Get Swept up in Orchid Mania

What is orchid mania?

These days, you can buy an orchid just about anywhere — grocery stores, gardening centers, and (shameless plug) the gift shop of your favorite botanical garden. In the 19th century however, these beautiful flowers were incredibly rare in cultivation. New species were highly sought after by collectors and the elite as symbols of wealth and status. The demand for these plants reached a fever pitch during the Victorian era, in what became known as Orchid Mania. The 2018 Orchid Show celebrates the golden age of orchid collecting, and the Garden’s role in discovering and conserving orchids both past and present.

Plant collecting during Orchid Mania

Orchid collection, and plant collection in general, flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, driven largely by British exploration of the New World. As more of these beautiful and diverse plants were shipped back to Britain, wealthy plant enthusiasts began to commission plant hunters to seek out these prized flowers from the far reaches of the world.

It was dangerous work. These expeditions were physically demanding — there were generally no roads or trails to follow as collectors trekked through jungles, swamps, and other treacherous terrain. Injuries and illnesses were common, and could even cost the collector his life. Civil unrest and hostile natives were also a real threat, and some plant collectors were murdered in the field while searching for new plants.

Getting living plants out of the field and across an ocean was also an incredible challenge. In worst case scenarios, 1 out of every 1,000 living plants survived an ocean voyage. Lack of knowledge about growing conditions meant even orchids that survived the trip faced steep odds in their new home. The Wardian case revolutionized plant transportation. The mini greenhouse was introduced in 1834, and raised the survival rate of plants from less than one percent to ninety percent.

Burros with orchids 1923
Burros packed with their boxed orchids ready to set out from a Colombian village for a river port, from which the flowers were shipped to St. Louis. (1923)

Plant collecting today

Today’s plant collectors can also become victims of natural phenomena, accidents, illnesses, and civil unrest. At the Missouri Botanical Garden alone, within the past 30 years, researchers have been injured in rock slides, mired in mud or sink holes, faced with bandits and mercenaries, and almost struck by lightning.

The process of shipping plants and plant material from the field to botanic gardens has become more streamlined, but also tightly controlled. Unchecked collecting during the 19th century was unsustainable and often detrimental to entire ecosystems. Today, permits and other government agreements are generally needed to collect and import plants. The collection of all wild orchids is controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Because of these restrictions orchids for sale today are cultivated varieties, propagated in a nursery, and not wild-collected specimens. Commercial orchids are typically clones of a few parent plants. If you’re considering adding an orchid to your home, check out these suggestions from the Garden’s William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening.

The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala

Orchid mania wasn’t just a golden age for the collection of living plants, but also for sharing knowledge about them. Wealthy orchid enthusiast James Bateman teamed up with explorer George Ure Skinner to bring over 100 new orchid species into cultivation and educate the public on proper orchid care. Their work culminated in the creation of the book Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala. This huge book weighs nearly 40 pounds and it’s pages are 22 inches by 30 inches. It was so large, it was issued in parts between 1837 and 1843.

Only 125 copies were ever published, and one of those copies is part of the Garden’s rare book collection in the Peter H. Raven Library. The library has scanned this book and made the images available online. The physical book is badly in need of repairs, and is currently undergoing treatment by the Garden’s book conservator in hopes of restoring it for research use or public display. Select images from the book, and more information about our book conservation program, are on display in the Ridgway Visitors Center through the duration of the Orchid Show.

Orchids at the Missouri Botanical Garden

The Garden’s orchid collection began with a gift to Henry Shaw in 1876. It would continue to expand, totaling some 5,700 plants by 1918.

In 1923, Garden staff led by George H. Pring went on an orchid collecting trip to Colombia and Panama. The resulting haul of 5,000 cattleyas prompted the Garden’s first annual orchid show the following year. The Garden would also establish a tropical field station in Panama to foster discovery and collecting of orchids.

Orchid Station Panama
The Tropical Field Station in Panama. The Garden acquired the outpost in 1927, and relinquished control in 1939.

The threat of pollution forced the Garden to move all 15,000 orchids to the Gray Summit Annex (today Shaw Nature Reserve) in 1926. About this time the Garden would also ramp up its hybridization and propagation efforts, eventually expanding the collection to 60,000 plants.

The collection was moved back to the city campus in 1958, when it was also trimmed down to 25,000 plants. Today, the collection numbers more than 6,000 plants with a growing focus on orchids that are threatened or endangered in the wild. The oldest orchid species still in the collection dates from the 1890s.

Orchids at SNR
Orchids in the greenhouse range at Shaw Nature Reserve.

While most of the living orchid collection is cared for in a greenhouse range that’s off limits to the public, there are several ways to experience these beautiful flowers at the Garden year round.

The Climatron is home to a rotating selection of orchids, to ensure something is always in bloom. You can also find orchids in the Beaumont Room on the first floor of the Ridgway Visitor Center. And of course, the annual Orchid Show brightens the winter months every year with hundreds of orchids in our Orthwein Floral Display Hall. Who knows — after paying us a visit, you might just catch orchid mania yourself.



Jennifer Laquet – Horticulture Interpretation Specialist

Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

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