London - There’s no getting round this – the orchid is mainly about sex. Admittedly, most flowers are: the rose is all tight buds and extravagant climaxes; the lily is a pungent phallus. But the orchid is unashamedly raunchy: it wants hot and steamy rooms; it has provocative lips; it poses like a geisha.
It is also a decidedly masculine plant: the name derives from orchis, the Greek for testicle, because the root is shaped like one. According to a Greek myth, Orchis was the son of a nymph and a satyr, who attempted to rape a priestess at a drunken Bacchanalian festival. To punish him, he was turned into a flower, a throbbing ball-shaped one. In a previous life, its name was “ballockwort”.
The Victorian era was a heyday for the orchid, a time when exotic flowers were a rich man’s plaything. They became so sought-after that an army of ruthless “orchid hunters” would scour foreign climes for the fanciest species. Thousands of specimens were swept from the forests of Colombia and the Philippines and shipped to England. They changed hands for vast sums: in 1890, someone is recorded to have paid £1 500 for one plant – the equivalent of £100 000 (almost R16 million) today. They were carefully reared in hothouses and grown men with names such as Rothschild and Schroder would compete to own the biggest.
Today, the orchid is as common as the muck it grows in. That is, you can pick one up for about R90 at a supermarket, and they sell in their millions. Once considered the most difficult plant to look after, selective breeding has toughened them up and they are now mass-produced in giant greenhouses. At least, the phalaenopsis is – the type most commonly seen in homes, but just one example of an extraordinarily big family: there are about 25 000 varieties in 880 genera.
What is it about orchids that fascinates?
“They have that exotic, strange allure,” says Johan Hermans, chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society orchid committee. “But I think what attracts people is the variety… from tiny orchids with complex structures to the big, blousy phalaenopsis that everyone knows. Plus, I think there’s always that slightly exclusive, mysterious, steaming jungles thing. It will always have that.”
How did orchids turn from prissy rarities to the world’s best-selling pot plant? The shift came in the 1960s, with the development of meristemming, where a core cell is taken and used to produce more cells. These are then grown into separate plants. “It’s mostly done in Taiwan, where they have cheap labour,” says Henry Oakeley, former president of the Orchid Society of Great Britain. “That’s how orchids became cheap. You can take a meristem now, and in two years you could have a million orchids.”
Orchids still demand care, as I recently found out. I looked after one for a fortnight, at the end of which the brilliant pink petals had wilted to tragic brown flakes. Oakeley reassures me this isn’t entirely my fault. The same happened to him, and, now 72, he’s been looking after these flowers since he was 15.
“You do have to get the conditions right,” he says. “And you have to get your watering right; it’s a skill. Some orchids are very fragile and have very specific requirements, but the phalaenopsis you buy in a supermarket have been bred to enjoy the sort of conditions you and I like.” – The Independent on Sunday