The Orchid Hunters opens 13 February in the Glasshouse Range

This year, the orchid displays in the Glasshouse Range will focus on the Victorian plant hunters, the perils encountered, the prize orchids bagged, and their lasting legacy in law. Orchid Hunters runs from Saturday 13 February – Sunday 13 March 2016.
The slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum, one of many species of tropical orchid in the displayThe slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum, one of many species of tropical orchid in the display
Orchid collection was the jewel in the crown of the golden age of plant collecting from 1830s-1920s, becoming a full-scale public obsession known as 'Orchidelirium' and there are reports of individual plants selling for well over £100,000 in today’s money. Orchid hunters were commissioned by plant nurseries to search the jungles of the tropics, often suffering deeply unhospitable conditions and risking life and limb in pursuit of novel and exotic orchids.

The displays in the Glasshouse Range this year (13 February – 13 March) will focus on the [mis]adventures of a group of plant hunters commissioned by the indomitable nurseryman Frederick Sander, who became known as the ‘Orchid King’. One of Sander’s most loyal orchid hunters was Wilhelm Micholitz, who worked for him for over 30 years despite the seemingly fractious relationship seen through their correspondence. In his letters, Micholitz writes of the hardships associated with tracking down particular orchids including escaping burning boats, near starvation and witnessing horrific mutilation in wars between tribes on the islands of Indonesia; in one letter he states flatly that he has ‘no desire to find [his] last resting place in the stomach of a tiger’. After his long and arduous travels for Sander, Micholitz died in poverty; his few savings, invested in German government funds, had become worthless after the war. His legacy, of course, is the many orchids he brought back, many of which were new to science and carry Sander’s name.

As well as introducing some of the discoveries made by Sander’s men, including Cattleya from the western tropics and Paphiopedilum (slipper orchids) from the Asian tropics, The Orchid Hunters will also examine the high environmental cost, with packing crates, Wardian cases and rattan plant collection baskets shown overflowing with species orchids. Such was the demand for exotic orchids that millions of specimens were stripped from their native habitat direct for market. Enormous numbers were collected to allow for the huge proportion that were lost in transit; often less than 1% of specimens collected survived to sale, which perversely only fuelled the market’s love of rarity.

The story will be brought up to date by examining modern micro-propagation methods and hybridisation programmes which have made the orchid an everyday commodity, and will look at how international legislation can protect plants in the wild from modern-day plant piracy.

Orchid Hunters is accompanied by a number of public events including staying open late for Twilight on Wednesday 17 February. Please follow the links to the left for full details.
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