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Frederick Sander via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Dangerous and Highly Competitive World of Victorian Orchid Hunting

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Frederick Sander via Wikimedia // Public Domain

In Victorian Great Britain, a new sickness spread among the wealthiest in society. Sufferers became obsessed with obtaining a fix, regardless of the danger or money involved. The name of this illness? Orchidelirium—a mania for collecting orchids.

Orchid fever gripped England starting in the early 1800s after British naturalist William John Swainson used some orchids that hadn’t yet bloomed as packing material, thinking they were worthless weeds, while sending back some other exotic plants from Brazil. Upon arrival in Britain, some of the orchids burst into glorious flower, entrancing all those who saw them and sparking the growing obsession with the plant.

Collectors were quickly dispatched by rich patrons and wily businessmen to sail across the oceans to the jungles of South America, the South Pacific, and elsewhere to search out the elusive plants. Such expeditions were hugely risky given the perils from wild animals, hostile natives, and tropical diseases, and many orchid hunters met a grisly end. For example, in 1901 an expedition of eight men entered the jungles of the Philippines in search of orchids: one was eaten by a tiger, a second was doused in oil and burnt to death, and five more were never seen again. The lone survivor of this dangerous mission emerged with an enormous haul of Phalaenopsis, also known as moth orchids, and probably made his fortune.

Phalaenopsis schilleriana around 1870. Image credit: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

The potential to make huge amounts of money meant that many ignored the danger of the jungles and joined the hunt for orchids. Many of these hunters were keen naturalists with a spirit of adventure who were employed by large orchid firms back in Europe to keep up their stock of fresh plants and hopefully discover new species. The list of collectors who perished in the search for orchids is long and full of gruesome anecdotes—William Arnold drowned in the Orinoco River, Gustavo Wallis died of yellow fever and malaria, David Bowman caught dysentery in the jungles of Columbia after returning there to restock when his first haul was stolen by rivals. Albert Millican, who in 1891 published the landmark text on orchid hunting Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, took part in five perilous trips to fetch orchids from the Andes. During his final expedition, he was stabbed to death.

Safely back in Britain, it was the orchid dealers who became amazingly wealthy. Frederick Sander became known as “the orchid king,” and beginning in 1886 he was the official Royal Orchid Grower to Queen Victoria. He employed 23 orchid hunters, and owned a large orchid farm in St Albans, England with 60 greenhouses in which to store and cultivate the tropical plants. As his business boomed, he also opened farms in Summit, New Jersey and Bruges, Belgium. Sander trafficked in vast quantities of plants—at one point, he claimed to have imported over one million specimens of just one species from New Guinea. Sander and his fellow orchid dealers shipped millions of orchids back to Europe, but such was the delicate nature of the bulbs that frequently less than 1 percent of a ship’s cargo of orchids safely made it to market.

One of Sander’s most valuable partners was Benedict Roezl, an orchid-hunter from Prague. Roezl was especially striking because he had only one hand, the other having been replaced with a metal hook after an accident while demonstrating some machinery he had invented. The piratical look only enhanced his reputation as an especially intrepid and ruthless orchid hunter. For 40 years, Roezl traveled across the Americas, either on horseback or by foot, discovering numerous new specimens (at least seven orchid varieties have since been named in his honor) and shipping vast quantities back to Sander to sell at great profit. Roezl was one of the few orchid hunters who made it to retirement, despite being robbed 17 times. His contribution to botany was so great that a statue of him was later erected in his home city of Prague.

Wilhelm Micholitz around 1890 in Singapore Cambridge University Botanic Gardens // Public Domain

Sander was a tough boss, always pushing his orchid hunters to greater glories. He communicated with his team via cable and letter, and some of these fascinating pieces of correspondence now survive in the archives at Kew Gardens in London. One series of letters reveals that orchid hunter Wilhelm Micholitz, during a mission to New Guinea, was terrified by natives who practiced ritual sacrifice. Micholitz collected a shipload of orchids and was getting ready to sail home when disaster struck and his ship caught fire, resulting in the loss of his precious cargo. Micholitz wrote to Sander outlining the dangers and asking to be allowed to come home, only for Sander to cable the curt reply: “Return, recollect.” However, Sander did allow Micholitz to employ an armed guard, and the latter was delighted to later recount that he had found a new source of orchids in the jungle, albeit in rather gruesome circumstances—growing on a pile of human remains.

Inevitably, given the great riches at stake—valuable plants could change hands for more than $1000 per plant, roughly equivalent to $24,390 in today’s money—the teams of orchid hunters developed fierce rivalries. Once a new species had been discovered, the collectors would strip the area to prevent their rivals from obtaining any of the new plants, devastating the environment in the process. On one occasion, orchid hunter William Arnold wrote to Sander to reveal he had been forced to pull a gun on his rival while collecting plants in Venezuela. Sander replied advising him to follow his enemy, collect what he collected, and then, when the opportunity arose, to urinate on the rival’s plants in the hopes of destroying his haul.

After nearly a hundred years of orchidelirium, the madness ended almost as suddenly as it had begun—increased botanical knowledge and the development of more sophisticated greenhouses meant that orchids no longer needed to be imported and could be cultivated in Europe. And of course, as soon as the plants became easily sourced, their value and cachet dropped. Today one can pick up an orchid for as little as $15—meaning that orchid hunters need not risk their lives for these amazing plants, and anyone can own a slice of the exotic.

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Big Questions
What Are Those Tiny Spots on Apples?
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The little pinprick spots on apples, pears, and potatoes are called lenticels (LEN-tih-sells), and they’re very important.

Plants need a constant stream of fresh air, just like people, and that “fresh air” means carbon dioxide. Flowers, trees, and fruit all take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. But unlike people, plants don’t have nostrils.

That's where a plant's lenticels come in. Each little speck is an opening in the fruit or tuber’s skin or the tree’s bark. Carbon dioxide goes in, and oxygen comes out. Through these minuscule snorkels, a plant is able to “breathe.”

Like any opening, lenticels are vulnerable to infection and sickness. In an apple disease called lenticel breakdown, a nutrient deficiency causes the apples’ spots to darken and turn into brown pits. This doesn’t hurt the inside of the fruit, but it does make the apple look pretty unattractive. In the equally appealing “lenticel blotch pit,” the skin around the apple’s lenticels gets patchy and dark, like a weird rash. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Read One of the First Eyewitness Accounts of Antarctica
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Stupendous icebergs, live volcanoes, and delicious (if slightly too rich) penguin soup—just a few of the details recorded on one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Antarctica. Written in the 1840s by the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the Antarctic Journal introduced the southern continent's natural wonders to the world. Now, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project and the Biodiversity Heritage Library have preserved and digitized it for a new generation of exploration junkies.

Born 200 years ago in Suffolk, England, Hooker would become one of the greatest naturalists and explorers of the 19th century. He was a close friend of Charles Darwin and was director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1865 to 1885. But before that, at just 22 years old, he embarked on an epic voyage of discovery to Antarctica.

Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Chalk portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker by George Richmond, 1855
Public Domain

Hooker served as the assistant surgeon and botanist on the adventure under the command of Captain James Clark Ross, a veteran of seven previous Arctic expeditions. Like all of the Royal Navy’s voyages of discovery at the time, this one had specific orders: confirm the existence of the southern continent, find the south magnetic pole, collect flora and fauna, and chart new geographic features.

Armed with 25 reams of paper for preserving plants, glass greenhouses for live specimens, natural history books, and microscopes—plus a trunk of polar clothing—Hooker set up his tiny field laboratory in the HMS Erebus, the larger of the expedition’s two vessels.

The Erebus and the HMS Terror left England at the end of September 1839 and arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in August 1840. From there, they sailed south and soon were in view of a rocky land ringed with pack ice and icebergs. Hooker recorded the incredible sights in his journal. "Saw a shoal of whales, and for the first time an iceberg, a most magnificent flat topped mass of ice about 160ft high, and a quarter of a mile long," he reported on December 28, 1840.

The ships skirted ice floes and inched closer to the continent. Mountains funneled massive glaciers toward the sea (which Ross named after himself), while a huge barrier of floating ice—later named the Ross Ice Shelf—created a perpendicular wall rising more than 160 feet above the ocean's surface, extending to the horizon. Hooker noticed rafts of penguins, white petrels, and gulls heading toward a hilly island at the northern end of the ice wall.

"At 8:45, observed the smaller hills on the Island … emitting small puffs of smoke, a discovery which interested us all very much," Hooker wrote on January 28, 1841. "4:30, observed the volcano emitting immense clouds of black smoke rising perhaps 300 feet above it; its margins tinged white by the sun, with a distinct red tinge from the fire below; it was a magnificent spectacle and a most extraordinary one."

The crew had discovered Antarctica's two largest volcanoes, which Ross named Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after their ships.

In addition to the southern continent, the expedition visited Australia, New Zealand, and smaller subantarctic islands. Whenever the ship anchored, Hooker went ashore to collect mosses, lichens, algae, and vascular plants. At sea, he deployed a tow net to capture plankton and other sea life. If the plants were frozen into the rocky soil, Hooker would chip them out of the earth and sit on them until they thawed. "The observations Hooker recorded in this [Antarctic Journal] and numerous other notebooks formed the basis of a flora of Antarctica and also of the wider regions visited," writes Cam Sharp Jones, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project officer at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in a blog post.

Botanical illustration in Joseph Dalton Hooker's 'Flora Antarctica'
Hooker's drawing of Nothofagus betuloides, the Magellan beech, which he collected on the Ross expedition.
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The most colorful passages in Hooker's journal recount the antics of the ubiquitous penguins, which provided the only fresh meat for the crew during the voyage. "At first we had a dozen on board running wild over the decks following a leader … until one day the leader, finding the hawse hole [a small hole in the ship's hull for cables to pass through] empty, immediately made his exit & was followed by the rest, each giving a valedictory croak as he made his escape," Hooker wrote.

Penguins that didn't escape were made into all manner of entrees. "Their flesh is black & very rich & was much relished at first for stews, pies, curries, etc.," Hooker mused. "After a day or two we found it too rich with a disagreeable flavour … except in the shape of soup, which is certainly the richest I ever ate, much more so than hare soup which it most resembles."

After four years in ice-strewn seas, the entire crew was surely sick of penguin soup and longing for home by the beginning of 1843. The Ross expedition returned to England on September 4, having achieved most of its goals. Ross inferred the position of the south magnetic pole, confirmed the existence and character of the southern continent, and charted huge stretches of its coastline. Hooker recorded plant and animal life that was entirely new to science, which he published in his six-volume Flora Antarctica, a catalogue of more than 3000 descriptions and 530 illustrations of plants species he found on the voyage. The Erebus and Terror were freshened up and put back into naval service on the doomed Franklin expedition in 1845.

To commemorate Hooker's roles in exploration and science (and to mark the bicentennial of his birth), the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew is hosting an exhibition of his letters, paintings and prints from his travels, photographs, journals, important botanical illustrations, and even his own belongings. On display through September 17, 2017, Joseph Hooker: Putting Plants in Their Place demonstrates how, through exploration and curiosity, he transformed the study of plants into true science. In doing so, he brought us closer to one of Earth's most remote places.

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