Orchid Hunters

The Brazilian bloom caused mass hysteria in Victorian England, says Rob Ryan, and its native land has served as inspiration for Daniella Issa Helayel’s new fashion label, DHELA

This story is about the search for beauty. An elusive, sensuous, seductive, deceptive and protean beauty that often came with a high price – the lives of the men who pursued it. No, this is not about some cross between Mata Hari and Helen of Troy, but the Victorians’ quest to find rare orchids and get them safely back to Britain. This desire for members of the Orchidaceae made a whole swathe of the country take leave of its senses, in the way tulips had in Holland more than two hundred years earlier. That was called tulipomania. The British had orchidelirium. And it all began in Brazil.

The lust for these rare and delicate epiphytes (plants that harmlessly anchor themselves to trees) took root when, in the early 1800s, botanist and ornithologist William John Swainson sent crates of exotic plants back from the jungles of Brazil, using ‘weeds’ as packing material. When the latter turned out to be more than mere filling and bloomed, they produced gorgeous, if strangely alien, flowers that captivated and mesmerised all who saw them. The obsession began.

What was it that made collectors pay up to £100,000 in today’s money for a single specimen? It might just be about sex. The name derives from orchis, the Greek for testicle (which the roots resemble). Orchid petals are often thickened into evocative, pouting and voluptuous shapes, with an enlarged platform or lip, the labellum. The bee orchids (Ophrys) sport labella that mimic the appearance and scent of female bees, attracting males that then spread their pollen. Perhaps for the sexually suppressed Victorians, the subliminal subtext of such florid pulchritude was hard to resist.

Then there is the sheer diversity, from the now-ubiquitous Phalaenopsis – the moth orchid ­– through to the ultra-rare, striking green-and-red Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid (native only to Mount Kinabalu on Borneo), with its outstretched side petals like the arms of a dancer and the delicacy of the UK’s shade-loving Ghost Orchid, discovered in Britain in 1854. There are 28,000 species in all, from the big and bold to the tiny and exquisite – something for everyone, it seems.

Whatever the Victorians’ motives for collecting these plants, demand soon outstripped supply and their rarity only made them more desirable. German-born Frederick Sander was known as ‘The Orchid King’ and supplied Queen Victoria herself from his 60 greenhouses near St Albans. His company kept a team of 23 orchid hunters on its books, scouring the globe for valuable (living) artefacts, like proto-Indiana Joneses. As in those movies, the men would stop at nothing to thwart the competition, often resorting to urinating on a rival’s specimens to kill them. Even without such callous acts, the attrition rate among the plants was horrendous. Sometimes less than one per cent of the haul survived. Which, of course, only served to increase the survivors’ value back home.

The hunters fared little better. Sander admitted that nearly all his orchid gatherers ‘met more or less tragic deaths through wild beasts, savages, fever, drowning, falling or other accidents.’ Cultivation techniques, developed in the 1920s, put paid to the heyday of the hunters, although even now people still risk kidnap, disease and prosecution (the rarest are usually protected species) in pursuit of unique and unusual orchids.

There is actually a link between the plants and the new women’s fashion label DHELA. It was, you’ll recall, in Brazil where all the fuss started, when William John Swainson sent ‘weeds’ back to the UK. Daniella Issa Helayel, the founder of DHELA, is also a transplant from Brazil, who draws her inspiration from both her Brazilian background and the natural world, which includes producing vibrant prints reflecting the colours and patterns of flora indigenous to her native country. So, you see, you too can own a piece of exotic beauty. Without getting eaten by wild beasts.

Rob Ryan writes for The Times and The Sunday Times and is the author of several historical novels, including The Dead Can Wait, a tale about Dr John Watson set during WWI