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History of Orchids

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.

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