Orchid Allure

By Brigette Brown

The ancient Greeks believed it represented wealth and fertility. The Aztecs believed it contained some essential ingredients for strength. And even Victorian era Londoners were enthralled by its iconic, luxurious nature.

Our fascination with the orchid has a long history. All over the world, orchids are praised for their striking looks and delicate nature. This April, the Academy joins the long-standing enthusiasm as it hosts the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society’s International Orchid Show & Sale, showcasing thousands of these enchanting plants. A deeper look into the Academy’s library and archival treasures leads to some rare, historical gems of orchid lore.

Botanists have studied orchids since the early 19th century. During England’s “orchidelirium,” explorers were driven to hunt and acquire unusual specimens all over the world. Orchid hunting was a dangerous profession, but the demand was high and only added to this plant’s bizarre and interesting allure.


The madness for orchids generated a lot of interest in the world of botany, reaching into the scientific world in North America. Many botanists in Philadelphia studied and researched local and native orchid specimens. Today, there are more than 200 native species of orchids known in North America.

Both local and foreign botanists had little knowledge of the proper care and treatment of orchids in the mid-19th century, so the plants had a very short lifespan. Over time, these botanists began to publish detailed research and colorful sketches on orchids, shedding some light on the orchid mystery. Today, these well-preserved documents allow botanists and plant enthusiasts to understand the intricacies of this beloved botanical. Some of these scientific works are currently housed in the Academy’s Library and Archives.

The dedication of some 19th-century scientists, such as William P.C. Barton and B.S. Williams, laid the foundation for our current knowledge and understanding of the diversity of orchids, both local and faraway. Thanks to proper preservation, the Academy’s Library provides the resources to take a glance back into the enthralling history of botanicals, including orchids, as well as Philadelphia’s role in orchid history. Together these resources, along with preserved orchid species in the Academy’s herbarium, help the Academy accurately understand the historical flora of Philadelphia and its surroundings.


If you are interested in the local roots of orchid history you can explore the Library by appointment. Here, you can carefully traverse the beginnings of the madness and allure of orchids that still excite botanists and amateur plant lovers alike. Glance through works by some of the leading historical experts on orchids that detail their care, location, and illustrious nature. Investigate the numerous hand-drawn and colorful images of James Bateman’s A Second Century of Orchidaceous Plants, published in 1867. Or peruse local, lesser known botanists like H.E. Stone and his collection of intricate orchid sketches from 1936.

This April 24–26, watch as the captivating and mysterious allure of orchids blooms again, centuries later, at the Academy’s third annual Orchid Show & Sale. For three days only, visitors can take tours with the experts of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society, attend lectures and talks on orchid cultivation for beginner and experienced orchid growers, and visit an extensive market to purchase plants, gardening supplies, and other treasures from all over the world.

The Orchid Show is free with General Admission. General Admission tickets can be purchased during the weekend of the show. Be a part of the magic and lure of orchids this spring!


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