Today’s arrangement stars the Vanda (Vanda orchidaceae) orchid.
The Vanda was first recorded in Western literature in the seventeenth century by the Dutch governor of Malabar. Several centuries later, William Roxburgh of the Indian Botanic Gardens at Calcutta shipped samples of the Vanda to Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, feeding the Orchidelirium of the era.
In Banks, the Vanda found an appreciative audience since, compared to so many other orchids, they proved easier to breed in captivity.1
At the time, European breeders took a blunt approach to growing orchids, making little allowance for differences in culture and origin.
Since Europeans mistakenly assumed that the climate throughout the tropics was uniformly hot and humid, attempts were made to cultivate orchids in suffocatingly hot greenhouses known as “stoves.”
Further, since some success had been had in growing terrestrial orchids in heaps of rotting compost, it was thought that the same method could be applied across the board.
This was before it was known that most orchids, including the Vanda, are epiphytes.
Fortuitously, the Vanda were saved by their ability to produce abundant aerial roots above the compost heaps, thereby allowing them to take in nourishment from the surrounding air.
The Vanda were also popular because certain species, like the Vanda tricolour, were more tolerant of the cold.
Nonetheless, it was the Victorian age, and the prevailing sentiment was that upon that which nature had made, man could improve.
The Vanda’s waif-like charms did not live up to the lush, oriental beauty of Victorian imagination. Their petals were skinny, a bit gnarly, and the flowers drooped off the stems, impeding the display of their colours and patterns, nowhere as brilliant as we know them today, to maximum effect.
And so, the Vanda was crossbred with another species of orchid: the Euanthe sanderiana.2
E. sanderiana, native to the Philippines, were less robust than the Vanda. Unlike the Vanda, they typically bloomed but once a year.
But the fuller, flatter and larger petals of the E. Sanderiana made a far better canvas for their beauty. The neatly symmetrical arrangement of the petals also appealed to the Victorian sense of orderliness. And finally, the flowers of the E. sanderiana were perched proudly atop an erect stem.
The resulting hybrids, as we see above, were glamazons: more robust, more fertile, and not shy about displaying their flashy, fuschia-hued beauty. They were also a triumph of modern science, since pink in the Vanda species is a recessive colour.
But as lovely as the hybrid Vandas are, one can’t help but wonder wistfully whether the flawed originals were lovelier still.
After all, pretty is for lazy people.