The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Orchids

Sometimes a flower is just a flower, and sometimes it’s a powerful vehicle for giving free rein to our worst colonialist and misogynist impulses.

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | October 2019 | 18 minutes (4,621 words)

In The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher lays bare the dark underbellies of the objects and substances we adorn ourselves with.

Previously: the grisly sides of perfumeangora, pearls, and mirrors.

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Everyone thought it was gone. The woods would no longer welcome the late-spring appearance of its pendulous yellow lip, twisted maroon petals, and thick green foliage. Although lady’s slipper orchids continued to bloom throughout the wild woods of Europe and North America, this particular species (Cypripedium calceolus) had been declared extinct in England as of 1917. Collectors had destroyed the plant in the early 20th century, suffering from what was then known as “orchidelirium,” an incurable psychological illness marked by a need to pillage and possess, to strip the landscape bare and imprison one’s precious findings behind the four walls of a personal greenhouse. 

But Cypripedium calceolus wasn’t entirely lost. There were a few small plants growing wild from seed, working their thick white roots into the forest soil. It grew slowly and survived in secret. When a botanist found one growing in Yorkshire in the ’30s, it was kept secret. Botanists feared the plant would be poached again, and so for four decades, no one knew about the lady’s slipper’s return to Britain. 

Eventually, the secret got out. While botanists worked to reintroduce the flower to the wild and start a new population of yellow-lobed blossoms, collectors caught wind of the miraculous return of the lady’s slipper. For a while, the specimen — growing on the Silverdale Golf Course  — was relatively safe, thanks to its obscurity. Then, in 2004, someone got greedy. A thief stole onto the grounds in the middle of the night and attempted to steal an entire plant. It was found later, mangled, but still alive; the thief got away with a small cutting. In 2009, another poacher got away with a large piece of orchid, leaving just six flowers behind. 

The orchid is now under police protection during its flowering months, from late May to early July. As far as I can tell, they set up police tape around the growing area, assign an officer to regularly patrol the course on foot, and considered putting in CCTV cameras, though it’s unclear whether they actually ever began to film the plant. The tape and the patrolman, however, remain as a deterrent, and the plant, one of about a dozen in the U.K., continues to flower annually. 

Orchid mania didn’t begin with lady’s slippers. It began with exotic specimens, introduced to English gardeners and noblemen in the late 18th century. While many of them had seen botanical drawings of tropical orchids, the live specimens were something else entirely. Their strangely shaped flowers and bright colors sparked a fixation that came to exemplify the values of the period, for the heroic white adventurer who risks his life to harvest the knowledge and beauty of other lands, returning victorious to his home after striding across harsh landscapes, battling his way through jungles, and fighting man and beast to achieve his goals. The orchid stood for supremacy — of knowledge, of culture, of whiteness. It stood for expansion and colonialism. The way Western countries have treated orchids reflects how we’ve come to understand entire sections of the map. Instead of the old saying, “Here there be dragons,” Western explorers looked at the blank areas of their maps and thought, Here there be loot. 

If Cypripedium calceolus is afforded official privileges, it’s not because of its beauty. It’s for its symbolism: It’s a stand-in for Britain’s native wildlife. Visiting this rare flower is a way for people to show their fealty to the land itself, to participate in a romantic rewriting of history, where they always loved their green islands and white cliffs and were only ever trying to extend those same gifts to others.

* * *

It is not often that a plant inspires pilgrimages or gets police protection; for the most part, we view plants as one of the lowest forms of life. The hierarchy is usually: human, animal, insect, plant, fungi, bacteria, virus. We assumed for centuries that plants were stationary, unthinking, unfeeling, and unable to send even rudimentary messages to one another (we now have evidence that this is untrue — plants do talk, plants do listen). For centuries, we’ve valued plants primarily based on how good they are for eating, or for looking at. Until we began to understand more complex scientific ideas like ecological diversity, carbon sequestering, and rewilding, those were our primary motivations for growing plants: taste and beauty. 

Orchids have no taste, though many are edible. (Orchid petals taste, I can report, like water.) What they have by the boatload are looks. I think of orchids like little dandies, dressed in different outfits for different occasions. There are sturdy orchids that grow from swamps and would seem to enjoy long meandering walks through the countryside in tweed and green wellies. There are delicate orchids that do not like to be moved and restrict themselves to flashing their colors at passersby from their perch in the trees, like a glam wedding guest toasting the bride from a corner. There are orchids that look like ballerinas, dressed in tutus for their next performance, and orchids that look like businessmen, stiff and upright and ready to work. 

Orchids, as a plant, may date back as far as 50 to 100 million years, making both the Victorian orchid craze and the contemporary passion for orchids a blip in their overall history. While we weren’t paying attention, they were evolving complex pollination mechanisms. They were forging relationships with bees and other insects, becoming increasingly specialized. They were growing in ever more fantastic shapes and developing ever more unlikely adaptations. Members of the orchid family grow absolutely everywhere — on every inhabitable continent, which just means they haven’t figured out a way to thrive in Antarctica yet. There are about 28,000 currently accepted species of orchid (which doesn’t include 100,000 or so hybrids and cultivars introduced since the Victorian period). They live in the temperate woodlands of Sweden and in the arid rocky soil of Arizona. They hang from trees in humid tropical jungles and decorate the mountains of the Middle East. 

There are orchids that look like ballerinas, dressed in tutus for their next performance, and orchids that look like businessmen, stiff and upright and ready to work. 

Yet when most people close their eyes and imagine an orchid, they picture a tropical variety. Perhaps the moth orchid, which you can buy in almost any grocery store or gift shop. These orchids have big fuchsia or white petals and sepals surrounding a delicately proportioned “lip” and “throat” (i.e., the flower’s sex organs). Or maybe they picture the pale and eerie ghost orchid, the subject of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a book that served as source material for the Academy Award–winning movie Adaptation. Meme lovers might know about the monkey-faced Dracula orchid, whose flowers resemble little simian faces, or the Italian orchid, which looks like a big-dicked stick figure (thus earning the nickname the “naked man orchid”). And there are plenty more orchids that you wouldn’t even know are orchids. I had a weird little plant growing in a pot in my bathroom; I’d dug it up from my backyard because I liked its broad variegated leaves. Only in researching this piece did I discover that I, a known killer of potted orchids, have been growing one for months — the downy rattlesnake plantain. But these ordinary orchids — the spiky green bog orchids and plain pale ladies’ tresses — didn’t change the history of knowledge. Not like those flashy tropical flowers did. North American and English native orchids are important to their ecosystems, but they’re not the ones that caught Charles Darwin’s eye. 

Darwin’s admiration for fauna is well documented in On the Origin of Species (1859), but people often forget about his devotion to flora. Even Darwin calls his 1862 orchid study a “little book,” but it was a little book with a long name — On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing — and a big impact. The dense book argued that “every trifling detail” of orchid structure was not necessarily the result of “the direct interposition of the Creator,” but of centuries of wooing insects into their hairy parts. Although orchids have both “male” and “female” organs (stamens and pistils) contained within one flower, they don’t pollinate their own ova. Instead, they work with insects to get the job done, ensuring intercrossing rather than inbreeding. (Darwin may have had a personal stake in his argument; he felt quite a lot of guilt over marrying his first cousin, an act that he thought may have contributed to the deaths of his “rather sickly” children. “If inbreeding was bad for Charles and Emma’s offspring,” Jim Endersby writes in in Orchid, a Cultural History, “self-fertilization (the ultimate form of inbreeding) ought to be especially bad.”) 

In efforts to attract insects and spread their pollen, orchids have developed some truly wild shapes. Oncidium henekenii is an iridescent red flower with yellow ruffled petals that looks quite a lot like a “fetching female bee,” according to David Horak of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The orchid not only looks like a bee, it smells like one. “When the male lands on the flower, it grabs the labellum and attempts to copulate with it,” writes Horak. “In the process, the flower deposits pollinia on the insect’s head, to be carried to the next flower he visits.” Other orchids lure in insects with colors and shapes that mimic those of more nutritious flowers. Orchids pollinated by flies or carrion beetles are often brown and reek of rotting flesh. Slipper orchids are some of the most devious; they use their big, bucket-shaped labellum to trap bees and bugs. The bugs fly in, thinking they’re going to get some nice sweet nectar, and find themselves stuck in an empty cavity. The only way out is through a hairy hole, just big enough for the insect to sneak through. As the still-hungry insects climb out, they brush against the pollen-covered hairs and leave decorated with the orchid version of semen. 

These adaptations have compelled Micheal Pollan to call orchids “the inflatable love dolls of the floral kingdom,” skilled practitioners of “sexual deception.” Orchids are, according to Pollan, rather fantastic liars who evolved alongside insects, luring them in time and again with the promise of “very weird sex.” Thanks to this long-term fuck-buddy relationship, there are plenty of orchid species that can only be pollinated by a specific corresponding insect species. After learning a few of their adaptations, you can spot patterns, see which lock will fit which key. Darwin’s study of orchids lead him to prophesize the existence of a long-tongued moth when an orchid grower in Madagascar sent him a sample of a star-shaped white orchid with a long, dangling nectary that could grow to almost a full foot long. Upon seeing it, he wrote a friend, “Good Heavens what insect can suck it?” before going on to suggest that, “in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches.” Two decades after Darwin died, scientists found a subspecies of Congo moth (commonly known as Morgan’s spinx moth) with a prolonged proboscis. 

It wouldn’t have been possible for Darwin to examine orchids so closely without access to orchids. While his other works had him trotting around the globe, he researched his little orchid book while hanging out with his family in England. At this time, growing tropical orchids in backyard greenhouses was an incredibly popular pastime for upper- and middle-class men. It supposedly started in the early 1800s, when British naturalist named William John Swainson sent a bunch of orchid tubers back from Brazil. Ironically, Swainson had used the tubers to package other specimens, but the tubers grew and blossomed, surprising everyone. The 1800s also saw the golden era of the modern greenhouse, an architectural movement spearheaded in England by Sir Joseph Paxton. A gardener who rose to knighthood, Paxton created one of the first modern English greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire in the 1830s (Paxton later designed the famous Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851). The visibility of these elegant glass structures inspired a proliferation of greenhouse building among the upper classes. Made with iron bars and cheap, factory-made glass, these grow houses gave people a place to grow tropical plants that wouldn’t otherwise thrive in England’s temperate climate. This was also a period of rapid imperial growth and expansion that brought more orchid varieties to English shores. “Local networks of colonists, missionaries, and traders made it easier to recruit indigenous guides and porters, and to obtain information and supplies that allowed expeditions to reach and explore previously un-botanized areas,” writes Endersby. 

As more and more orchids arrived in England, the flower became further coded. Any old gardener could grow a rose bush, but to grow an orchid you needed a greenhouse — and connections. James Bateman’s 1845 book The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala speculated that “Orchido-Mania” pervaded all classes, but especially the “upper.” Bateman also suggested that orchids were nature’s green patricians. According to Endersby, Bateman wanted hobbyist gardeners to stay in their lane. Aristocratic people should grow aristocratic flowers, for “the happiness of the community at large.” This is but one reading of Bateman’s argument — he also makes it clear that all of society can benefit from seeing greater plant diversity — yet Bateman’s words still reflect a certain sense of noblesse oblige. It was inevitable, Bateman thought, that the upper classes would grow orchids and the lower classes would grow humbler flowers like tulips and carnations. It may not have been ideal, but it was the way of the world.

The high expense of orchid-rearing didn’t much deter the rise of floral madness. Those who couldn’t participate firsthand were able to live vicariously through the legendary antics of plant poachers. People were hungry for exotic flowers, and equally hungry for stories of their capture. Dozens of orchid hunters died abroad, killed by illness, accident, or foul play. “In 1901, eight orchid hunters went on an expedition to the Philippines,” writes Orlean in The Orchid Thief. “Within a month one of them had been eaten by a tiger; another had been drenched with oil and burned alive; five had vanished into thin air; and one had managed to stay alive.” The last man standing walked out of the jungle with either 47,000 or 7,000 orchids, depending on the source. In 1891, an Englishman named Albert Millican published a memoir of his time spent orchid-hunting in the Andes, Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter. As he travels through the Andes, he meets Native men and women who he disparages and lusts after, respectively. He sees his companions pierced with poison arrows and doesn’t seem particularly bothered by their passing. He also doesn’t seem to love orchids all that much: They were a means to an end. Poachers would harvest as many specimens as they could, leaving no tubers left to regrow the population. Some orchid hunters cared about scientific advancements, certainly, but most were after more money and fame. They could come back with both high-priced stock and tales of wild panthers and wild women, cannibals and conquests.  

Dozens of orchid hunters died abroad, killed by illness, accident, or foul play.

As the 19th century wore on, orchids and death became more explicitly associated. It wasn’t just that people died in their quests to procure them; orchids themselves were also seen as deadly. Stories circulated about orchids found growing in graveyards and on human remains. “In the late 1800s an Englishman in New Guinea discovered a new variety of orchid growing in a cemetery,” writes Orlean. “Without bothering to get permission he dug up the graves and collected the flowers.” (He gave the people of the nearby town a few glass beads to pay for his desecration of their ancestors.) Another orchid hunter sent home plants attached to shin bones and ribs, and still another brought a flower growing from a human skull. This last find was auctioned off at Protheroe’s of London, sparking a series of think pieces on these gothic curiosities, these bloody orchids. 

As in life so in fiction, and 19th- and 20th-century pulp literature is awash with dangerous flowers. My favorite entry into this highly specific canon is The Flowering of the Strange Orchid by H.G. Wells. First published in 1894, it tells of a short, nebbishy orchid collector named Winter Wedderburn who laments to his housekeeper that, “nothing ever happens to me.” Later that day, he goes into London and returns with several orchid roots. Most of them are identified by the sellers, but one is not. “I don’t like the look of it,” says his housekeeper, comparing it to a “a spider shamming dead” or “fingers trying to get at you,” before defensively telling her boss, “I can’t help my likes and dislikes.” But to Wedderburn, this root is an opportunity. Something, he hopes, might happen.

Of course, something does happen. After time in his overly hot greenhouse, the orchid blossoms. The “rich, intensely sweet” scent of the flowers makes him dizzy; it overpowers all other smells in the greenhouse. It also overpowers Wedderburn who passes out, to be found later by his trusty housekeeper. He is alive, but barely: Fingerlike aerial roots have swarmed over his body, “a tangle of grey ropes, stretched tight” attached by “leech-like suckers.” The housekeeper saves poor Wedderburn by breaking the windows and dragging him outside. The bloodthirsty orchid is left to die in the cold with all of Weddernburn’s other plants. 

Once he recovers, Weddernburn finds himself thrilled by his little adventure. He’s had a brush with the exotic, hypermasculine world of orchid hunting, and he came out on top. What a feat for such a quiet, milquetoast little man. 

* * * 

At the age of 7, I became an orchid mangler, like the unnamed thief of Silverdale. I suppose I could claim I was struck by orchidelirium — it wasn’t my fault, officer! — but that’s not quite true. I had flower delirium in general; I picked flowers from my neighbor’s gardens and ate the violets that dotted our yards. I stole flowerheads from grocery store bouquets. I liked the colors. I wanted to keep them all, even the dyed carnations wrapped in cellophane, even the jewelweed that grew in the swampy parts of our neighborhood. I didn’t know that orchids were rare, nor would I have cared. I wanted one of those pink, bulbous flowers — a pale ballet pink, like the inside of a seashell or my mother’s fingernails — so I picked it. (When my mother found out she sat me down and explained endangered species. I never picked another lady’s slipper.)

Looking back, it shouldn’t have been hard to resist the call of the lady’s slipper. Lady’s slippers are, in my opinion, kind of ugly. Our New England variety reminds me of human testicles, covered in spiderlike veins, more fleshy than flashy. 

This isn’t a terribly imaginative comparison; orchids have been associated with balls since ancient times. The word “orchid” comes from the Greek word for testicle, órkhis. The Greeks were inspired by the plant’s rounded tubers, which often grow in a pair, one larger and one smaller. Ancient physicians believed that these roots could both cause erections and stop them, depending on which tuber you picked. (The aphrodisiac and the boner-killer followed the same recipe: Stew in goat’s milk, drink hot root broth, wait. The big one would make the organ swell, the small one would quell lust.) In medieval Europe, orchids often went by folk names, like fox stones, hares-bollocks, sweet cullions, dogstones, and goat’s stones. (In case further clarification is required: Stones, bollocks, and cullions are all vulgar synonyms for the family jewels.) 


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It’s difficult to say precisely when orchids became more closely associated with the female body, but during the height of orchid mania, these flowers were often understood as somehow feminine. This makes some visual sense: Aside from the roots, orchids tend to look more vaginal than phallic. But it’s not really about what the flower looks like. It’s about how they were collected, harvested, conquered, bred. And (as usual) it’s about sexism. Flowers were, like women, passive players in procreation. (Darwin didn’t have this hang-up, a small point in his favor.) A 19th-century growing manual would deem orchids “marvelously docile … as with women and chameleons, their life is the reflection of what is around them.” 

When orchids were given agency, they were seen as treacherous. Their sweet scent could lure you in, their beauty might trick you into doing something foolhardy, their silent presence was enough to drive a man wild. Orchids were the femme fatales of the flower world. Popular short stories like “The Purple Terror” by Fred M. White (1898) and “The Orchid Horror” by John Blunt (1911), as well as novels like Woman of the Orchids by Marvin Hill Dana (1901) blur the line between blossom and woman. In each of these narratives, the reader is cast in the role of the male explorer who is seduced by both the promise of fabulous flowers and the hope to get closer to an alluring, exotic woman. For Endersby, these stories show not only the fear of women’s shifting societal roles, but also the fear of (and desire for) the tropics, “ripe with sickness and scheming natives, embodied in seductive exotic women.” He goes on to suggest that dangerous orchids like Wedderburns’ “seem to imbue women with qualities that were simultaneously repellant and seductive.” 

The role of the orchid collector, then, was to tame the dangerous woman. To own her, to coax forth her beauty in a safe, contained space. To take her out of her natural habitat and show her how to live; growing orchids as wish-fulfillment. It allowed these men to feel virile and manly, as though they had imposed their will on nature itself. Inside the tidy walls of a steel-reinforced greenhouse, they could be masters of their own little harem. If Hugh Hefner had been born 100 years earlier, I imagine he would have kept orchids. 

* * * 

As we slide further into the 21st century, the echoes of orchid mania still reverberate. The contemporary collector still dreams of a chance to play Columbus, to discover a new species and slap his name on it. I didn’t know this when I first visited the Montreal Botanical Garden in winter of 2019. I only knew that I wanted to get warm and to see some interesting greenery. I saw yellow orchids and pink orchids and so many white frilly orchids. I also saw the fuchsia petals of the famous Phragmipedium kovachii slipper orchid. 

The story of the kovachii flower is covered at length in Craig Pittman’s riveting book The Scent of Scandal, but in short: In 2002, an American orchid collector named Michael Kovach was traveling with his friend, “The Adventurer” Lee Moore (this nickname is printed on his business cards, so he’s that kind of guy), when the duo came across a roadside stand selling huge magenta orchids. The slipper orchids had brightly colored labellum surrounded by two massive petals and were about the size of a hand, fairly large for an orchid. Kovach was psyched to have discovered an undocumented species, bought several of the plants, and brought them back to America. He didn’t, however, get the proper permission to do so. He didn’t fill out the paperwork, he didn’t wait to get approval. He just packed them in his suitcase and brought them to America. 

Inside the tidy walls of a steel-reinforced greenhouse, they could be masters of their own little harem. If Hugh Hefner had been born 100 years earlier, I imagine he would have kept orchids. 

You can’t just take wild orchids from one country to another — there are rules about these things. Orchids are covered by an international treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which specifies that you can only export orchids that were grown in a nursery or a laboratory. It’s illegal to fly out of the country with a wild orchid and bring it to your favorite botanical garden, where you hand it over to the researchers and suggest that they name the new species after you. 

That’s exactly what Kovach did, with widespread repercussions for both the botanical garden and other orchid importers. Kovach was punished, as was another importer from Texas, who also brought in illegal plants (while Kovach didn’t receive jail time — only probation and a fine — others weren’t so fortunate). It was a huge legal case, though Stéphane M. Bailleul of the Montreal Botanical Garden says it’s just “human nature that prevented everything from being done properly.” (Tell that to the scientists in Peru, who were pretty pissed that an American got to name one of their native species.) The case, Bailleul says, “highlights the difficulty of getting new species out and describing new species. The intention wasn’t to plunder the population, the intention was to describe the species, to examine it, to take the measurements,” which may be both true and the most generous reading of events.

Pittman, author of The Scent of Scandal, has a slightly different take. Orchid people, he explains, “tend to be obsessive, fairly well educated, and somewhat opinionated.” Pittman believes that orchid collectors lust after rare plants primarily because they “want to feel special. They want to feel superior to others.” Even if no one else sees your collection, you know you have something special, something exotic and singular and strange. But Pittman also seems to suggest that Kovach, Moore, and the team of scientists at Selby all believed that they were doing the right thing, at least to some extent, by describing the species. They were making the plant known. They were adding to scientific knowledge, expanding our collective understanding of the wild world of plants. 

Yet this is precisely what stuck with me after I closed Pittman’s book and picked up my next orchid-centric read, Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. It seems to make sense that scientific advancement is worth it, that it is for the good of all humanity that we dig as deeply into the natural world as possible, understanding every nook and cranny and leaf and bee. Even if it means we’re steamrolling over other countries’ rights to “discover” their own plants. Kovachii is a rare, prized species of orchid, one that you can visit at many major botanical gardens. I, personally, have benefited from this theft, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I saw something rare, something special, something new to the world of science.

And yet, what would have happened if we’d left orchids where they were? What would have happened if we’d left countries as they were, people as they were? The lust for orchids is fueled by our appreciation for beauty, our love of bright colors. But lots of flowers are pretty, so it’s safe to say this particular phenomenon isn’t just about prettiness. Orchid mania is an ongoing illness that reflects a sickness at the heart of Western culture where white scientists know best, Western countries deserve to rule over realms of knowledge and beauty and truth, and America and England get to write the stories of the world and determine what species gets which name. The story of orchid madness isn’t just a story of quirky adventurers and daring British men facing down tigers. It’s also a story of masculinity, white supremacy, and entitlement. It doesn’t matter whether the first tropical orchid sailed into England thanks to a packing mistake. It doesn’t even matter whether all the orchids we collect now are coming here by the book. Orchid madness persists and has spread to local plants and endangered species on golf courses and in backyards. When you boil it down, it’s all about the impulse to pull something up, root and stem, to possess a piece of beauty even as you know, logically, that you’re going to kill it. It’s not a story of loving something to death, as I first thought. It’s a story about the fetid swamp of desire that grows within all of us, a place where entitlement festers in deep water polluted by history, by cultural forces we don’t dare to name. 

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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris ReviewThe Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Jason Stavers
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross