Monday, 05 January 2015 23:59

The true story of the 'Lost Orchid'--Cattleya labiata

This plant, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for the orchid craze that followed. 

It was originally found in northern Brazil in 1818 by explorer William Swainson, who used dormant plants as packing material in a shipment to the Glasgow Botanical Gardens. Some of these ‘extra’ plants went to botanist George Cattley, who, surprised when the orchid produced large, beautifully colored flowers, exhibited the plant to the public.

It was a sensation; commercial growers were eager to introduce it, but no one knew where to find it, since the first examples were essentially undocumented packing material. Swainson was unreachable on another expedition and his notes on his Brazil explorations could not be found. In 1889, fifty Cattleya labiata plants were sent to a Mr. Moreau, an entomologist and occasional orchid grower, by an explorer searching northern Brazil for insects for export. Coincidently, grower Fredrick Sander visited Moreau as his plants were beginning to bloom and recognized them as the long-lost Cattleya labiata. The entomologist shared the location, and Sander sent his plant hunters out to collect them. By 1892 over 25,000 C. labiata plants were being imported annually into Great Britain alone.

More information on the Cattleya labiata and AOS culture sheets for Cattleya can be found here. ( link1 and link2)



Fun Facts


  • An orchid seed is the size of a dust particle and has no endosperm. That is, there is no nutrition within the seed. The orchid seed must associate itself with a fungus, often a specific fungus, to germinate.
  • The Mayan word for vanilla was sisbic.
  • The Aztec name for it was tlilxochitl.
  • The term vaynilla appeared in 1658 and was referenced as the name given it by the Spaniards.
  • The name “vanilla” is a diminutive of the Spanish vaina, meaning “a little pod” or capsule
  • In 1510 vanilla was brought to Europe as a perfume.
  • Nero Wolfe, the detective literary hero created by Rex Stout (1886-1944), is an agoraphobic who spends up to four hours a day with his orchids.
  • At present count, there are approximately 30,000 species of orchids in the world. Orcidaceae is the largest plant family or second largest plant family in the world-depending on your reference. They come in various forms: epiphytic receive all their nutrients from exposed roots and can be found perched on other plants; lithophytic perch on rock and get their nutrients through exposed roots; terrestrial grow in the ground and saprophytic get their nutrition from dead and decaying debris. These have no chlorophyll and lack leafy parts.


The Orchid Hunters


Orchid hunters are the men who ventured off to unexplored areas of the world in search of orchids during the height of Victorian-era fascination with orchids—roughly 1838 - 1910.


Orchid hunting was dangerous and time consuming. Explorers had to be adept at recognizing and gathering new species and just as nimble in negotiating with local officials, shipping agents, and, sometimes hostile indigenous peoples. The numbers of plants and the sums exchanged was staggering: One importer noted losses of as much as $80,000* on a single shipment; on the other hand, one specimen of a rare orchid could fetch as much as $1,800*.


One of the most colorful plant hunter was Benedict Roezl, who worked for a variety of collectors and nurserymen, including Frederick Sander, who ran the world’s largest nursery. Roezl stood over six feet tall, with a blonde beard and blue eyes—and a hook for his left hand. He insisted on traveling alone, and inspired either awe or robbery in remote areas—he was robbed at least 17 times. Many consider him one of the greatest collectors of the age, identifying and collecting 800 new species of flowering plants and trees. He shipped massive amounts of plants; one of his orchid shipments to Sander weighed over eight tons.


Other hunters’ tales:


Carl Roebelin survived an earthquake deep in the Philippines to sight an unknown orchid through a hole in the roof of the tree house where he rode out the quake. Another time he collected more than 21,000 examples of an unknown Phalaenopsis, only to lose them when the transporting ship sank in a hurricane. He had to return and find another source—a hazard of the practice of ‘winner take all’ collecting.


And, William Micholitz, sent to collect in remote and dangerous New Guinea, encountered ritual human sacrifices that sent him into running into the jungle—where he literally ran into a spectacular orchid specimen. Then the ship carrying this find burned in port, requiring Micholitz to find the orchid again in a different location, where a tribal war had been fought. He collected specimens from the remains of slain warriors.


Orchid collection on this massive scale eventually wound down as hybridizing became more reliable, producing plants much more cheaply. Orchid collecting also waned due to the wider availability of orchids and the advent of World War I, which destroyed many nurseries, including Sander’s greenhouse in Bruges, Belgium—the largest in the world.


* in 2010 dollars


Source: Siegel, Carol, “The King, the Travelers, and the Endless Orchids,” Orchid Digest, Jan., Feb., Mar., 2010.



Orchid Trivia


Q. What popular flavoring comes from orchids?
A. An extract from the vanilla orchid seed pod


Q. How big can orchids grow?

A. Up to 2,000 lbs. and 44 ft. high. One specimen of Cattleya skinneri collected for Frederick Sander in the mid-1880s was so large he removed the doors and one end of his already enormous greenhouse to cram it in!


Q. How little is the smallest orchid plant?
A. The size of a thumbnail


Q. Are orchids edible?

A. Some are, but they’re more often used as garnishes. Orchids are not thought to be poisonous.


Q. How long can orchids live?

A. Kew Gardens, England, documented one at 100 years old


Q. What colors are orchid flowers?

A. Every color but black (debatable...)


Q. Do orchids grow around the world?
A. Yes, on every continent except Antarctica


Q. Is it easy to grow orchids from seeds?
A. No, it’s exceptionally hard and in current times, hybridizers germinate seeds in laboratories.


Q. How many seeds does a fertilized orchid produce?

A. Hundreds of thousands of seeds the size of dust particles are contained in a single seed pod


Q. Why did ancient Greeks appreciate orchids?

A. They were presumed to have aphrodisiac qualities


Q. When did orchid plants come to America in quantity?

A. Orchids have been cultivated in North America in the homes of the rich and in public garden glass houses since the time that steam heat and conservatories were built—from the 1840s on.


Q. Do orchids have different fragrances?
A. Yes, from sweet floral, coconut, chocolate, mentholatum, and new-mown hay to rotten!


Did you know that . . .


At one time orchids were owned only by the wealthy, but they now outsell every other house plant, surpassing even African violets, poinsettias, and chrysanthemums.


In the 1800’s, tropical orchids were rare, unique, and expensive. In Europe, they became a way to exhibit one’s wealth and intellectual prowess.


Orchids are mentioned in Chinese literature as early as 800 B.C. In Japan orchids were raised by samurai and the nobility.


The first Cattleya hybrid was made in 1852 in England. By 1922 in the U.S. new techniques made it possible to raise large numbers of Cattleyas from seed. The Cattleya cut flower industry surged as Cattleyas became the corsage flower, involving almost the entire orchid industry in raising Cattleyas for cut flowers. The Cattleya corsage mania, representing glamour and style, lasted 20 years.


Eventually the orchid industry realized that to increase sales orchids should be more accessible. Successful cloning techniques now allow for mass production of plants and what used to take seven years from seed to bloom now takes two years.


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