Growing orchids reflected social status.
As material culture, plants can contribute to a person’s social status.
Certain plants often become connected to a higher social class.
That is the case with the orchid from the beginning of its introduction into eighteenth century England.
David Stuart in his book The Garden Triumphant writes, “Orchids of the tropical kind, mostly needed both jungle heat and humidity, were considerable status symbols from the moment of their introduction.”
As tropical plants, orchids demanded the comfort of a greenhouse or conservatory.
“By 1839 the glasshouses at Chatsworth were packed with orchids, many collected specifically for the Duke of Devonshire,” writes Stuart.
On a garden tour in southern Florida last year I came across this blue orchid growing on a tree. [below]
The flowers had the perfect combination of heat and moisture to survive on the tree trunk.
Really a beautiful sight.
It never occured to me to judge the social status of the owner of the house and garden.
Though the orchid provided many hours of pleasure to gardeners in nineteenth century America who could afford both the greenhouse and a garden staff to tend to them, today things have changed.
Victoria Zemlan in her article “By Hook by Crook: The Plunder of Orchids for the New World” says “Now, we can buy inexpensive orchids in almost any nursery, home improvement center, or grocery store, but 19th century orchids were an extravagance reserved for the nobility.”
Tom Carter, author of The Victorian Garden which covers nineteenth century gardening, says, “Orchids were another class of plants needing special arrangements, and only experienced gardeners attempted them.
“Even though orchids were beyond the scope of most gardeners, they appealed strongly to a curious public, and nurserymen vied to produce the showiest and most exotic specimens.”
Eventually nineteenth century nurseries in both England and America made orchids available to anyone who wanted them. They no longer belonged only to the wealthy.
Today any gardener may grow them.
Zemlan says, “Orchids haven’t lost their allure — Americans now spend more on orchids each year than on any other houseplant.”