As I warned you in an earlier post, the Cambridge Botanic Garden is holding another Orchid Festival. This year the theme is The Orchid Hunters, so here are some tales of those remarkable men, interspersed with pictures of some of the beautiful blooms on view.
In 1818, so the story goes, one William Swainson was collecting plants in South America. He sent a box of specimens to London, using orchids as a packing material. On arrival one burst into flower and started "orchid fever" as everyone marvelled at the beauty of these exotic plants.
However the story is probably just a myth, Swainson knew exactly what he was doing and the plants, in all likelihood, were carefully tended when they reached London.
What was very real however was the craziness which followed, with plant hunters penetrating jungles and remote mountain ranges in search of orchids. Partly this was fuelled by the sheer number of orchid species, but it was also because no one at the time knew how to propagate the plants successfully, so huge numbers of plants were sent back to Europe, many not surviving the trip.
One of the largest collections was at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The head gardener at the time was Joseph Paxton, who later went on to find fame as the architect of the Crystal Palace. He dispatched two of his gardeners, Wallace and Banks, in search of new species. They were warned to "beware of bears and women, both of which were hindrances to the placid life of a plant collector". Their trip turned out to be anything but placid and they were both drowned in a turbulent river. Paxton took the tragedy very personally and never organised another expedition.
One of the leading collectors was Benedict Roezl who was employed by Frederick Sander, a German who ran a very successful orchid business from St Albans in Hertfordshire. Despite losing a hand in an accident in Cuba, Roezl discovered over 400 species and had more then forty named after him.
One unfortunate group of orchid hunters was captured and held hostage in Papua New Guinea. They were eventually rescued by Indonesian troops, but not before two had been beheaded. Others perished elsewhere; dysentery taking David Bowman, yellow fever being the fate of Gustavo Wallis, while William Arnold was drowned in the Orinoco.
In 1901 a party of eight set out for the Philippines in pursuit of rare species. One was eaten by a tiger, another was dowsed in cooking oil and burned to death, and five more disappeared without trace. The single survivor returned with 7,000 orchid specimens.
One rare orchid was described by J. J. Smith in 1932, but was lost to cultivation till it was rediscovered during the Second World War by the piratically-named Captain Neptune Blood (you couldn't make this up, could you?). Blood might have been forgiven for having things other than orchids on his mind at the time as he was busy avoiding the attentions of the Japanese army.
Even modern day orchid hunters can get into scrapes as Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder discovered in 2000 when they were captured and held for nine months by FARC guerillas in Central America.
Little did I realise, when I was trundling around the local garden centre looking for an orchid for my mother, that I was joining such a daring and dangerous group of men!