Every year, usually in April, we hold an annual history of science lecture called the ‘Innes Lecture’ as a free ‘Friends of John Innes’ event. The Innes Lecture celebrates our founding benefactor John Innes, and the contribution of the John Innes Foundation (formerly John Innes Charity) to the flourishing of the John Innes Centre. This year’s Innes lecturer was Dr Jim Endersby, Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex. Jim has already published two highly readable books A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (2007) and Imperial Nature (2008) – a book about Joseph Hooker, Kew gardens, and what it meant to be a botanist in the nineteenth century – but in this lecture on ‘Cunning Killer Orchids’ he gave us a sneak preview of his latest book Orchid: A cultural History which will be available later this autumn.
Jim’s starting point was the science fiction of H. G. Wells and his tales of vampiric orchids turning on their keepers and devouring them. Tracing the ‘killer orchid’ genre back, Jim delighted the audience by explaining how orchids first gained their reputation for cunning. Popularisations of Charles Darwin’s studies of intricate orchid structures, so well designed to attract insect pollinators, are key moments in this story. Darwin was writing at a time when orchids were among the most desirable, collectable, and exotic flowers to grace British greenhouses. His own studies were advanced by his contacts with elite orchid growers, such as Lady Dorothy Neville and amateur field botanists like John Traherne Moggridge (see illustrations below). The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, where his best friend Joseph Hooker was Director and could furnish him with the latest specimens, and collectors working for botanic gardens across the empire, supplied him with many more rarities. With Britain already in the grip of ‘orchid fever’ Darwin was assured of an audience for his orchid book when it appeared in 1862.
On the various contrivances by which British and Foreign orchids are fertilised by insects (London, 1862)
We learnt that the first ‘Cunning killer orchid’ stories cluster in science fiction writing around the 1880s, with most titles falling within the late-19th century to early 1930s. This orchid genre was clearly related to popularisations of Darwin’s work by writers like Grant Allen (1848-1899), rather than Darwin’s original, rather dry book on his numerous orchid experiments. By exploring these later narratives Jim showed the gendered connotations of these fascinating and dangerous flowers which were associated with distinctly feminine attractions, deceptions and power. This was a time, he notes, when gender relations, women’s suffrage, and writing about women was undergoing change. Novel attitudes to women and femininity were registered in these stories with some ambiguity and unease. Jim then brought the story back to science with a discussion of the discovery of the phenomenon of ‘pseudocopulation’ in orchids. Unlike most orchids which are pollinated by nectar-seeking insects, some orchids are designed to seduce male insects into mating with them to get their pollen transferred. Darwin had failed to unravel the puzzle of orchids fertilised in this way- such as Ophrys speculum, the mirror bee orchid which mimics the appearance and scent of female insects to trick male insects – or to make sense of other orchid observers’ notes that seemed to hint at this evolutionary trick. Jim suggested that the ‘Cunning killer orchids’ genre had helped create a situation where botanists like Australian Edith Coleman (1874-1951) were open to seeing insect-pollinator relationships in new ways that were literally unthinkable in Darwin’s day.
To complement Jim’s lecture we pulled out some beautiful botanical books from the John Innes Historical Collections. A centrepiece of the display was the story of John Lindley (1799-1865), not only because he is a local hero (his father was a nurseryman at Catton, Norfolk and he was educated at Norwich School), but because orchids were his passion and he was the dominant figure in the orchid world until his death in 1865. His early, lavish publication Collectanea botanica (1821-25), a book designed to recommend selected exotic plants to the membership of the Horticultural Society (not yet Royal), included and illustrated no fewer than seventeen tropical orchids from many countries: China, India, North America, the West Indies, and Brazil. From 1826 Lindley was in an ideal position as Assistant Secretary at the Horticultural Society’s garden to be the first to see many of the increasing number of orchids coming into the country.
Images from John Lindley, Collectanea Botanica (London, 1821-25). John Innes Historical Collections
Lindley’s interest in orchids started when tropical orchids were a rarity confined to the collections of botanic gardens and of a few rich men and women. The expanding wealth generated by industry and empire allowed more people to indulge in hobbies and orchids became established as one of the most desirable groups in cultivation. Lindley had played a large part in the increasing popularity of orchid growing. He edited two influential horticultural journals, Edwards’s Botanical Register and the Gardeners’ Chronicle which provided him with the means to rapidly publish new species and genera of orchids, to share his views on other orchid matters and tips on orchid cultivation with a wide readership. There are long runs of both journals in the John Innes rare books library, providing a fascinating insight into nineteenth century botany and garden history, including the growth of ‘orchid fever’.
As editor of the monthly journal Edwards’s Botanical Register, Lindley was able to spread the word about new orchid discoveries and how to grow them
Also featured in the display were two very different illustrations of the ‘man orchid’ Orchis anthropophora, one from the 17th century botanist John Parkinson’s Theatrum botanicum (London, 1640) and one from John Sibthorp’s, Flora Graeca (vol. 10, London, 1840). Parkinson’s book is full of orchid illustrations, an indication of the fascination they held for people, even then. Parkinson’s woodcut of the man orchid illustrates the plant with a characteristic early modern curiosity about the generative powers of nature.
Norwich author Sir Thomas Browne also celebrates this plant in his book The Garden of Cyrus (1658): ‘well made out, it excelleth in all analogies’ commented Browne. In the ancient and early modern Materia Medica, preparations from orchid bulbs were supposed to help ‘procure lust’, while men could improve their chances of having male children by eating the larger bulbs! All of this was deduced from the shape of the bulbs which reminded them of men’s testicles. Moving on to the nineteenth century, Sibthorp’s volume on Greek flora includes the man orchid in the course of following in the footsteps of the classical botanist Dioscorides. This last volume in the Sibthorpian series has several beautiful orchid illustrations, produced under the careful editorship of (guess who) John Lindley.
All in all it was a fascinating evening and we’re looking forward to being able to read the full history of orchids in the published book. In the meantime, if you missed the lecture or want to hear it again, you can listen to it by following the link:
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Footnote: Did you know that as well as founding The Sainsbury Laboratory here in Norwich the Gatsby Foundation initiated the Sainsbury orchid conservation project at Kew Gardens? Started in 1983, in the Conservation Biotechnology Unit, this project helps to conserve British and European orchids through propagation and re-establishment.