson contained orchids as a packing material. One of these was brought to flower and later named as Cattleya labiata. The Victorians were astounded by this flower.
This plant, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for the orchid craze that followed.
Searching for the flowers of paradise
Over half of the orchids transported to Europe in the 19th century died in transit.
To supply the ever increasing desire for more novel and beautiful orchids, many nurseries in the 1800s sent out orchid hunters to collect vast numbers of plants from the wild and ship them back to Europe in “Wardian cases” (miniature greenhouses).
Unfortunately at least half of the plants perished on the voyage, making them all the more rare, collectable and expensive!
Orchid hunters of the Victorian era had to be intrepid explorers as they were away for years at a time living a life full of excitement and danger.
An undiscovered world
There may be as many as 5000 species of orchid as yet undescribed.
New orchid species are still being discovered at a rate of between 200 to 300 per year. These are mainly from tropical regions, as new areas of forest are opened up by road building and development schemes. New species such as the bright purple Phragmipedium kovachii, discovered in 2002, caused a huge stir in the orchid world and even made headlines in the New York Times.
Specimens smuggled out of their native Peru were selling for £10,000 each, proving that “orchid mania” is still with us. Sadly we may now be seeing the last flush of new discoveries. Many may never be seen by human eyes before being lost forever!