Orchids: The Royal Family of Plants

Orchids are one of the most well-documented flowering plants in history. The earliest recorded European attempt at growing orchids was when Dutch botanist Paul Herma began documenting his cultivation of a North American orchid in 1698. While his attempt was not successful, it opened the door for many European botanists to try their hand at natural and artificial orchid reproduction.  

The first successful artificial orchid reproduction occurred in 1856 with the Calanthe Dominyi. The Calanthe genus has since welcomed many additions to the group such as Calanthe Triplicata and Calanthe Sylvatica. These orchids are best known for being a winter sprouting flower with deep roots. 

Many artists have considered orchids to be their muse, with paintings, sculptures, and poems in their honor. One such artist and naturalist is Harriet Stewart Miner. In 1885, she published a book entitled Orchids: The Royal Family of Plants which combines original poems and vibrant color plates on various types of orchids. With each orchid introduced, she includes facts about the flowering time, best growing conditions, and a few stanzas about the orchid or a memory associated with it.  

Harriet Stewart Miner, Orchids: The Royal Family of Plants (Boston : Lee and Shepard; 1885)

In her book, the orchids are divided by growing structure. Orchids that grow without the use of a tree or a horizontal root system are called monopodial and ones that use a support system are called sympodial. These groups are then further broken down into subgroups based on the cellular structure of that root growth.   

The study of orchids is constantly updating. There are several books in the Academy’s Library and Archives that are dedicated to compiling information about the history of orchids, such as Joyce Stewart’s Orchids (1988). Within Orchids, Stewart deep dives into the history of orchid cultivation and maintenance. Stewart adds nuance to an age-old fascination by approaching the topic through a new lens: that the popularity of orchids is nothing more than a pattern repeating itself.

At one point in history these flowering plants were worshiped and revered, and because of their prominence, they will never go out of style.  

Written by Deja Oliver, Library and Archives Programming and Outreach Co-Op. You can check out these works on orchids and other amazing historical and botanical topics by visiting the Academy’s Library and Archives.

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