Albert Millican’s Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter (1891)

"I was induced by the cravings of a well-whetted appetite to put aside all scruples of delicacy or custom and discuss the merits of the flesh of the celebrated iguana", writes Albert Millican with typical badinage during his horticultural adventure memoir. If, in today's world, your local florist or hothouse caretaker does not strike you as needing "a stock of knives, cutlasses, revolvers, rifle, [and] an overflowing supply of tobacco" in order to procure carnations and the fixings for bouquets, the nineteenth-century orchid hunter was a very different character.

Between 1887 and 1891, Millican made five trips to the orchid-rich areas of South America, concentrating on the Northern Andes. This was an era of orchidelirium, when a single rare specimen could fetch around $25,000 in today's money. Prospectors shipped millions of orchid bulbs to Europe and less than one-percent survived the journey. The reasons for this sudden interest in orchids has several overlapping explanations: the ascension of the modern greenhouse; Darwin's work on the coevolution of insects and orchids; and a wider Victorian fascination with curios collected from around the world. Millican's own story ends in the tenor in which he lived: he was stabbed to death by rivals while pilfering rare flowers.

But why orchids? And not other blooming delights: the mammoth Amazonian waterlily, with its three-meter diameter, or the titan arum, whose inflorescence looms over those who approach this plant that smells like rotting meat? "What is intriguing in this tangle of aesthetic enthrallment and unscrupulous trophy hunting", writes Richard Mabey in his book on the botanical imagination, "is the disproportion between the obsessional nature of orchid fancying and the character of the plants." When seeking a source for orchidelirium, Mabey and others have seized upon the longstanding bodily connotations of this delicate plant family that includes more than twenty-five thousand members. The word "orchid", for example, reaches back to the Greek orchis ("testicle"), while the basic shape of most orchids includes a lip or labellum, sometimes divided into lobes, which have been portrayed as legs and other anatomical aspects --- a gendered association that, as Katy Kelleher traces, has a particularly violent history.

In mid-nineteenth-century Europe, and Britain especially, the orchid imaginary went into overdrive, accruing additional senses and secret meanings, thanks to the flower's fleshy qualities, far-flung origins, and delicate beauty, which became evocative touchstones in visual art and literature. In Martin Johnson Heade's painting titled Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871), for example, a light-pink flower appears amid an otherworldly landscape dripping with moss and moisture, framed by a humid sun and the titular birds circling a clutch of eggs. During Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, this same family of flowers becomes a euphemism for sex, when Swann and Odette refer to doing or making "Cattleya". Just this one genus of orchid alone could have a book-length history, as it was "discovered" in England by the merchant and botanist William Cattley, who found the tendrils of C. labiata mixed with other packing materials in a shipment received from Brazil, before being lost for several decades, when its true source location could not be found.

Millican's Travels and Adventures plays into this horticultural frenzy, such as when he describes a Colombian grotto where "the trees are literally covered with Cattleya labiata", but the book also inadvertently reveals how orchid hunting both perpetuated and profited from global systems of exploitation and inequality. Millican writes, for instance, about how Cattleya mossiae can now be had with "the greatest ease" in Caracas, "for the Indians bring large quantities of plants into the city for sale at a very nominal price, instead of the poor plant-collector having to brave all the dangers of the forest". If this sounds like a potentially collaborative enterprise, Millican later tips his hand, describing how "the orchid gems" of northern Colombia will remain inaccessible "until the last red man has disappeared from his territory". There was human as well as ecological devastation as a result of this European stockpiling. In order to capture Cattleya mendelii, a flower that adorns the title-page displayed above, Millican cut down over four thousand trees, writing off the clear-cutting as "no serious injury". In his cultural history of orchids, Jim Endersby disagrees: "it is hard to read of such wholesale ecological vandalism without weeping".

Elsewhere we catch glimpses of the colonial networks that allowed Millican to circumnavigate the world, such as when he docks near "a coolie station, where the newly-imported East Indiamen find an asylum until their services are in demand for the sugar plantations". There is much to dislike about Millican's rhetoric, irredeemably tarnished by an imperial arrogance and denigratory anxiety regarding other cultures and peoples, which is not useful to quote examples of here. And yet, the book remains worth browsing for how it complicates ephemeral beauty, making us confront the histories hidden in the folds of petals, stigma and stem.