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The Intriguing History of Orchids

By Staff Writer
Share to PinterestThe Intriguing History of Orchids

Orchids are among the most popular flowers in the U.S. They were alive as many as 100 million years ago, and you can find some of their 28,000 species in most corners of the earth except for Antarctica. This steep count doesn't even include the approximately 100,000 hybrids created when "orchidelirium" set in during the Victorian era.

Some orchids are epiphytes that grow on top of plants, and others are lithophytes that cling to rocks. Some look like naked men and others look like monkeys. Most people agree that orchids are visually delightful, and their history is just as interesting.


A thing of beauty

In the late 1700s, the English nobility saw exotic orchid specimens in the flesh after seeing them on the pages of botany books. This sparked a craze for acquiring these rare stunners to populate private greenhouses. Wealthy individuals hired orchid hunters to obtain undiscovered varietals in imperial lands, and these colonial poachers risked their lives for money and fame.

Some found orchids growing out of bones, and these discoveries made the plant a spine-tingling curiosity. Nowadays, orchids are at the center of a billion-dollar industry involving dozens of importing and exporting countries. You can't pluck a wild orchid in one nation and take it to another without relevant permissions.

Share to PinterestColorful yellow orchid flowers growing in a big greenhouse
kruwt / Getty Images


A beverage of choice

The warm, comforting Turkish drink, salep, uses ground flour from various species of salep orchid tubers. Salep became known as saloop in 18th century England and was popular before tea overtook it as a phenomenon. The Ancient Romans used orchid bulbs to make a similar drink they believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Share to PinterestGirl's hand hold Traditional Turkish Drink Salep
asikkk / Getty Images


A medical marvel

In Asia, orchids have been used for medicinal purposes for millennia. The Chinese were the first people to cultivate orchids for healing, thousands of years ago, and the Indians used orchids in ayurvedic treatments.

Orchids can help with a range of ailments, including sexually transmitted diseases. This is partly why drinking saloop became less popular in England—observers assumed you were drinking it to aid your venereal malady.

Share to PinterestSpa herbal compressing ball with candles and orchid
Butsaya / Getty Images


An object of scientific debate

In 1862, Charles Darwin published a book about the fertilization of orchids. He was fascinated by the orchid's many adaptations and deceptions in its quest to attract pollinators. Orchids seemed to reinforce his theory of evolution and validate the idea of natural selection.

Darwin's work on orchids moved scientific debate and public opinion in his favor.

Share to Pinteresta bee on an orchid
photographer of the year 2007,2008 / Getty Images


A mild and magnificent spice

Vanilla is part of the orchid family, and the brown specks you see in desserts made with real vanilla are vanilla orchid seeds. The Aztecs, who the Spanish ultimately conquered, came across vanilla when they defeated Mexico's Totonacs in the 1400s. Vanilla then made its way to Europe and the rest, as they say, is history.

Share to PinterestVanilla beans on a wooden background
Nodar Chernishev / Getty Images


A bawdy set of tubers

Around 300 BC, Theophrastus saw the plant in question and named it orkhis, Greek for testicle. The Ancient Greeks weren't the only ones to hint at the shape of the orchid's twin underground tubers in their names for the plant.

14th-century speakers of Middle English called the plant ballockwort, and the word salep is derived from the Arabic word for a fox's, well, stones. In 1737, Carl Linnaeus used Orchidaceae as the family name to group plants with similar features.

Share to PinterestBlooming pink orchid on a green branch
dreaming2004 / Getty Images


A finite gift of nature

Lady's slipper orchids are native to the U.K. and almost went extinct there circa 1917. Obsessed collectors led an orchid frenzy until, locally at least, there were none left. Or so the masses thought. Wild orchids were found in the 1930s, and botanists kept it secret for decades. Today, this type of orchid receives police protection in the U.K.

Share to PinterestColorful Paphiopedilum slipper or Lady slipper orchid blooming in the garden.
Baramyou0708 / Getty Images


A dashing accessory

There was an orchid shortage in America during the 1940s when corsages made from Central and South American cattleya orchids were all the rage. Women wore them pinned to their finest clothing, and at the height of the "Golden Age of Cattleyas", these fragrant orchids cost as much as $20 — that's $300 each in today's money.

Many growers and suppliers were based in California, Florida, and New Jersey. Cattleya and pansy orchids could be found in homes in the 70s, but they were replaced by moth orchids and cymbidium or boat orchids in the 90s.

Share to PinterestCattleya Labiata flowers
HuyThoai / Getty Images


An item on your grocery list

The ready-to-be-gifted orchids in malls and gift shops tend to be moth orchids or phalaenopsis. Moth orchids come from southeast Asia and Australia and were identified in 1825 by the aptly named German-Dutch botanist Dr. Karl Ludwig Blume. These blooms are low maintenance and make a lively and elegant addition to home interiors, and they're affordable than ever, these days.

Share to PinterestPotted blooming phalaenopsis orchids on store counter
Dmitriy Sidor / Getty Images


A prized possession

Ever since the 1980s, orchid boarding services have become more in demand.

Some orchids require expert handling. Orchid enthusiasts aren't always equipped to keep their plant babies alive and thriving so they leave their precious flora with babysitters of a kind. Professionals, including botanists and horticulturalists, take in orchids and care for them until they're in bloom.

Share to PinterestFemale florist examining flowers
Johnce / Getty Images


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