For anyone who’s done the A to Z Challenge before will know that X requires considerable thought and creativity. Thankfully, the world of botany provides some useful Xs. Today I introduce Xylobium, a genus of the orchidaceae family. There are 35 species and it is native to the tropical Americas. Here’s a picture.
Orchideceae, or orchids, are 200 million years old. They flowered when the dinosaurs plodded along. They’ve spread from the equator to the Artic Circle, and although they’ve never made it to Antarctica, they’re on every continent. The family is huge with 25,000 species and modern cultivations top over 100,000 varieties. At Kew Gardens they have 350,000 recorded hybrids registered.
Antiquity provides us with the first records. Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, recorded orchids in ‘Inquiry into Plants’ in 300BC. Dioscondes, a Greek medical botanist described them as ‘orchids’.
Where did the name come from? The Greek ‘orchis’ means ‘testicle’… I suppose there are similarities! The Greeks considered the plant an aphrodisiac and ate the roots. Other civilisations believed they had healing properties. The Chinese used them to treat coughs and lung diseases (Confucius kept orchids and wrote a poem about their fragrance.) The Aztecs believed eating the flower would give their women sons. The Greeks stuck with virility treatments.
We’ve all eaten parts of an orchid. Vanilla is a species of orchid, and it’s the only orchid that produces fruit – the vanilla pod. Orchids also come in a multitude of colours, except black, and the rarest ones are true blue or dual coloured. Orchids grow on trees but they’re not parasitic, they don’t feed off the tree. They like acidic conditions. Ants live on them, in the chambers of the flowers, increasing the acidity with the production of formic acid as a defensive reaction. The relationship between insects and orchids is as old as the dinosaurs, and highly developed.
The cultivation of orchids means that 99% of species are known, but 1% still grow in inaccessible areas of the world. There are thirty-five species of wild orchid in the UK, but they don’t survive being moved. Consequently the locations are often kept secret by orchid enthusiasts. The collection of wild orchids is now banned by international treaty.
In the 19th century orchids popularity rocketed, primarily due to the ability to move them from their native tropics into greenhouses. Church missionaries brought orchids back from their travels and there were plenty of collectors, like James Bateman. The port of Liverpool with its connections to exotic locations meant many Victorian collectors were based in the north of England. The mass production of glass for greenhouses, the enthusiasm of the amateur botanist and the wealthy industrialised society was the right combination: rich people with plenty of leisure time to collect. The poor orchid was hunted. The craze is known as orchidelirium. Collectors were very secretive, often not revealing their missions or giving out misleading information about the location of orchids so nobody else could find them. The perils of the hunt were costly. Eight men in the Philippines went orchid hunting. One was eaten by a tiger, one got doused in oil and set alight, five disappeared, and the lone survivor returned with a hoard of moth orchids, and probably got very rich.
Frederick Sanders was Queen Victoria’s Royal Orchid Grower. He employed 23 orchid hunters and sixty greenhouses to grow his specimens. He shipped millions of orchids back to Europe, but the delicate nature of the bulbs meant that only one percent survived the journey. Orchid hunters were robbed, murdered, died of diseases like malaria and yellow fever, and encountered primitive peoples. One hunter discovered a new orchid species growing on a pile of human remains. Sanders was a tough boss and highly competitive. He advised one of his men to pee on the haul of a rival in a bid to destroy them. Why? Money. Orchids were worth thousands of pounds. However, the development of sophisticated greenhouses and greater understanding of orchid cultivation brought the craze to an end.
Hot houses were built to mimic the climate of the humid tropics. Using heavily paned glazing, but little ventilation, the greenhouses weren’t suitable. The plants perished, leading to the assumption that the orchid is very difficult to cultivate, which isn’t true (the first manual on growing orchids was published in 1851). I have three in my nicely central heated house. But until modern heating came along, the only way to grow the tropical varieties was in greenhouses.
The golden age of the greenhouse was the Victorian era. Greenhouses can be dated back to Roman times when the Romans created controlled environments to grow cucumbers using oiled cloth stretched over frames. Greenhouses first appeared in 17th Century England in the grand houses of the rich, taking the early orangeries, which relied on brick walls for heat, into the walled gardens, where they leaned against the walls, and eventually the free standing structures.
Until the window and glass taxes were abolished, greenhouses were far too expensive for the householder to build in their gardens. These days glass is replaced with plastic sheeting, which is lighter and cheaper.
So, my X was something of an O really. But a good one, don’t you think?