A Bit of the Orchid's History

Although the scientists affirm that the origins of orchids on the earth dated back from 120 million years, it seems that its history started in Japan or China just 3.000 or 4.000 years ago.

The Chinese word for orchids (lan) has appeared in Chinese herbal medicine since that time. However, we don't exactly know when man began to cultivate them or if it occurred for esthetic or medical reasons or for both purposes.

The first reference found was made by Sheng Nung, Chinese emperor, when he gave some advice about the Dendrobium's application in medical usage.

Confucius, 551-479 B.C., also mentioned the orchids' scent.

In the Western Hemisphere, the oldest reference found was by Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, and a scholar considered by many as the father of Botany.

Around 300 BC, in a study entitled "Inquiry into Plants", he mentioned the word "orkhis" to denominate some of the orchid's terrestrial species which gave origin to the name of the whole family "Orchidaceae".

Orkhis is the Greek word for testicles and in spite of being the first one to mention it, probably Theophrastus wasn't the first one to observe the resemblance between the roots of some terrestrial orchids (which vegetate in Europe in intermediate zones) and testicles.

With the discovery of the new world some other orchid genera, for example epiphytes until then completely unknown, became part of the European universe.

Some old Aztec inscriptions told about how the Vanilla bean was used by their ancestors to flavor a drink made with cocoa. The Mayas also used it. The Spanish conquerors brought the Vanilla bean to Europe about 1510.

In Gerard's Herbal (John Gerard, 1542-1612), published in 1597, orchids had been called "Satyrion Feminina" because they were considered as satyrs' food and would provoke their excesses of behavior.

In 1712, Englebert Kaempfer, a German physician, in a study named Amoenitatum Escoticarun mentioned, for the first time, an orchid from the East.

In 1735, Carl Von Liné, a Swedish botanist, established, not only the first coherent identification of the plants (genus named followed by the specific name), but also the lines of the development of the living organisms and the evolutionary laws. In his study called Genera Plantarum, he used the word "Orchidaceae" (taken from "Orkhis") to designated the entire family of orchids. Those studies opened, later, the way to Darwin's studies.

In 1768, the second edition of Miller's Gardener Dictionary, also called them Epidendrum. 

A link to a digital version of this book can be found at the Smithsonian Libraries.

In 1830, John Lindley (botanist and taxonomist) did the first classification of orchids. He wrote many books about plants but it was his studies about orchids, The Genus and Species of Orchidaceae Plants, that made him well known. He also left the unfinished book, Folia Orchidaceae considered a classic of Botany and he is recognized as the father of orchid cultivation.

In 1862, Darwin published The Various Contrivances By Which Orchids Are Fertilized By Insects, which in fact was the first essential contribution for the knowledge and comprehension of the strategies used for the species to ensure propagation.

In 1877, Lewis published Orchids: Their Structure, History and Cultivation.

Until the end of the 19th century, orchid seed germination remained a mystery.

In 1889, Nöel Bernard, French biologist, observed plant shoots around the base of Noetia nidus-avis. When examining them through a microscope, he noticed with surprise, that there were mycelial filaments, a fungus later identified as Rhizoctonia, living in tandem with their root structure. Based on his observations, he published many studies describing the nature and the role of the association of orchids and the fungus in orchid seed germination.

His study, the result of 10 years of research, was published in 1909 and explained the association between orchids and michoriza fungus. The study has been a great revolution on orchid cultivation and has opened the way for others to continue similar research.
Hans Burgell, a German scientist, continued with the studies and developed another method also using fungus culture to provoke seed germination.

However, in 1922 an American Biologist Lewis Knudson developed a formula that supplanted all the previous methods. By using sterile gel which contained minerals, salts and sugar, he could reproduce in the laboratory the same effects the fungus gave, making seed germination possible by the asymbiotic method. Other solutions have been developed, some of them very efficient, but for the most part the solutions were based on Knudson's method.