Hunting for Orchids in South America 1850 – 1910 Rodrigo Orrantia


Through the eyes of photography this talk will trace connections between Imperial Orchid-mania and the hidden stories of the orchid trade at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the context of the current global climate emergency, with the continued threat to South American ecosystems and indigenous tribes, the resonance of orchid hunters’ stories makes them ever more relevant.

In the dawn of this new century, the need to defend the orchid's natural habitat and ensure its sustainability for future generations is clear, but was it ever considered by those who first traveled across the world searching for the ultimate prize?

The journey starts with a photograph. On an overcast morning in 1905, renowned statesman Joseph Chamberlain MP stands for his portrait at the entrance of the houses of parliament in London. The white orchid on his buttonhole -Chamberlain's staple accessory - tells the story of a quest thousands of miles away into the forests of South America, and is the symbol of the horticultural obsession that swept Victorian Britain off it's feet.

Portrait of Joseph Chamberlain by Sir Benjamin Stone, photographed outside the Houses of Parliament, (1905) Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw scientific exploration turn into commerce and private enterprise. The extraordinary expansion and wealth of the British Empire gave rise to a voracious appetite for exotic goods, plant-collecting becoming one of the most lucrative - albeit perilous - occupations. And of all the rare plants and flowers, the orchid reigned supreme.

Presented to the world in 1839, photography would also be synonymous with the scientific progress of the Victorian age. It took a few years for the medium to flourish, but by the 1850s it was ready to accompany adventurers to the furthest reaches of the empire and beyond. Hence the story of the orchid trade and its fateful demise is one of the first we can piece together through the eyes of the camera.

Just over fifty years before Chamberlain and his famous orchid were photographed that morning in 1905, Britain celebrated the height of its Empire with the opening of the Great Exhibition in London. It showed the technological and industrial might of the nation and the wealth of riches collected across the empire, all housed in the imposing Crystal Palace, a 990,000 square feet conservatory made entirely from cast iron and sheet glass.

The Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace (1851) Image: Creative commons.

This construction method allowed gardeners and later nurserymen to keep and grow exotic plants, as temperature and humidity could be accurately regulated by the use of coal boilers, also making the most of exposure to the sun. Joseph Paxton, architect behind the palace, had also been responsible for the masterpiece that preceded it, the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth House, completed in 1840.

The Great Conservatory at Chatsworth House

In this moment of radical advances and huge wealth, three factors were to coincide: The British Empire's drive of trade and commerce, the Victorian obsession with orchids and the popularisation of photography. For the next sixty years, from 1850 to 1910 their stories would be inextricably mixed, photography attesting to the contrasting realities of empire and colonies, and the unbelievable journeys of the orchid hunters and their prey.

Based on the scientific expeditions of the previous decades, the Victorian nurseries and their patrons knew the location of their coveted flowers, and started sending expeditions of orchid hunters to retrieve them. This search spanned the furthest reaches of the Empire - from China through to Thailand and India, but also the recently independent nations of Central and South America.

Although there were plant collectors in almost every country in the American continent, the orchid hunters were certain that the ultimate prize lay up high in the mountains of the mighty Andes. More than four thousand miles long -stretching from Colombia to Argentina, it is the longest continental mountain range in the world, and the highest outside Asia. Only a few years earlier German botanist Theodor Hartweg had explored it for the Horticultural Society, and was credited with finding more than 200 species of orchids, including the Odontoglossum crispum in the 1840s.

In the following decades, commercial orchid hunters were to replace these venerable botanists and men of science. Their numbers would increase steadily starting from a few well-known names in the 1840s and 50's to hundreds by the turn of the century; by then most of them were independent adventurers lured in by the prospect of overnight fortune. Records survive of plant collectors sent by the main nurseries of the day. Names like William Lobb, Henry Chesterton, Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kalbreyer, Gustavo Wallis and Frederick Boyle were renowned in the trade. The first wave of collectors spent years traveling across Central and South America, most of them never to return home. They either established their business in one of the nascent capitals of the Andes or lost their lives, mainly to tropical diseases but also on fights with other adventurers or the local indigenous tribes.

Image of G.Kalbreyer advertisement in The Gardeners' Chronicle

First-hand accounts of orchid hunters in the wild can give us a glimpse into their journeys and the lands they visited. Chronicles were printed in magazines and periodicals like the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, and the Orchid Review. Some of the keenest orchid enthusiasts like Fredrick Boyle also wrote several articles and books. His celebrated About Orchids published in 1893 is an essential read to understand the story of this plant and its trade. But I want to focus on the story of one orchid hunter and more importantly on the photographs of his adventures.

About Orchids, Frederick Boyle (1901)

Albert Millican's Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter - An Account of Canoe and Camp Life in Colombia, While Collecting Orchids in the Northern Andes is one of the most vivid descriptions of the golden years of the orchid trade. Published in 1891, it gathers Millican's five journeys to South America, the first on 1887, year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Front Cover of 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter' by Albert Millican (1891)

A wealthy private patron, Richard Brooman White, - one of the most knowledgeable orchid collectors in Scotland - financed Millican's travels and the subsequent publication of his book. The orchids from his journeys would no doubt find their way to Brooman's glasshouse at Arddarroch, his mansion at the edge of Loch Long.

Millican not only wrote with concise precision about the places and people he saw on his journey, he was also one of the first to take photographs to illustrate his accounts. After crossing the Atlantic to the main ports in the Caribbean Sea, Millican's journey took him across Venezuela and into Colombia via the port of Barranquilla. His inland journey started first by steamboat and then canoe, reaching the base of the Andes Mountains.

A paddle steamer on the banks of the Río Magdalena
'Colombian Forest Scene' and 'On the track over the Andes', images taken from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

The ascent then entailed 'a hundred miles mule ride' following Theodore Hartweg's trail up to the forests of Pacho, home of the ultimate prize , the Odontoglossum cripsum also known as Odontoglossum alexandrae after the then Princess of Wales .

The Odontoglossum crispum orchid. An enhanced detail of an image taken from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

After several weeks of tortuous journey Millican finally arrived in the forest, set up camp and prepared his camera to capture the elusive flower in the wild.

By the Campfire in the Odontoglossum forest, image taken from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

This unlikely meeting of photography and orchids in the wild was surely a novelty at the time. Millican warns his challengers in the preface of his book: "The greater part of the illustrations are from photographs taken by me, more especially those of the plant pictures in the forest. Both plant-collectors and dealers have doubted the possibility of this, because they have not before been able successfully to photograph Odontoglossum alexandrae on its native trees, or the native means used to drag the plants from their cold, damp Andean home. But, as I still hold the original negatives, I shall be pleased to show them to any unbeliever."

Orchids of course had been photographed before, but not in the wild. Some of the first photographic studios in South America took advantage of the medium to publish carte-de-visite albums of their country's emblematic species. In Colombia the studios of Wills and Restrepo were well known for their collectible images of exotic plants, shot in their studio located in Medellín.

An image of Anguloa clowesii and two orchids taken by Pastor Restrepo, from the Wills and Restrepo 'carte-de-visite' albums.

By the time Millican set on his first voyage to South America, photography was rapidly growing in popularity; it's reach spreading across the Empire. A whole range of photographic equipment - from the costly and bespoke to the more affordable and portable - meant the medium was embraced by a wider audience, and no longer restricted to a few experts. Also the widespread use of the dry plate process in the 1880s meant photography was free to travel outdoors. Unlike the early 'wet' photographic process -where the exposed plates needed to be 'developed' almost immediately- dry plates could be stored both before and after exposure. This meant photographers break free from the confines of the studio, and travel the world with their cameras.

A screenshot from E.P. Prestwich's film footage of the Royal Photographic Convention in Galsgow 1898

The end of the nineteenth century would also see the birth of photography's sister, the moving picture. In EP Prestwich's "Royal Photographic Convention / Glasgow" (1898) film meets photography, showing a parade of photographers celebrating the Royal Photographic Society annual convention in Glasgow.

The two-minute silent film shows them disembarking from a steamer with all sorts of different cameras as they set out on a shooting spree. This film prompts me to imagine Millican setting up his tripod and camera in the odontoglossum forest.

'The Deck of the Tages' Image taken from 'Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

Unfortunately the whereabouts of Millican's original plates are unknown. Gustave Guggenheim turned only a selection of Millican's photographic prints into illustrations, but he most probably had a larger collection of now invaluable material.

Advertisement for W.W. Rouch's Patent Camera

He even goes as far as to mention the type of equipment he used - Rouch & Co.'s popular folding field camera - and how he set it up in the field.

The W.W. Rouch Patent camera used by Albert Millican's Camera
The label of the W.W. Rouch Patent camera
Engraving on the W.W. Rouch Patent camera

His prowess with photography, although extraordinary, was also to witness the devastation of the forest and the almost complete depletion of Colombia's endemic orchids.

'Native Dinner time' image from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

Through the eyes of his camera we see the rugged topography of the Andes and the different encounters with the indigenous people - original inhabitants of the forest - who were shot (both with his camera and his rifle) as they tried to defend their territory armed solely with bows and arrows.

Illustration of Albert Millican, author of 'Adventures of an Orchid Hunter' image taken from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)
An article from an unknown magazine source, (potentially 'The English Illustrated Magazine') with image of Odontoglossum crispum and a list of 'martyrs to orchidology' who have 'all died in the interests of the orchid lover'
'After the jaguar hunt', image taken from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

Aside from his photograph of the orchid in the wild, three other images -entitled By The Campfire In the Odontoglossum Forest, Native Dinner Time and Depot of Three Thousand Odontoglossum crispum - gain meaning when seen alongside a harrowing entry on his book:

"In those immense forests, where a few acres of clearing is considered a great benefit, and where clearings made, if not attended to, become forests again in three years, cutting down a few thousands of trees is no serious injury; so I provided natives with axes and started them out on the work of cutting down all trees containing valuable orchids... After about two months' work we had secured about then thousand plants, cutting down to obtain these some four thousand trees, moving our camp as the plants became exhausted in the vicinity."
'Depot of Three Thousand Odontoglossum crispum' from 'The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

This was the reality of orchid hunting and its deadly impact on the flower's ecosystem. According to Frederick Boyle in About Orchids, at least one tree had been felled for every three Odontoglossums established back in Europe .

Conservative calculations would point to millions of plants taken over the 50 or so years of the orchid trade. Another great irony was a great percentage of the collected plants would not survive the journey back. The large wooden crates made on site would need to be carried back down the mountains through rugged terrain and punishing weather to the Magdalena River, and barged to the port Cartagena for onward shipping to Panama, Jamaica and back to Britain.

'Waiting to sell on the banks of the Magdalena', Image taken from 'Adventures of an Orchid Hunter', Albert Millican (1891)

Back in London, business was booming. Nurseries sold rare specimens at auctions for what would now be tens of thousands of pounds.

A cigarette card from the era detailing the Odontoglossum crispum

The nation was preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The orchid arrangement commissioned for the celebration was to outshine the one made for her Golden Jubilee; the year Albert Millican first set sail for South America. The Gardeners' Chronicle describes the bouquet in great detail:

"It is impossible to attempt the description in detail of the many thousands of Orchids used in this most superb bouquet ever seen, endless spikes all that is best and rarest from Her Majesty's dominions being used, together with almost priceless blossoms of the hybridist's art raised in this country since our Queen's accession, many of them unique and of great value... the number of flowers in the bouquet in 1887 was 50,000 but this huge trophy contains a larger number, while the quality is better, and rarity greater;" The Gardeners' Chronicle (1897)

After the celebration the queen's bouquet was sent to adorn her boudoir. It was probably there where she selected and pressed some of her favourite flowers in one of her many scrapbooks. Labelled 'From one of the Jubilee Bouquets - June 1897-' not only does evidence the Victoria's passion for flowers, but her love of orchids, and especially the odontoglossum.

Queen Victoria's pressed orchid

The opulence of orchid market in Britain contrasted with the bleak reality of the wild forest. In South America the depredation had taken its toll and sourcing orchids in the high Andean forests was becoming increasingly difficult.

A Colombian stamp featuring the Odontoglossum crispum

Not only had governments started to control the 'export' of plants by way of taxes, but also competition between established collectors and a new wave of fortune seekers was becoming fierce. There were stories of some even razing whole areas to prevent their rivals from getting any plants. Other accounts talked about revolver duels in the forest, or sabotages during the sea voyage back home, and of nurseries opening crates only to find all the plants putrid and burnt.

A clipping from in the British press advertising the services of a commercial orchid collector exporter in Colombia. (c1900)

One of these ill-fated last journeys was Aimé Van den Bogaerde's, -Sir Dirk Bogarde's grandfather- in 1898. In his biography Bogarde tells the story of Aime's foray to Colombia in search of a rare white orchid, and how he returned in 1901 "fleeced of his money" and in a poor state of health. Coincidentally Van den Bogaerde was also a keen photographer. His portrait is a carefully composed tableaux vivant of the orchid hunter myth.

Aimé Van den Bogaerde near to La Cruz, Colombia, (c. 1900). Image from the Aimé Van den Bogaerde foundation, courtesy of The Orchid Review.

Smoking a cigar, Bogaerde stares at the camera from the middle of the room. Flanked by his associates he shows their trophy white orchids. To the left of the scene is his desk, piled with books and notepads. Various scientific illustrations of orchids are pinned to the wall, and above them the skin of a jaguar. The other side of the room shows the tools of his trade. Hunting knife, saddlebag and rifles. This time it was not the indigenous peoples he had to fight, but the rebels of the 'Thousand Days' War that broke out in Colombia in 1899. From his own account, he was lucky to escape with his life.

One can read into the image that their bounty was no longer plentiful. Certainly not the thousands of Odontoglossum crispum Millican photographed ten years earlier. By the turn of the century there was very little left to plunder. There were also great advances in the cultivation of orchids in Europe, which meant supply was plentiful and at the fraction of the cost.

A postcard of the Late Rt. Hon. Joseph Chamberlain M.P. with Odontoglosum crispum in buttonhole (c.1914)

Back to the image of Joseph Chamberlain in 1905, proudly wearing his odontoglossum. The English Illustrated Magazine dedicates an article to his five thousand plus orchid collection, housed in thirteen of eighteen glasshouses purposely built by his house in the outskirts of Birmingham.

Article on Joseph Chamberlain's orchids from 'The English Magazine' (1893) note in the top right corner the orchid titled 'An inhabitant of Colombia'.

A lot had happened since the days of the Great Conservatory. Conservatories were much more affordable to build and maintain, and Chamberlain's were now all lit by electricity. The article also describes how Chamberlain's head gardener and his staff were experts not only in nurturing the plants that came from afar, but also in hybridising and propagating them -two terms more akin to horticulturalists than photography historians- but none-the-less crucial in the demise of the orchid hunters and their trade.

The extensive network of glasshouses at Highbury, the Birmingham residence of Joseph Chamberlain.

The first decade on the twentieth century would bring profound change to Britain and the whole of Europe. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 marked the end of an era. In the world of horticulture, London would turn its sights to China and Japan for new exotic plants, also favouring an outdoor 'more natural' garden in opposition to the ostentatious and costly artificiality of the conservatory. The confluence of these circumstances, added to notable decrease in the spending power of the wealthy, was to bring the era of the orchid hunters to a close.

In 1914 Europe was at the brink of war, and even the great fortunes of the Empire struggled to keep up with the costs of heating and up keeping the lavish pursuit of exotic horticulture. That same year the legendary Veitch nursery closed its doors, and Joseph Chamberlain -the epitome of Imperial orchid obsession - died a few days before his 78th birthday. Although his son Neville inherited many of the rare orchids in his collection, the majority of them were sold at a public event in 1915. His beloved glasshouses would never to display exotic flowers again.

Advert for Veitch and Sons in The Gardeners Chronicle (1895)
The orchid house at Highbury, the residence of Joseph Chamberlain. Image courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, Special collections, University of Birmingham C_9_20
Catalogue advertisement showing the sale of Joseph Chamberlain's Orchid collection after his death in 1914. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.

About the author

Rodrigo Orrantia (left) with orchid conservation expert Philip Seaton.

Rodrigo Orrantia is an art historian and curator, specialising in photography. He has an MA Photography: Contemporary and Historical, Sotheby's Institute of Art, London, 2011 and MA History and Theory of Art and Architecture from National University of Colombia, 2004. He is a regular speaker at Universities in the UK and France, reviewer and Juror at international photography festivals and awards.

His practice as curator has different enquiry lines, all converging in the historical and contemporary uses of photography. One of his main interests is early photography in South America, writing essays and curating exhibitions around this topic. Examples are an extended essay on Baron Gros in Colombia 1842, and the exhibition 'Sir Benjamin Stone: Observations in Brazil, 1893'. From this research, Orrantia also has also developed an interest on the representation of the natural world through photography. He curated the exhibition 'Modern Ornithologies' winner of the Format Habitat Award in 2017, and is currently working on a research project about natural landscape and contemporary photography.

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Rodrigo Orrantia