The first tropical Orchid to flower in the British Isles appears to have been Bletia verecunda (Helleborine americana), figured in Historia Plantorum Rariorum, 1728-1735. It bloomed in 1732 on a plant received by Peter Collinson from the Bahamas in the previous year.
In succession to this appeared Cypripedium spectabile and one or two other North American Cypripediums; Vanilla aromatica, and a few other species, chiefly terrestrial Orchids.
In 1789 Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis enumerated fifteen species of exotic Orchids as being in cultivation at Kew, the tropical species being Bletia verecunda, Epidendrum fragrans, Epidendrum cochleatum, and Phaius grandifolius.
At the end of the eighteenth century about fifty exotic species were recorded. At that time most of the Orchids were imported only to perish as a consequence of the unsuitable conditions in which they were grown. The plants were potted in the most unlikely materials, such as decayed wood, sawdust, loam, tanner’s bark, or any other material which the cultivator thought would be useful in preventing the excessive mortality among his plants; but in all cases the chances of success were discounted by the plants being placed near hot flues, or plunged in tan or bark beds. It was thought that a great success had been attained if a plant bloomed once before it died.
The year 1800 may be said to be the real starting-point of rational Orchid culture, although, even in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, the old traditions still hindered progress. In 1800 Aërides odoratum was introduced, this being the first East Indian Orchid cultivated in this country. In 1817 Sir Joseph Banks brought about the cultivation of epiphytal Orchids in light, wicker baskets which were suspended in the Orchid house or stove; this is one of the most noteworthy events in the early history of Orchid cultivation.
In 1818 Cattleya labiata appeared, and about the same time Cypripedium insigne, which has now two or three hundred varieties that enthusiasts consider sufficiently distinct to bear varietal names. Disa grandiflora and Oncidium Papilio appeared in 1825, when about 180 species of tropical Orchids were in cultivation in the Horticultural Society’s Gardens. This Society gave a great impetus to Orchid culture by sending out collectors into distant lands, and Dr. Lindley, whilst Editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, played a no less important part in studying and recording the species as they were received in this country. The interest in Orchid importing gradually spread, and from the time when Alan Cunningham sent home Australian Orchids in 1835 the interest has never flagged, the famous Orchid collectors, Lobb, Gardner, Skinner, Hartweg, Gibson, and others, sending consignments from time to time from various parts of the world.
The first attempts to grow Orchids in a reasonably low temperature were made in the first half of the nineteenth century, one of the first to grasp the truth in this direction being Joseph Cooper, who was gardener to Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth. But a considerable time elapsed before the more rational treatment, which meant less artificial heat and more ventilation, became general. The culture was further improved by the introduction of the hot-water system of heating Orchid houses, a method which is now almost perfect and has done more to further Orchid-growing than anything else.
The spread of information respecting the climatic conditions of the countries in which the plants were collected also helped cultivators in this country, and the articles published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1851 by the late B. S. Williams, and subsequent articles by other experts, were of great service.
The latter half of the nineteenth century was the most important era in the development of Orchid cultivation. A remarkable feature was the beginning of that industry which has now attained such widespread popularity, namely, the raising of hybrid Orchids from seed. The first hybrid Orchid, Calanthe × Dominyi (obtained from a cross between C. furcata and C. Masuca), flowered with Messrs. James Veitch & Sons in October 1856. The same firm subsequently produced many fine hybrid Calanthes, Phalanopsis, Cattleyas, Lælias, and Læliocattleyas. Many of these are now standard garden plants, whilst the work of hybridising and raising hybrid Orchids has become general.
Another notable event in Orchid culture during the period mentioned was the commencement of the Cool-house or Odontoglossum Section of Orchid Culture. In 1863, Weir, Blunt, and Schlim went to New Granada in search of Odontoglossums, and they were successful in introducing plants of Odontoglossum crispum (Alexandræ), collected above Bogota. These collectors also contributed to our knowledge of the proper methods of cultivating cool Orchids.
So things have gone on until our own days. Orchids hold one of the most important places in gardens, and such genera as Odontoglossums and Cypripediums are so popular that they are cultivated on an extensive scale even by many who do not care to grow a general collection of Orchids.