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Innes Lecture 2016: ‘Cunning Killer Orchids’

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.

Innes Lecture Flier with picture of Jim Endersby

Flier for the 2016 Innes Lecture, Jim Endersby pictured

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.

Spine, First edition of Darwin's Orchid book

Spine, First edition of Darwin’s Orchid book, 1862. This copy belonged to William Bateson

Cover of Darwin's Orchid book

Cover of Darwin’s Orchid book, John Innes Historical Collections


On the various contrivances by which British and Foreign orchids are fertilised by insects (London, 1862)






J T Moggridge, Bee orchid

Ophyrs insectifera and Ophyrs apifera (insect and bee orchid) pictured in J T Moggridge, Flora of Mentone (London, 1864)

Moggridge, Mirror bee orchid?

Ophyrs speculum, Mirror bee orchid (pictured on left hand side) in J T Moggridge, Flora of Mentone, (London1864). This is one of the species of orchid fertilized by ‘pseudocopulation’.













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.

Orchid from Lindley, Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25

Orchid Catasetum hookeri from Lindley’s, Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25. Lindley named this orchid after Norwich botanist William Hooker who had done so much to foster his interest in botany as a boy and helped furthered his career.

Orchid from Lindley's Collectanea Botanica

Orchid Cattleya loddigesii from Lindley’s Collectanea Botanica, 1821-25


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’.

Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Cirrhopetalum thouarsii (now Bulbophyllum weberii) from Botanical Register, vol 24 (1838)

Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Comparettia coccinea from Botanical Register, vol 24 (1838)


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





Orchid from Botanical Register

Orchid Cattleya aclandiae from Botanical Register, vol 26 (1840). The name of this plant commemorates two orchid collectors. William Cattley, of High Barnet, a merchant who provided Lindley with money and access to his collection of living orchids, and Sir Thomas Acland, of Killerton, Devon, whose gardener had coaxed this Brazilian orchid into flower.

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.

Page featuring the 'man orchid', John Parkinson, Theatrum botanicum

Page featuring the ‘man orchid’ (Orchis anthropophora), in John Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum (London, 1640).

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.

'Man orchid' in John Sibthorp, Flora Graeca, 1840 John Lindley ed.

‘Man orchid’ (Orchis anthropophora) in John Sibthorp, Flora Graeca, 1840 John Lindley ed.

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.




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Following the primrose path- why early botanists may have not dallied long enough to understand the secrets of heterostyly



This week (August 10th 2015) saw the launch of Professor Phil Gilmartin’s beautifully illustrated article ‘On the origins of observations of Heterostyly in Primula’ in the journal New Phytologist. Professor Gilmartin, Visiting Professor at the John Innes Centre and Dean of Science at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, owes his interest in the history of heterostyly to the fact that he collects and loves old botanical prints. One day while studying the illustrations of William Curtis’s Flora Londiniensis, an eighteenth century publication documenting the wild plants growing within a 10 mile radius of London, and one that brought Curtis ‘praise’ rather than ‘pudding’, Gilmartin noticed that Curtis had drawn both of the two types of flower that occur in Primula. The phenomenon Curtis illustrated is called heterostyly – flower forms where the styles of the plants are of two (and sometimes three) distinct forms: long- or short-styled. If the style with its stigma (or pin) reaches the top of the tube part of the flower, the flower is ‘long-styled’. The stamens either form a ring at the top of the tube or about halfway down its interior. The flower is described as ‘short-styled’ where the stigma reaches only about halfway up the tube and the stamens are situated above it. [For further explanation see this infographic video about heterostyly at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXRMjUdiX8Q ]

In plant science this observation is usually associated with Charles Darwin who made a series of painstaking experiments on the two forms of flower in Primula in the 1860s, work that sparked a major research project for Darwin that was ultimately published in two books: The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation (1876) and Forms of Flowers (1877). Darwin did not coin the term ‘heterostyly’ (this term originates with German botanist Friedrich Hildebrand) but he was one of the first to attempt to understand its reproductive significance. Professor Gilmartin’s surprise encounter with an 18th century depiction of heterostyly, 70 years before Darwin’s observations, led him to ‘follow the primrose path’ through archives, rare books, letters, prints and botanical paintings. The results of his investigation, revealed in fascinating detail in his new article, show that at least seven botanists either drew or described the two forms of flower before Darwin made his observations- the earliest going back to the 16th century.


Auricula engraving, 1615

Crispin van de Pas’s Auricula engravings in Hortus Floridus (1615)


This all begs the question- if the existence of two forms of flower in Primula was such common knowledge, why didn’t botanists study the subject more fully before Darwin? This blog offers some possible explanations, grounded in social history. Before Darwin, the two forms of flower were commonly known as ‘pin’ or ‘pin-eyed’ (long-styled) and ‘thrum’ or ‘thrum-eyed’ (short-styled). This vocabulary comes from the ‘Florist’ rather than botanical tradition, a language with which Darwin was not familiar- in his early letters on the topic he repeatedly referred to ‘thumb-eyed’ forms, missing its etymology completely. By the time his books were published Darwin had done his research and quoted Johnson’s dictionary to explain the origin of the correct term: ‘Thrum is said to be the ends of weaver’s threads, and I suppose that some weaver who cultivated the polyanthus invented this name, from being struck with some degree of resemblance between the cluster of anthers in the mouth of the corolla and the ends of the threads’. (Forms of Flowers, 1877, p.14).

This quotation accurately situates knowledge of the different forms of flowers to the ‘Florists who cultivate the Polyanthus and the Auricula’. The word ‘Florist’ connoted a very specific social world, an artisanal tradition rooted in the hand-loom and home-working weaver communities of Norwich, London, Lancashire and Yorkshire. This tradition is often located to the arrival of Huguenot Flemish weavers fleeing religious persecution and settling in England in the 1570s, bringing their favourite plants with them and their specialist skills in flower cultivation. By 1623, when the word ‘Florist’ was first used in print, a group identity for these flower enthusiasts was established. ‘Florists’ were skilled hobbyist growers (the modern sense of the flower-selling Florist does not appear until the late 19th century). In Norwich, to use a local example, there is evidence that ‘Florists’ Feasts’ were being held from 1631: these were social gatherings held in the City’s pubs where flower expertise was displayed in competitions and celebrated. The first newspaper advert for a ‘Florists’ Feast’ appeared in the Norwich Gazette in 1707. Dr Sam George has documented the growth of the feast tradition all over England and into Scotland by the late 18th century, by which time ‘Florists’ Flowers’ connoted a very specific group of non-native plants including tulips, auriculas, primulas and carnations. For example, the Paisley Florist Society (founded 1768), whose members were weavers, were famous for their carnations (‘Paisley Pinks’), while Lancashire silk weavers were renowned for their show Auriculas.

Auricula varieties, 1736-1748

Auricula varieties, hand coloured illustration from J W Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-1748)

By the 18th century, when Curtis was writing, it had become habitual to distinguish the work of the ‘botanic philosopher’ from that of the ‘fashionable florist’. The very flowers that held the fascination of Florists were objected to as ‘foreign’ monsters, perverted perhaps from their natural form by ‘vulgar’ and ‘unnatural’ methods of raising plants for flower ‘improvement’. Scholars of botany distinguished themselves as students of natural species and naturally occurring hybrids, while a new patriotic emphasis on native flora also played in to the botanists’ disregard of the more showy florists’ flowers. Curtis, for example, invoked the authority of Linnaeus to make this distinction: ‘Linnaeus indeed cautions Botanists against being seduced by the gaudy tints that fascinate the mere Florist’. Working class and women botanists of the 19th century, both groups who were at times co-opted and at others marginalized by the mainstream male botanical tradition, also adopted these distinctions to clearly differentiate their studies from the disapproval meted out to ‘florists’ who in the standard narrative were synonymous with superficial observers. In truth, the Florists’ observation of their flowers was anything but superficial. As Roland Biffen pointed out in his monograph on the Auricula: ‘at an early stage of their work they defined the ‘properties’ which they considered the perfect flower should possess’. One of these points was that flowers should be thrum-eyed, because ‘the pin-eyed flower shows a chasm or vacancy very unpleasant to the eye of the curious florist’ (quoted in Biffen 1951, p. 15). Rules established for judging flower perfection at competitions were adhered to rigidly. Points that were of fundamental importance to the Florists, however, were of no interest to botanical science. Botanists prided themselves (in rhetoric at least) on not making aesthetic judgments about flowers, and the attention to variations in individual plants (so important a skill in genetics) was part of the ‘noise’ from which the botanist had to avoid being distracted, rather than the ‘signal’ (which in their world view was the essential character of the species).

Primula varieties, 18th century

Primula varieties (ibid.) showing the popularity of these Florists’ flowers in the 18th century

If heterostyly had only occurred in foreign Florists’ flowers it would perhaps have been overlooked altogether in scholarly botanical works. However, Curtis made the observation in native ‘Primula acaulis’ (common primrose). But situated as the phenomenon was in the Florists’ world worked against it being taken as a topic of serious study. Curtis side-lined the observation from further scientific investigation with the comment ‘We are then asked to marvel at the inventiveness of God: we are permitted to gratify our sight with the endless varieties the flowers put on, when cultivated by the curious’. Linnaean botany with its emphasis on taxonomy, collections, local floras and plant distributions was focused on establishing ‘type’ descriptions and specimens. Variation in individual flower form within a species was a nuisance for classifiers rather than a problem to be solved. Linnaeus, Curtis and the 18th and 19th century botanists that followed were fixated on a different problem, namely the specific differences between the primrose, the cowslip and the oxlip. As Curtis commented ‘Who is there that does not know the Primrose, the Cowslip, and the Oxlip? The differences between which even a child would be ashamed to be told that it was unacquainted with: and yet to this hour it is a question among the most learned Botanists if they are really distinct species’- a question that continued to fascinate in Darwin’s day.

To paraphrase Sam George- the opposition of botany to ‘Florists’ was shot through with tensions of class and nation. Fancy foreign flowers, artisan knowledge, and alien vocabulary all hampered the transfer of knowledge between the social worlds of the Florists and the ‘philosophic botanists’. That the Florists exchanged their expertise in the pub was also to risk disapproval within contemporary ideas of respectability, a problem Anne Secord has illuminated in detail in her thought-provoking study of artisan botanists in Lancashire. Anne uses tools from social science to explain that botanical specimens and Linnaean nomenclature were ‘boundary objects’ that could have different meanings for participants of distinct social groups and yet allow communication (or ‘translation’) between these different social worlds. Unfortunately for the study of heterostyly, ‘pin’ and ‘thrum-eyed’ flowers did not fit into this Linnaean model of exchange but remained part of the culture of the flower shows. Until Darwin’s studies, early botanists would not go down this particular primrose path which at the time would seem to be a diversion rather than a way of illuminating flower development or plant reproduction.

Further reading:

(All quotes in the blog are from the editions cited here – the rare books illustrations and Darwin volumes are available to view by appointment in the John Innes Historical Collections)

Roland H. Biffen, The Auricula: the story of a Florists’s Flower (Cambridge University Press, 1951). This study has recently been reprinted by CUP.

William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis. New edition revised and enlarged by George Graves and W J Hooker (London, 1835); Vol IV, Primula acaulis and Primula elatior. This edition was published after Curtis’s death. He started this multi-volume work in 1777 but by 1787 his project foundered.

Charles Darwin, ‘On the two forms or dimorphic condition in the species of Primula, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, 6 (1862), p. 77.

Charles Darwin, The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, John Murray, 1876).

 Charles Darwin, The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (London, John Murray, 1877).

 Sam George, Botany, Sexuality and Women’s Writing, 1760-1830: from modest shoot to forward plant (Manchester University Press, 2007).

Phil Gilmartin, ‘On the origins of observations of heterostyly in Primula, New Phytologist, first published online on 10th August 2015.

Anne Secord, ‘Science in the Pub: Artisan Botanists in Early Nineteenth-century Lancashire’, History of Science, 32 (1994): 269-315.


For more information about Phil Gilmartin’s paper email l.horton@uea.ac.uk

Professor Gilmartin is Visiting Professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the John Innes Centre. He is Dean of Science at the University of East Anglia and his research lab is based at JIC where he studies plant development, gene regulation, sex determination in plants and heteromorphy.

To book an appointment to visit the John Innes Historical Collections email sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk


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