Hunting the Elusive Orchid

From the orchid hunters of Victorian England to the thrill seekers of today, for 200 years men have been searching for the elusive orchid.
Marcia Wendorf

Watch any TV show or movie where the protagonist goes to the home of someone who is wealthy. Look on the console table near the front door, or on a desk, and you're likely to see an orchid plant. As the Orchid Republic website says, "Orchids possess a rare brand of beauty, the type that exudes class and elegance ..."


A lot of people must be looking to "exude class and elegance" because orchids have become ubiquitous in the U.S. You can find them for sale at your neighborhood grocery store, or at hardware or home improvement stores. If you don't have a green thumb, Ikea sells artificial orchid plants.

Orchid plant
Orchid plant Source: Wildfeuer/Wikimedia Commons

So, how did the orchid become a symbol of wealth and refinement in America?

The orchid hunters

The orchid has its roots in the early 1800s in Great Britain, which was the time of the great naturalists such as Charles Darwin. In 1818, English naturalist William John Swainson was sending exotic plant samples back from Brazil. He needed some packing material, and he used orchids that hadn’t yet blossomed. Upon their arrival, the orchids bloomed, and their flowers so entranced viewers that orchid fever began.

In an echo of the Netherlands tulip mania, which took place during the years 1636 and 1637, orchid collecting became a mania for Britain's wealthy. And, just as in tulip mania, speculators stepped in and dispatched numerous expeditions to South America and the South Pacific to search for orchids.

These Victorian-era orchid hunters faced hostile native tribes, tropical diseases, wild animals and poisonous snakes. After his first haul of orchids was stolen, David Bowman returned to the jungles of Columbia only to catch dysentery and die. Gustavo Wallis died of yellow fever and malaria, while William Arnold drowned in the Orinoco River in Colombia.

In 1891, famed orchid hunter Albert Millican published his landmark work on the subject, Travels, and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, describing his five expeditions to the Andes. On his sixth, he was stabbed to death.

As recounted in Susan Orlean's much-acclaimed 1998 book, The Orchid Thief, a 1901 expedition saw eight men enter the Philippine jungle in search of orchids. One was doused in oil and set on fire, one was eaten by a tiger, and five were never heard from again. Only one man survived to tell the tale, and he lugged home a load of Phalanopsis, or moth, orchids.

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Back in Great Britain, orchid dealers became immensely wealthy. Queen Victoria employed an official orchid grower named Frederick Sander. He employed 23 orchid hunters, and created an orchid farm at St Albans comprised of 60 greenhouses. Sander went on to open orchid greenhouses in Summit, New Jersey and Bruges, Belgium.

Sander had a partner named Benedict Roezl, who was from Prague, Czechoslovakia. Roezl had lost a hand in an accident and wore a hook, but he was still able to search for orchids across the Americas for over 40 years. Roezl discovered many new species of orchid, and at least seven varieties are named after him. For his contribution to botany, a statue of him was erected in Prague. Curiously, the statue shows him as having both hands.

Benedict Roezl statue
Benedict Roezl statue Source: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons

Another of Sander's partners, Wilhelm Micholitz was horrified to encounter native tribes who practiced ritual sacrifice. After initial setbacks, he discovered a large cache of orchids growing on a pile of human remains.

One particularly hair raising story claimed that on the Solomon Islands, cannibals killed their victims slowly, allowing orchids to feed on their blood.

What are orchids?

Orchids are members of the family Orchidaceae, which is the largest family of flowering plants. There are 28,000 species of orchid, distributed in 763 genera. This number is more than twice the number of species of birds, and four times the number of species of mammals.

There are more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars. A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced by selective breeding. Genetic sequencing has shown that orchids arose 76 to 84 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous Period, and that they may go as far back as 100 million years.

Orchids are found the world over except in the Arctic, the Antarctic, northern Greenland, and extreme southern Patagonia. Their distribution is as follows:

  • Oceania - 50 to 70 genera
  • North America - 20 to 26 genera
  • Tropical America - 212 to 250 genera
  • Europe and Temperate Asia - 40 to 60 genera
  • Tropical Asia - 260 to 300 genera
  • Tropical Africa - 230 to 270 genera

Orchids are perennial herbs and share some very specific characteristics. They have bilateral symmetry, which is called zygomorphism, and their flowers are resupinate, which means that they are "bent back with the face upward." Orchids also have fused stamens and carpels, and very small seeds.

Orchid growth follows two patterns:

  • Monopodial - the stem grows from a single bud, and leaves are added each year; stems can reach several meters in length
  • Sympodial - grow laterally rather than vertically, following the surface of their support, the plant produces adjacent shoots which grow, bloom, then stop growing and are replaced.

Epiphytic orchids grow on the surface of another plant or tree, and they derive their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and organic debris. In temperate climates, orchids grow on grasslands or in forests, and some orchids even grow on rocks.

Without orchids, no sundaes

There are 110 species of vanilla orchids whose genus is Vanilla. They arose in Mesoamerica, primarily in Mexico and Guatemala. One of the vanilla orchids is V. planifolia, which is native to Mexico. It is from this plant that the pods used to create vanilla flavoring are derived. So, I guess you could say we have to thank orchids for hot fudge sundaes.

The Cattleya mossiae orchid is the national flower of Venezuelan, while Cattleya trianae is the national flower of Colombia. The Guarianthe skinneri is the national flower of Costa Rica, the Rhyncholaelia digbyana is the national flower of Honduras, and the Prosthechea cochleata, also known as the black orchid, is the national flower of Belize.

The white version of the Lycaste skinneri is the national flower of Guatemala, while the national flower of Panama is the Holy Ghost orchid, Peristeria elata.

The Vanda 'Miss Joaquim' is the national flower of Singapore, the Rhynchostylis retusa is the state flower of the Indian state of Assam, and the orchid is the City Flower of Shaoxing, China.

Vanda cultivar
Vanda cultivar Source: José Manuel López Pinto/Wikimedia Commons

Orchids are a $10 billion a year industry, with prize orchids selling in excess of $25,000. The finder of a new species or genus of orchid gets naming rights, so this spurs orchid hunters into ever more dangerous areas of the world.

There are orchid clubs all around the world, including the American Orchid Society, which maintains a calendar of orchid-related events. When new orchids are created, they are registered with the International Orchid Register, which is maintained by the British Royal Horticultural Society.

Lady's Slipper orchid
Lady's Slipper orchid Source: Usundberg/Wikimedia Commons

The rarest, and thus most expensive orchids in the world are the Lady's-Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus), and the Hochstetter's Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera azorica). Talk about a disappearing act, a single specimen of this orchid was discovered in 1838, then it wasn't seen again until 2013 when one turned up in the Azores.

Hochstetter's Butterfly orchid
Hochstetter's Butterfly orchid Source: Bateman/Wikimedia Commons

Another of the rarest orchids is the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), which got its name due to its white color and its lack of leaves. Lacking leaves, the orchid seems to float in the dark. The Ghost Orchid can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas and in the state of Florida, where it is highly protected.

Ghost orchid
Ghost orchid Source: Mick Fournier/Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, for the sheer expense, nothing beats the Shenzhen Nongke Orchid which takes its name from Shenzhen University where it was created. This orchid only blooms once every four to five years, and in 2005, one sold for £160,000, making it the most expensive flower ever sold.

In 2000, orchid hunter Tom Hart Dyke, along with Paul Winder, were captured by guerillas while hunting orchids on the border between Panama and Colombia. They were held captive for nine months. In 2002, television series NOVA chronicled Hart Dyke's latest orchid hunting expedition to New Guinea.

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