Orchids beyond Oakes Ames

Watercolor of Phalaenopsis grandiflora by John Day, in the Art Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

As I’ve investigated Oakes Ames’s passion for orchids in writing the last three posts (1,2,3), I’ve become more interested in these plants myself.  Interested, but not obsessed, which may be the result of a gender bias.  In several items I’ve read, the male-centeredness of orchid fascination is noted.  In The Orchid Thief (1998) Susan Orlean writes that in 19th-century Britain  “the breeders, the botanists, the hunters, and the collectors, were all men.  Victorian women were forbidden from owning orchids because the shapes of the flowers were considered too sexually suggestive for their shy constitutions” (p. 75).  Orlean notes, however, that Queen Victoria herself was an orchid fancier; yet, male bias in the field seems to extend to the present day.  When Jon Dunn (2018) was developing his plan to see all the native orchids of Britain in one year, a female friend said she would be interested to find out how many women he encountered on this pilgrimage.  The answer was not many.

This masculine turn seems to extend to the plant’s very name, which is derived from the Greek word for testicle:  some species have twin tubers that resemble a pair of testes.  Orchid flowers can also be erotically suggestive, though more reminiscent of female rather than male genitalia.  But with over 50,000 orchid species, the flowers are suggestive of many things: monkey faces, insect rear ends, and bird beaks.  They also have a broad range of cultural connotations as discussed in two recent books.  Monsters under Glass (Desmarais, 2018) deals with hothouse flowers, so orchids are well represented.  This is despite the fact that in the mid-19th century, Joseph Paxton upended orchid horticulture when he argued that attempting to grow orchids in a hot, humid environment was fatal to these plants.  Most tropical orchids were epiphytes the grew up on tree limbs where the air was fresher, and also many of them were from mountainous areas.  What they needed was drier and less torrid conditions.  This did the trick.  Increased viability led to a surge in orchid enthusiasm in the latter part of the 19th century.  Still, orchids remained a symbol of the tropics, and of dark, rather forbidding jungles, as Jim Endersby (2016) discusses in his cultural history of orchids.

While Desmarais focuses on the literary, Endersby is more expansive and describes everything from the first image of a New World orchid, Vanilla planifolia, to Raymond Chandler’s (1939) mystery novel, the Big Sleep, that features a sinister orchid fanatic.  Endersby also brings up another notable piece of orchid trivia, James Bateman’s The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala that measured 30 by 22 inches and weighed 39 pounds, the largest botanical book with lithographic plates ever produced.  Many of the illustrations were created from watercolors by Sarah Drake, who was also a long-time artist for another orchid expert, John Lindley.

My favorite orchid painter is John Day, a businessman who eventually retired with enough money to dedicate himself to orchids, growing and breeding many himself.  Producing hybrids was a serious interest among many orchid breeders and remains so to the present day (Orlean, 1998).  They anxiously await the results of their crosses to see what forms and colors appear.  They have to be patient because it usually takes seven years or more for an orchid to grow from seed to flowering.  What makes Day interesting to me is that he produced 53 scrapbooks with 2800 pages of watercolor sketches.  He even got permission from Joseph Hooker to visit greenhouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew outside of visitor hours so he could paint undisturbed.  Kew now owns his drawings, which have been on display in one of their galleries (see image above), and there is also a book with many examples of his work (Cribbs & Tibbs, 2004).  I love to leaf through it because the sketches contain notes on the orchids’ characteristics and radiate a passion in the process of being fulfilled.  However, Day must not have considered his art satisfactory because he hired Cornelius Durham, a miniaturist, to paint 300 watercolors of his plants.

In a single post there is no way to do orchids justice.  They have such fascinating properties from luring pollinators by mimicking insect forms to usually having pedicels that twist their zygomorphic flowers in place, with the labellum or lip underneath the other petals.  Then there is the diversity of their habitats; some even live underground, have no chlorophyll, and derive nourishment from the roots of other plants or from fungi (Bernhardt, 1989).  The topic of the relationships between fungi and orchids is wide-ranging; orchids’ miniscule seeds can only flourish with fungal assistance, while other orchids parasitize fungi.  There is almost no subject in plant biology that doesn’t include fascinating information about at least a few orchids.  A recently described Brazilian species has flowers that are less than a millimeter  wide.  And don’t forget that even Charles Darwin wasn’t immune to their charms.  He was yet another 19th-century Victorian man who grew them, experimented with them, and wrote about them.

I’ll end with an orchid expert whose name comes up in many accounts of orchids, including Oakes Ames’s, and that’s Heinrich Reichenbach, one of the most noted orchid taxonomists of the 19th century, with John Day among others sending him plants to identify.  Reichenbach died in 1889, and his will stipulated that his herbarium be closed for 25 years, and only then could it be consulted.  Taxonomists were aghast at this prohibition, an apparent slap at Robert Allen Rolfe, a Kew botanist whom Reichenbach loathed.  In a letter to Blanche while he was on a trip to Europe with his assistants to visit other collections, Oakes Ames wrote of their amusing themselves with an idle discussion about breaking into the Reichenbach herbarium in Vienna.  Needless to say, they didn’t follow through, but Oakes was waiting at the door of the herbarium on the morning the collection finally opened for viewing (Garay, 2007).


Bernhardt, P. (1989). Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. New York: William Morrow.

Chandler, R. (1939). The Big Sleep. New York: Macmillan.

Cribb, P., & Tibbs, M. (2004). A Very Victorian Passion: The Orchid Paintings of John Day 1863-1888. London, UK: Thames and Hudson.

Desmarais, J. (2018). Monsters under Glass: A Cultural History of Hothouses Flowers from 1850 to the Present. London, UK: Reaktion.

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Garay, L. (2007). The orchid herbarium of Oakes Ames. In Orchids at Christmas (pp. 41–50). Cambridge, MA: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.

Orlean, S. (1998). The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Obsession. New York, NY: Ballantine.

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