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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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The meaning of flowers: a Valentine’s Day blog

When our John Innes Centre scientists ask about the meaning of flowers you can be pretty sure they are not thinking about flower symbolism and the language of love. That’s probably not unusual for the majority of us; aside perhaps from choosing flowers for a wedding or funeral, most of the culture and folklore of flowers is now lost on us.

The scientific way of viewing flowers has classical roots, a tradition that was advanced in the Renaissance with the return of naturalism in the work of artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). This more realistic artistic style began to influence herbals in the late 15th and 16th centuries, side-by-side with other stylised and mythical representations of plants. By the 17th century a wealth of botanical art describes flowers through close observation and dissection (often with microscopes), and from the 18th century, illustrations show the influence of new systems of plant classification in the way botanical plates are grouped and the parts of the flower are displayed. Over time the study of flowers branched out from its primary purpose of helping to identify specimens for use in medicine to being a division of natural science in its own right, and we’re fortunate to be able to see all of this unfolding in our John Innes Historical Collections.

Though little thought of today, the symbolism or language of flowers has an equally ancient heritage and a history of change and innovation. The mythic origins of some flower symbols derive from Eastern cultures or are shared with them. Others are tied more directly to associations in the Western Christian tradition. The movement of populations, such as the Huguenots into East Anglia in early modern times, enabled plants and plant lore to travel to new communities.  In Norwich, these immigrant flower-enthusiasts introduced their specialist knowledge of the anemone, auricula, carnation, hyacinth, ranunculus and tulip and celebrated them at ‘florists’ feasts’. From the 17th century the growing international trade in exotic plants and bulbs served to enrich the range of possible choices for floral symbols. The history of art and literature shows that the language of flowers was once widely disseminated: the evidence can be found in court fashions, household decoration, portrait painting, porcelain, and printed books.

Scientific botany itself once routinely included at least some reference to the symbolic power of plants. Many of the botanical books in the John Innes Centre’s collection, for example, have elaborate frontispieces that combine carefully chosen floral imagery with representations of the three classical goddesses: Flora (flowers), Pomona (fruit) and Ceres (crops). But only one botanical work in our collection engages plants directly with the symbolism of love. Published in the 1790s, The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, contained  ‘The loves of the plants’-  a long poem that delighted (and sometimes scandalised) his generation as it introduced readers to Swedish botanist Linnaeus’s system of plant classification. Based on the sexual structures of the flower, the Linnean scheme was ready-made for a poetic linking of flowers to earthly passions, and Darwin exploited this symbolic potential to the full.  With Darwin’s stated aim ‘to Inlist the Imagination under the banner of science’, The  Botanic Garden is sometimes seen as a forerunner text of Romantic science, part of the Romantic movement that took hold in Europe in the early 1800s. The true cultural home of ‘Loves of the Plants’ is surely the Rococo though – with its overblown devotion to pleasure recently covered by Waldemar Januszczak on BBC4, a movement that went out of fashion at the end of the 18th century. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03slvhy#programme-broadcasts

As we’re approaching Valentine’s Day I thought I’d re-connect a few of the botanical illustrations in the John Innes Historical Collections with the history of floral symbolism. Here I want to introduce six flowers that once had a rich set of meanings to lovers. And no, I’m not even going to mention red roses!


Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation: Trew, Hortus nitidissimis (1768-1786)

Carnation The carnation or pink first appeared in Britain in the mid-16th century. Though at first associated with Christ (the red carnation originally stood for Christ’s kingship and crucifixion), the carnation came to mean fidelity, true love, friendship and betrothal. It is a common feature of 16th century betrothal portraits.

The tulip craze captured by John Parkinson (1656)

The 17th century tulip craze captured by John Parkinson

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)

John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole (2nd edition, 1656)




Tulip The tulip made its first appearance as a symbolic flower in Persia and was the emblem of the perfect lover. In northern Europe the tulip underwent changes of symbolic meaning, first it was a symbol of wealth, and later (after the crash in the tulip bulb trade in 1636-7) it became a symbol of extravagance and folly.







Orange blossom (Citrus sinensis). The fragrant white flowers and evergreen leaves of this tree have long symbolized purity, innocence and virtue, and have also been used to suggest eternal youth and entry into paradise. A flower of choice for bridal bouquets, the orange blossom featured in 17th century portrait painting to symbolise marital fidelity.

 Thistle A surprising emblem of love perhaps, but like enduring love it continues to grow in the stoniest of ground! Image from Merian, Erucarum ortus alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis (1717).

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)

Thistle by Maria Sybilla Merian (1717)


Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – the emblem of the deserted lover.  Although in the 16th century this flower would symbolise Christ’s passion and the Holy Trinity, or have associations with Mary and the Holy Spirit, columbine later became synonymous with adultery and cuckoldry!


Aquilegia: Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Columbine: J. W. Weinmann, Duidelyke vertoning (1736-48)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)

Rose garland by Pierre Joseph Redouté (1817)


Yellow or white roses In the Victorian language of flowers the rose had specific meanings. A yellow rose signified jealous love or adultery and a white rose symbolised pure love. Image from P J Redouté, Les roses, with text by C. A. Thory, 1817.










For further reading on floral symbolism (including a bibliography of source material from 1883-2001):

Flower Power: The Meaning of Flowers in Art, 1500-2000 by Andrew Moore and Christopher Garibaldi, with an introduction by Anna Pavord (2003).


Follow these links to find out more about some of the current research on flowers and flowering time at the John Innes Centre:










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