Orchid culture is so widespread in our time that it is diffcult to picture a world without these wonderful flowers. However, not very long ago, the people of the so-called civilized world were totally ignorant of the vast majority of species of orchids.
Europeans of course knew about their native orchid types, such as the extravagant Bee Orchid. But familiarity with of the thousands of wonderful tropical orchids had to await the results of explorations into the jungles and mountains of South America and the East Indies. Even then, specimens were slow to make it back to countries such as England, Germany or France.
Perhaps the first living orchid to be transported from the tropics to England was an Epidendrum cochleatum, one of the more showy of its family. It flowered in London in the year 1787. Another species from the same family was brought to England in 1778. It took a decade for its caretakers to bring forth flowers from it.
Admiral William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame had a small part in laying the ground for the orchid craze. In the early 1790s he brought 15 species of epiphytal orchids to England from the West Indies. These were put on display at the famous Kew Gardens in London. For many years the West Indies, along with India, were the central sources of tropical orchids in Europe. In 1793, though, a species of Oncidium was taken to England from Panama, followed a few years later by orchids from Uruguay.
By 1818, Brazil in partcular was contributing to what was becoming a steady stream of orchids back to England and other countries of Europe. By 1830 the Royal Horticultural Society had sent representatives traveling throughout Brazil seeking out for unusual species.
The orchid exchange soon turned into a serious moneymaking endeavor, with businessmen in Brazil making deals with their London counterparts to ship plants to England to be resold there. William Harrison, a merchant living in Rio de Janeiro in the 1830s and 1840s, sent many wonderful orchids to his brother Richard in Liverpool. Richard's house soon became a magnet for orchid enthusiasts who journeyed there to see the latest arrivals.
Introducing orchids to Europe was one thing, but cultivating them successfully proved quite another. For more than half a century England was known as the grave of tropical orchids. The plants that survived did so in spite of rather than because of the treatment they received. Growers continuing experimenting and making mistakes until, by about 1850, they had mostly figured out the art of orchid cultivation. That's when the orchid craze really exploded, because now the knowledge was available by which even non-botanists could grow these stunning plants.
Knowledge of successfully growing orchids has increased during the intervening years and now we know so much more than did those Victorian devotees. We also have, of course, better technology to assist us in the greenhouse and garden.
The most complete guide to expert orchid cultivation, hands down, is Orchid Care Expert by Nigel Howard, which can be downloaded online. Howard's well-written guide constitutes a thorough education all to itself. And, it's appropriate for beginners as well as more expeienced orchid cultivators. Also, check out the Orchid Secrets web site, which has an ever-growing library of articles on many topics of orchid cultivation.