“When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants. It’s like chasing a green-eyed woman or taking cocaine…it’s a sort of madness.” - Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief
To the uninitiated, orchidelirium may sound like a fabricated term or a playful exaggeration—but it’s very real. For centuries, orchids have inspired fanatical fascination across all walks of life, including the scientific community.
Legend has it that orchids arrived in London around 1818 when William John Swainson used them as packing material while shipping a collection of tropical plants from South America. One of these orchids bloomed on arrival, and the rest is history!
While the facts of that story are debatable, there’s no doubt that the 19th century was the height of orchidelirium. The hysteria surrounding these beautiful plants pushed auction prices into the thousands, and specialized orchid hunters—more adventurers than botanists—were employed to track down the more exotic varieties of the already elusive bloom. Despite great risk, these hunters would venture into the perilous wilderness—and face-off with cutthroat competitors—to procure the rare and sought-after orchid for which wealthy Victorians were willing to pay a king’s ransom.
Science Lends a Hand
Without the helping hand of science, the orchid may have remained a rarity, attainable only by those of great wealth and influence. For example, you could wait as much as a decade for the plants to grow large enough for separation, and the process of division could cost thousands.
Nowadays, advances in reproduction, propagation and cloning have made orchids easily attainable by all walks of life. According to Smithsonian orchid specialist Tom Mirenda, today’s consumers get “the cream of the crop” thanks to the cloning of plants selected specifically for their shape and color. And experimentation continues to push the envelope—rumor has it that one breeder is attempting to integrate the genes of a glow-in-the-dark squid!
But it’s not all fun and games; the scientific community continues to make progress, even today. New breeding methods are being discovered, and DNA research is helping scientists understand how the various orchid species (over 25,000!) react to plant life in the wild. These discoveries will help ensure the survival of the orchid—and orchidelirium—for generations to come.