March 4, 1847
Today is the birthday of the German-English orchidologist and nurseryman Henry Frederick Conrad Sander.
As a young man of 20 years old, Conrad met the Czech plant collector Benedict Roezl. Benedict’s heart lay in exploration and acquisition; he did not enjoy the marketing and sales aspects of plant hunting. Instead, these skills were Conrad’s strengths. The two men created a business plan that left Benedict free to explore and collect and Conrad to sell, sell, sell.
Conrad set up shop in St. Albans, and Benedict was soon sending shipments of orchids from Central and South America.
Benedict collected for Sander for 40 years. Even though Benedict was 6'2" tall and had that imposing iron hook for a hand, Benedict was robbed 17 times and, once, even attacked by a jaguar during his collecting days.
After his quick success with Benedict, Conrad expanded his operations. Soon, Conrad was managing inventory from over twenty collectors, growing orchids in over sixty greenhouses, and entertaining visitors that included Europe’s top collectors and even royalty. As a result of his business success in acquiring, breeding, and selling orchids, Conrad became known as the King of Orchids.
Leveraging his incredible expertise, Conrad wrote a masterpiece in two volumes on every variety of orchid. The book was folio-sized, with text in three languages - English, French, and German - and the botanical drawing of orchids was life-sized. As a sign of great respect, Conrad named his book Reichenbachia in honor of the legendary orchidologist Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach. Reichenbach had named more orchids than any other person, and in his will, he asked that his herbarium be closed for 25 years to protect his work with orchids from his competitors.
In 1882, Heinrich honored Sanders by naming the “Queen of Philippine Orchids” after Sanders - the Vanda sanderiana, which the locals called the waling-waling orchid. The waling-waling is considered one of the rarest, most beautiful, and most expensive orchids and one of the world's largest species of orchids.
Orchids are some of the world’s oldest flowering plants, producing the world’s tiniest seeds. A single Orchid seedpod can contain three million seeds! Orchids are also the largest family of flowering plants in the world. With over 25,000 species, Orchids represent about ten percent of all plant species on Earth, and there are more orchids than mammals and birds!
Once they are germinated, Orchids can take five to seven years to produce a flower. And if you look at the orchid bloom closely, you’ll see that the blossom, like the human face, is perfectly symmetrical, adding to its visual beauty. And, by the time you buy that Orchid at Trader Joe’s, it is likely already decades old. But never fear. Orchids are long-lived and can reach their 100th birthday.
The vastness and complexity of orchids can be frustrating. Charles Darwin grew so discouraged from writing his book about orchids that he wrote to a friend,
“I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.”