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“Orchids of the greatest rarity of Colombia”: collecting orchids in the Northern Andes in the 1840s

Published: 25 June 2021 - Camilo Uribe Botta

“Those who have ever received a box of Orchidaceae from the Tropics, know full well that the opening of it is attended with the most intense and feverish excitement”.[1] [Figure 1]

James Bateman, orchidologist and the author of the amazing book The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, knew how exciting it was to receive a shipment of orchids from the Americas. He was one of the first British botanists to import orchids from Central and South America, especially Colombia, and a key figure in the popularization of these tropical plants. He also knew how exciting it was to open a box of imported orchids. More broadly, he was part of an emerging global network around orchids that linked the tropical Andes with the British Isles.

Figure 1. Opening of a box of orchids. The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, 1837.

Colombia was a newly independent country, gaining its independence from the Spanish Empire in 1819. During the almost three centuries of Spanish control of the territory, it remained almost entirely unknown to European science until Alexander von Humboldt’s visit in 1801. That is why, in the following years, many men of science were intrigued by this part of South America, where the Andes, the Amazon, the Llanos, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean met.

Tropical orchids were still a relatively unknown plant in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since the 1820s, occasional shipments from Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala reached botanical gardens or private collections as botanical curiosities.[2] Those were mainly hot orchids, growing in the warm and humid tropical forests from the Americas. But in most cases, knowledge of the climate where orchids grew was lacking. The consensus was that orchids came from very hot and dry climates, and this was the kind of environment that the first greenhouses tried to recreate—a total massacre for the delicate tropical plants.[3]

The mystery behind orchids fascinated amateur horticulturalists and botanists. Their reproduction method was a mystery: for many years Europeans were unable to reproduce tropical orchids artificially. The only way to procure those exotic plants was to extract them directly from the jungle in a dangerous, environmentally damaging and expensive way. [Figure 2] Hundreds of millions of plants left the tropical forest and only a small percentage survived. It was a lucrative business that attracted many merchants and naturalists.

Figure 2. Collection of the Schomburgkia. Edouard-Francois André and Édouard Riou, Le Tour du Monde, 1878.

Among these inquisitive men was Jean-Jules Linden, a young Luxembourgish biologist working for the Belgian government. Linden participated in two expeditions to Brazil and Mexico in 1837 and 1841, where he discovered many plants, including orchids. In 1844 he organised his third voyage to the Americas, travelling to Venezuela, New Grenada, Jamaica and Cuba. His success in introducing orchids to Europe was first acknowledged in a publication by John Lindley from 1846, about Linden’s collections of orchids from Colombia and Cuba.[4]

Jean Linden visited Colombia (then known as the Republic of New Grenada) as part of an expedition funded by the Kingdom of Belgium, the Musée National des Science Naturelles de Paris and some wealthy British businessmen to collect plants, specially orchids. Linden met other two plant hunters who were botanising in New Grenada at the same time: Karl Theodor Hartweg for the London Horticultural Society and William Purdie for Kew Botanical Gardens.

Linden, Hartweg and Purdie followed in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian naturalist who at the beginning of the nineteen century visited the Northern Andes and was surprised by its biodiversity. [Figure 3] Humboldt was especially impressed by tropical orchids: “it must be admitted,” he wrote of them, “that in the number of species, the colouring of their flowers, delicious fragrances, rich foliage, and brilliant colours, none can be compared with those which inhabit the Andes of Mexico, New Grenada, Quito and Perú.”[5]

Figure 3. The Falls of Tequendama, near Bogotá, New Grenada. Frederich Edwin Church (1826-1900), 1854. Cincinnati Art Museum.

Another young botanist interested in orchids was Karl Theodor Hartweg, a German gardener working for the London Horticultural Society. He was instructed to “procure seeds etc of the plants that are likely to be capable of enduring the open air in England [but] nevertheless it is by no means wished that you should neglect opportunities of collecting plants of a less hardy kind as for example Orchideae, provided they come readily within your reach”.[6] He spent more than seven years botanizing in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and New Grenada and is known for the introduction of many tropical plants to Britain.

Linden and Hartweg met several times during their journeys. The first time was in Mexico in 1838. Then they met again in southwestern Colombia and finally in Bogotá in 1844. Many years later, Linden remembered his encounter with Hartweg in the following terms: “We met in Bogotá and it was during an excursion that we took together that we discovered, near Pacho, Odontoglossum crispum, which has excited the admiration of millions”.[7] [Figure 4] This white spotted variety from the cool jungles of Eastern Colombia was considered one of the most beautiful orchids, being constantly sought by collectors. But the first decades this plant was imported to Britain, its success was very limited, precisely because it was not known exactly which kind of environment the plant needed.[8]

Figure 4. Oncidium alexandrae (Odontoglossum crispum), collected by Karl Theodor Hartweg, 1843. Kew Herbarium. (K) With kind permission of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

Linden and Hartweg were followed by a young Scotsman, William Purdie, who visited Colombia in 1845. He was raised and educated in Edinburgh and eventually sailed to Jamaica to work in Kingston Botanical Gardens. Then he decided to visit Colombia with the support of the the Director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Hooker. He botanized in regions that were previously unknown to Europeans, such as the Sierra Nevada or the Ruiz volcano, the latter just months after an 1844 explosion. Locals were surprise by Purdie and could not believe he was “just collecting” plants; he was perhaps the first botanist they ever saw.

In 1847, the Gardeners’ Chronicle announced a grand auction of “orchids of the greatest rarity of Colombia”, including “a most rare collection” of around 40 species, 33 of them new. Those plants, including Odongotlossum, Oncidium, Restrepia and Catasetum, were in good condition and were mostly unknown in Britain. This auction was overseen by Linden himself from his Belgian headquarters. It was the first of many more orchid auctions that were held in the following years, establishing a constant supply of plants from the Colombian jungles to London auction houses through Belgium. But possibly very few of those plants survived.

Those cool orchids remained a challenge for orchidologists and collectors. Very few bloomed in the following years. It was not until the 1860s that many of the plants discovered and introduced by Hartweg and Linden were imported successfully back to Britain.[9] [Figure 5] Orchids became more and more popular from then on, with Colombia as one of the hotspots for orchid collecting in South America. Linden himself funded many expeditions in the 1850s and 1860s. As orchids became more popular, big commercial houses such as Veitch & Sons, Sander, and Shuttleworth & Carder established direct links with collectors and dealers in Colombia.

Figure 5. Odontoglossum alexandrae. James Bateman, A Monograph of Odontoglossum, 1874.

In May 1864, the Gardeners’ Chronicle published a lecture by James Bateman on cool orchids. Here Bateman recalled the earliest triumphs of a new system for orchid growing, one that had been pioneered almost twenty years previously, in the collection of Mr Jean Linden in Belgium and that of Messrs Jackson at the Kingston Nursery. The new system was the cool treatment, a revolutionary way of cultivating orchids in British greenhouses.[ Figure 6] Now it was possible to cultivate orchids of every tropical weather: orchidmania was just around the corner thanks to this network linking Colombia, Belgium and Britain.

Image 6. Jas. Crispin & Sons greenhouse advertisement. H.A. Burberry, The Amateur Orchids Cultivators’ Guide Book, 1894.

Camilo Uribe Botta is a second-year PhD student in the History Department at the University of Warwick. He holds as MA in History from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. His doctoral research centres on the commerce of orchids between Colombia and the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century. He analyses how tropical orchids, understood as a botanical curiosity, a scientific object and a commodity, impacted the economic, scientific and cultural relations between Colombia and Britain and the different actors involved in this trade. He is funded by the University Chancellor’s International Scholarship. He tweets at @curibotta.

[1] James Bateman, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (London: For the Author, J. Ridgway & Sons, 1837).

[2] Steve Manning, Discovering New World Orchids (Aberystwyth: Steve Maning, 2010).

[3] Jim Endersby, Orchid. A Cultural History (Chicago: Chicago University Press and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2016).

[4] John Lindley, Orchidaceae Lindenianae; or, Notes upon a Collection of Orchids Formed in Colombia and Cuba by Mr J. Linden (London, 1846).

[5] The Gardners’ Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette.

[6] Royal Horticultural Society. Lindley Library. RHS/Col/7/1/1/1. ‘Instructions to Mr Hartweg. Dated Septr 21st 1836’

[7] The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 1894, 15, No 383, p. 401-402.

[8] Henry Frederick Conrad Sander, Reichenbachia. Orchids Illustrated and Described, Etc. (Imperial Edition.) Eng., Fr., Ger. (London: HSotheran & Co 1886, 1888).

[9] Sander, Reichenbachia. Orchids Illustrated and Described, Etc. (Imperial Edition.) Eng., Fr., Ger.