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Victorians Went Wild for Orchids

Victorians went wild for orchids

Nineteenth century England enjoyed plants coming from around the world.

The garden would never be the same.

English garden writer and landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) coined the term ‘gardenesque’ to define the new kind of landscape where collections of plants took center stage.

Collecting plants, including orchids, motivated many gardeners, but mainly those with plenty of money.

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) in 1837 built the Great Conservatory for the Duke’s orchid collection. [below] The Duke began to collect exotic species and Chatsworth became the world’s largest collection of orchids at the time.

Other gardeners soon followed Paxton’s example in building similar structures for their plant collections, especially plants from a sub-tropical setting.

Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, built in 1837, demolished c. 1920

Nicolette Scourse writes in her book The Victorians and their Flowers “In the Victorian era, it was not unusual for a fanatical collector to have 18,000 orchids, and the varying requirements of the plants as well as their sheer numbers and size often demanded more than six greenhouses.”

It must have been hard for a Victorian gardener to compete with that amount of orchids in one collection.

In America the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) consoled middle class gardeners, his customers, whose income might not have allowed even a few orchids.

Vick wrote in his magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in 1879, “We may not, dear readers, be able to indulge in Camelias, and costly Ferns and Orchids, yet we can have flowers just as beautiful, almost for nothing.”

A nineteenth century middle class American gardener could enjoy beautiful flowers, just not orchids.

Scourse summed up the extravagant collecting of orchids in these words, “The wealthy were now seized by a craze for orchid flowers.”



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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Boy, Paxton’s conservatory was really something! I love those old B&W garden photos. But Vick was totally right — orchids really aren’t any more intrinsically beautiful than something as simple as pansies, for instance — just rarer, more costly, and more of a pain to grow. -Beth

    1. Hello Beth, thank you for joining in the discussion of the value of flowers to the gardener. I agree that pansies can have a fabulous look in the garden. They have often been drawn as human faces in garden literature. Fun to see. Also points out how important that flower was to so many people.

      1. Just read this reference about pansies in the seedsman James Vick’s garden magazine Vick’s Illustrated Monthly in April 1880. A reader wrote to Mr. Vick these words, “Blessed be Pansies! If I could have but one kind of flower, that one would be Pansies.”

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