Orchids in European History
Medieval European herbalists believed that the shapes of plants
indicated their uses to man. Since the bulbs of common European
orchids looked like testicles, aphrodisiacal powers were attributed
to them. Dried and pulverized tubers were used in love potions.
It was believed that potions made from the younger, firmer tubers
would encourage the conception of male children, while potions made
from the older, softer tubers led to the birth of female children.
Orchids also evoked other images. Jacob Breynius, a 17th century
German botanist, described them in an almost poetic way: "If
nature ever showed her playfulness in the formation of plants, this
is visible in the most striking way among the orchids. They take
on the form of little birds, of lizards, of insects. They look like
a man, a woman, sometimes like a clown who excites our laughter.
They represent the image of a lazy tortoise, a melancholy toad,
an agile, ever-chattering monkey. Nature has formed orchid flowers
in such a way that, unless they make us laugh, they surely excite
our greatest admiration."
Vanilla, the only widely used commercial product of the orchid
family, was first discovered by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico. The
vanilla plant was introduced to English gardens in 1739, and is
credited with the increasing popularity of orchids in horticulture.
In the 19th century, orchids were in such demand that auctions
in Liverpool and London attracted much publicity. Prices soared,
with buyers often paying 500 pounds for a single plant. Top prices
were much higher.
Because little was known of the growth requirements of these bizarre,
tropical plants, many extreme practices were tried. English gardeners
felt that plants coming from the tropics (the so-called hot and
humid countries) needed hot and humid conditions. They placed orchids
in stove houses which were combinations of heavily-painted glass,
coal fires, and hot brick flues. There was no ventilation, and the
bricks were drenched continuously with water to produce a steamy
atmosphere. This was the beginning of the hothouse treatment which
has so long been associated with orchids.