“At the stroke of half past twelve, the auctioneer mounts his rostrum.” And so begins London’s weekly orchid sale of the 1890s, where hundreds of exotic specimens are put up for bid. Amateurs, professionals, and their agents gather in the bustling Cheapside commercial district to peruse the epiphytes just brought in from the jungles.
I stumbled upon this first-hand account while leafing through my father’s library of century-old horticulture books, many of which are leather-bound and adorned in gold lettering. Frederick Boyle’s About Orchids: A Chat, published in 1893, caught my eye and revealed what it was like to grow these tropicals at a time when new species were first being discovered.
Boyle was a prolific author with dozens of books to his credit. He was keen on plants and would later write The Woodlands Orchids in 1901 and The Culture of Greenhouse Orchids in 1902. Each week, he attended the auctions hoping to add to his collection.
Fortunes were made and lost at those early orchid sales. A rarely seen species might command “the fanciest of prices” or plummet from “a guinea a leaf to a fraction of shilling” depending on whether a plant hunter returned from the jungles with a bounty. Wild monetary swings was the norm and was driven by supply, demand, and a lot of hype.
The early auctioneers embellished their botanical descriptions in order to attract interest. It was common to hear that an item up for bid was the “most attractive of plants” or “destined to be a gem in any collection.” The orchid’s value rose even higher if it came from “parts unknown” and, therefore, couldn’t be easily found again.
It would have been tempting to explore the rainforests looking for exotic plants to sell at the weekly auction, but there were dangers. Native Indians roamed the hillsides and weren’t too happy with Westerners taking their plants. “Only last week, we heard that Mr. White of Winchmore Hill perished in the search for Dendrobium phalaenopsis.”
In one unusual case, rare orchids were observed growing among the bones of an Indian graveyard in New Guinea. The explorer had to bribe the natives and, after a lengthy trip at sea, thousands of plants arrived in London. One variety was auctioned off still attached to a skull.
Springtime sales were the most heavily attended since the growing season was just beginning. Britain had six or seven months of sunlight and warm weather ahead so that the plants could “recover from the effects of a long voyage and uncomfortable quarters.” Orchid survival rates were greatly improved if the plants could get settled in and rooted before winter.
Today, of course, collectors have the luxury of buying their plants at nurseries, floral shops, and over the internet. Yet, it is fascinating to learn what the early days of orchid raising was like and it gives hobbyists a greater appreciation for these time-tested epiphytes. First-hand accounts like Frederick Boyle’s make all of this possible.